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The First 500

The First 500

The opening chunk of your book can do a LOT.

I once sold a non-fiction book off the back of no more than 10,000 words. The NY editor who picked up Talking to the Dead told me she knew she was going to buy the book after she’d read the first couple of pages.

You can lose an agent (or an editor or a reader) in that opening chunk. You can also pretty much convince them to take a ride with you.

I’m thinking about this, partly because it matters in its own right, but partly, because we have a First 500 Novel Competition (details here) which offers a range of goodies, including a manuscript assessment, JW membership, and an agent one-to-one. Entry’s free if you’re a member (so, duh, enter). If you’re not a member, we’re charging the rip-off price of £10 per entry.

Oh yes, and the 8 shortlisted entries will read their work out in front of literary agents who will probably throw HUGE GIANT INCREDIBLE offers of representation at the winners. So this is a prize worth chasing.

In a minute, I’m going to offer some incredibly High Quality Thoughts on how to ace that competition – but first I want to tell you about:

Feedback Fridays

As from next Friday, this email is going to be coming out to you at 10.00am or so, UK-time – a few hours earlier than it does now.

Each week, I’m going to set you a little “Feedback Fridays” writing challenge. That challenge could be “what’s your elevator pitch” or “show me the bit in your manuscript where you first describe your character” or “I want to see your query letter”. I’ll invite you to share those things on Townhouse and will of course tell you exactly where to go. (If you’re not yet signed up to Townhouse, it’s free and easy to join. Just choose the free option here.)

You’ll have the whole week to think about the challenge and upload your response. Then, on the Friday following, I’ll jump in and take a look at your responses – giving as much feedback and advice as I can. I’ll be online on Friday morning, but I’ll try to check in over the weekend too – I don’t want the interaction to be limited by what you’re doing on Fridays or what time zone you’re in.

These challenges are open to everyone. I’d love you to join in, both in terms of uploading your work and in offering constructive advice on everyone else’s. I’ll do what I can in terms of feedback, but do be aware that my own feedback is going to go to Premium Members first and anyone else if I get a chance. There’ll be a couple more yummy extras to announce, but I’ll tell you about those next week.

All this comes by way of an extra, not a replacement. So the main thrust of these emails will remain exactly as before – too long, discursive, under-planned, random, and occasionally useful.


First 500 words. Here’s what I think:

1. It’s not about the opening sentence

Sure, fancy-pants opening sentences are fine. Some books announce themselves that way. There’s nothing wrong with doing so.

But readers aren’t persuaded by that first sentence. The real test for a browser in a bookshop is “does this first page or two persuade me that I’ll want to read further?” That’s partly a matter of story-promise and largely a matter of whether you feel trust in the author.

If your opening sentence feels glued on, if it doesn’t feel natural to the book, then a fancy-pants opening sentence may actually weaken the reader’s sense of trust.

For what it’s worth, my opening sentences are basically dull and I’ve never been especially tempted to jazz them up. You can do differently if you like, but you certainly don’t have to.

2. No beds

Too many books start with the character waking from sleep. There’s nothing actually wrong or bad about that, but agents see it too often. So, yeah, ditch the bed.

3. Voice

Your opening chunk needs to establish voice. It needs to hypnotise and seduce. The reader needs to think “I’m safe” and ideally, “this feels different” – that is, the feel of the text needs to be unique. If you’re writing a crime novel, you don’t want the book-buyer to think that they could pick up the book sitting next to yours and get, effectively, the exact same thing as you’re offering.

For clarity, though, this isn’t about trying too hard. It’s just being completely you. It’s honouring the story and the character and doing that in a way that only you can do. If that all sounds a bit wishy-washy, here’s what I mean – this is the opening paragraph of Talking to the Dead:

Beyond the window, I can see three kites hanging in the air over Bute Park. One blue, one yellow, one pink. Their shapes are precise, as though stencilled. From this distance, I can’t see the lines that tether them, so when the kites move, it’s as though they’re doing so of their own accord. An all-encompassing sunlight has swallowed depth and shadow.

Can you see how little that does? There’s no suggestion of story. There’s no big, memorable, quotable sentence. There’s no hint really of the situation in which the character finds herself – or, in fact, anything about the character at all.

But – there’s voice. A kind of authority which says, “I know what I’m doing, I’m not going to rush it, and I know you’re going to enjoy the ride.” That authority is, above all, what you’re seeking to establish in your opening.

4. The scent of character, the tickle of story

If authority – voice – is the most important comfort you can offer, the two things that matter next are:

  1. A good whiff of character and (less important)
  2. The tickle of story

I should probably qualify what I’m about to say next. So: If you’re writing for the James Patterson market, then you need to deliver big from the first paragraph: “The first bullet struck the wall six feet from me. The second one hit about six inches away. I didn’t want to know where the third one was landing.” – that kind of thing.

But in most cases, you just don’t need to be as immediate. In my Talking to the Dead, it’s 2,000 words before I offer the reader what they know I’m going to offer them: a corpse and a police investigation. I don’t even make that offer in a dramatic way. Fiona Griffiths is in the office, doing boring office stuff, when she gets tasked with a minor chore as part of a large homicide investigation. There isn’t a big fireworks display at the start of the book and there doesn’t need to be one. That’s true of most books.

So what does the first 500 words actually accomplish? In my case, I’d say there are plenty of clues as to character but really nothing much in relation to story.

Fiona is being interviewed for the police job. Her interview notes that she did philosophy at university. She says yes, but corrects him as to what kind of topics that comprised. He says, “Useful for police work”. She says, “Not really.”

Is there any story there? I don’t think so. There’s a scent of character, definitely, and that scent (plus the voice) will, I hope, keep you reading.

It’s probably not until the 750-word mark that you can feel story intrude. The interviewer asks about a gap on Fiona’s resume when she was a teenager. Fiona basically deflects the question (“I was ill. Then I got better.”) No one feels that the issue has been properly addressed. So, after 750 words, there’s a first hint of mystery, if not quite story action.

All this is really just to remind you that you can take it slow. If you have a mystery, you don’t need to reveal it too fast.

5. The dinner party paradigm

Let’s say you’re a guest at a dinner party. You’re sitting next to some people you haven’t met before, but they’re basically your sort of people. (That is, to de-code the analogy, your book is with the right sort of readers – literary fiction for literati, crime fiction for crime lovers and so on.)

Because this is a dinner party, not a shouty disco set-up, you have all evening. You don’t need to rush.

So you wouldn’t bellow at your neighbour, before finishing your first breadstick, “Hi, I’m Charles, I’m divorced, still really messed-up after the break-up and, yeah, I’m having kind of inappropriate sex with a co-worker.”

You might, in fact, have disclosed all those facts by the end of the evening, but you’d hardly rush to get them out. You’d establish a pattern of communication first. You’d offer some clues, gauge the responses, find out a little more, and so on.

Obviously, the analogy is imperfect because book/reader communication is one-way not two-way, but it’s kind of the same thing. Establish trust. Don’t be boring. And that’s almost it.

6. A word of honesty

And look. I’m offering these thoughts because we have a First 500 Novel Competition on. (Did I mention it? I did. The link is here.)

But if I’m being completely honest, the advice I’ve given in this email is probably good advice if your mission is “Write a good and saleable book”. It’s probably not the best advice in the world if your mission is “Win Jericho Writers’ quite fantastic competition.”

Unsurprisingly, judges of these competitions do tend to favour entries that have something to show off about. Quiet elegance tends to get outdone by bold colours and improbable hats.

So what to do? Well, I think the experience of entering these competitions is massively helpful, so it’s worth doing no matter what. But don’t bend your book out of shape in order to win. Write the best book you can. Polish the first 500 words. Then enter.

Good luck. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Til soon.


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  1. Yippee!! I very selfishly love this idea, Harry. One question: when exactly is next Friday, please? Is it 28 July or the Friday afterwards (4 August)? It’s a niggly difference between British and American English that befuddles me all the time. Thanks!