What I’m seeing here? A lot of encouragement and perseverance. While it’s true that approximately 20% ended up landing an agent or publishing their first manuscripts, between 38 and 43% of writers ended up breaking through on their 5th through 9th manuscript, or even their tenth+ manuscript! That’s the majority of responders to the survey.
These writers have also taken the time to leave some very important words of wisdom to those of you who are still struggling with how to write a manuscript that succeeds.
Please take this to heart: you may publish your current WIP, or you may not (check out examples of successful queries here). But a large determining factor of success is perseverance and self-education. That’s why you’re already ahead of the curve! You’re sitting here, learning about the writing craft, and adding tools to your toolbox.
Now all you need to do is keep going. Trust that one day you will crack the code of how to write a manuscript that succeeds, like the published authors who responded to the survey did.
After a lot of work and time and the wonderful contributions of many real writers, just like you, I’m thrilled to introduce my ebook, Successful Query Letters. Check out the cover. Ain’t she a beaut?
Forty-Three Real Query Letters From Real Writers
One drawback of being a querying writer is that you don’t have access to a slush pile, so you don’t know what everyone else is doing. Critique partners share manuscripts, but maybe not queries. It’s tough to get your hands on real query letters from real writers.
Well, I had my own slush pile for five years as a literary agent, and I have reviewed hundreds of thousands of queries over the last decade-plus. Not only have I collected forty-three query letters from real writers (some of which have gone on to gain representation and even book deals!), but there are queries in every category, and I dissect each one with margin notes and overview feedback.
My goal with this ebook was to make it as comprehensive as possible, with as many examples as possible, to be the ultimate query letter resource and learning tool.
Get Your Copy Today
This ebook is only available from the Good Story Company store as a digital PDF download. It will be delivered to your email inbox as soon as you check out for your reading and learning pleasure!
Title formatting is a pretty straightforward question, but one that many writers are confused about. Carolyn recently wrote in to ask the following question:
When writing the titles of book for comps (as well as your own title), should they be underlined? Or written in all caps?
Title Formatting is Different From Manuscript Title Formatting
Clear as mud, right? The “sometimes” really isn’t in there to be difficult. However, the first thing I want to mention is that everyone approaches title formatting differently, as you will see.
Generally, with published works and publication names (including magazines and newspapers), I recommend italics with standard title capitalization. Here’s a handy widget that will help you know which words to capitalize, as title case capitalization can be confusing.
If you are referencing a published work or publication, be sure to use the same capitalization as the publisher of the work or the publication use. If you are referencing a published article or essay, use quotation marks instead of italics, and refer to how the article or essay is capitalized where it was originally published. Easy!
Where things get muddy is that you have written a manuscript, not necessarily a published one yet—which is why you’re submitting in the first place. So does it get treated the same in title formatting as a published work?
That depends on the writer.
Manuscript Title Formatting
I have seem all kinds of title formatting choices for manuscripts. Some writers use italics, though the work is not yet published. Some writers use quotation marks. Some writers use all caps.
Purely anecdotally, and form my experience referring to manuscripts within the industry, I prefer all caps for unpublished manuscripts, and the above formatting conventions for published works.
Yes, this means that your query letter may have one formatting (italics) for the comp titles you’re citing, and one formatting (caps) for your manuscript title.
This may look like torture to you, but you would be operating very much in the realm of normal for the industry. This would be my personal choice and recommendation. (You can find more thoughts on email query letter formatting here.)
Consistency is Key in Title Formatting
But we are all unique snowflakes and some other writers or professionals may disagree. Variety is the spice of life! I would, however, counsel you to avoid too much variety … within your query letter and manuscript.
All that is to say, whichever choice you make, stick with it consistently. Don’t refer to your manuscript title in all caps, then use quotation marks later in the letter or manuscript. You could risk a sloppy-looking submission, and nobody wants that.
Does your query letter or submission package put your best foot forward? Hire me for a query letter edit and find out your unique strengths and opportunities for growth.
The query letter hook is the “grabby” part of the query letter, where you include a good logline, or one-sentence description of your story. If you’ve heard me talk about self-editing and revision, you may have seen me call this your book’s “mission statement” as well. What is it about? Who is the main character? What is their main struggle? And what is the theme or bigger picture idea behind it?
Query Letter Hook
To write an effective query letter hook, think about the number one most important thing you want the query letter reviewer to know about your story, as they pertain to:
Two teens from very different cultures and with very different priorities collide as one of them is about to be deported, and have to decide whether to give love a chance.
Now, one thing you might notice is that both of these loglines are open-ended. What happens to Mr. Tiger’s friends? What effect does going wild have on everyone? Do the teens give love a chance? Does the character get deported?
For a query letter hook, this can be desirable. It creates some tension and invites the agent or publisher to keep reading. Normally, the hook or logline belongs at the very top of the query letter. But then what? Do you fill in the blanks with the rest of the letter? (Check out this query letter template.) Here, my opinion flies in the face of some other thought leaders on the topic, like the wonderful Jane Friedman.
She says that you should tease and avoid revealing your ending in the query. I say, if you’ve engineered an amazing plot, let’s see it. An agent wants to know if you can tell a story, and whether it’s a story that has enough substance and excitement behind it.
Rhetorical Questions and Revealing the Ending
The rest of the query letter will expand on your story. Who are the characters? What is the main thrust of the plot, including the biggest three or four plot points? Even a picture book query letter could go into more detail than what I’ve mentioned above.
How do you land the query, then?
I argue that your query letter hook involves more information, not less. If you leave agents and publishers hanging with a rhetorical question, for example, by ending your Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and The Sun Is Also a Star query letters this way:
Will Mr. Tiger be true to himself?
Will Daniel and Natasha give in to their hearts, after all?
… is your query letter really doing the full breadth of your story justice? I will tell you one thing right now that I know to be 100% true:
No agent will be so maddeningly compelled by your open-ended query letter hook or rhetorical question that they will read an entire novel to find out how your tease plays out.
There is simply not enough time in the day. If your query letter is open-ended or teasing or doesn’t clearly portray the story you’ve written, an agent may lose interest and move along because it’s too vague. There’s not enough substance. They are most certainly not going to breathlessly request and read 300 pages to scratch a small itch created by a coy query letter.
Instead, you can end your query letter strongly by revealing the ending to bring the query letter hook full circle, like this:
Only by going extremely wild—at the risk of alienating everyone—does Mr. Tiger bring more self-expression to himself and his whole community.
The deportation goes through, and Natasha and Daniel don’t get their happily ever after. Lest readers think all is lost, they meet again years later, opening a surprising opportunity for the universe to continue to work in its mysterious ways.
By doing so, you may actually get more interest because agents and publishers will see that you have plot chops and will want to see how you get the story from Point A (the set-up) to Point B (the ending that you’ve revealed).
A picture book about extreme self-expression? Let’s see how far this goes! A YA romance where the leads don’t end up together? What the heck? I want to read that and see how the writer pulls it off!
I hope you can at least entertain my point that this reveal generates interest that is much more compelling than some teasing rhetorical question.
I can be your query letter editor, and bring over five years of experience as a literary agent (and over a decade in publishing) to the project.
Questions about comp titles in a query are common, because book comps can either be a powerful part of your pitch, or a bit potential pitfall. Here are some more thoughts on whether to use them, or not, and how. (My original article on comparative titles is here.)
Comp Titles in a Query and How to Use Them
The conventional wisdom about book comps is that, if you have good ones, use them. If you have outlandish ones that communicate your delusions of grandeur (I’m Rick Riordan meets Suzanne Collins!), skip them.
The purpose of strong book comps is to make a realistic comparison between your work and someone else’s. Ideally, the author or book you’re choosing is thoughtful, rather than just a runaway bestseller. It’s always best to give reasoning for your choices, if you can. For example:
Both of these comps are older than I’d use (see below), but they came easily to the top of my head because they’re both so very specific. Here are some more considerations, gleaned from questions asked over the years:
Age of Book Comps
It’s best if your comp titles are recent, published within the last three years or so. This does double-duty and communicates to the literary agent or publisher not only your comparison, but that you’re keeping up with the marketplace.
But don’t despair if your perfect comparable title (an alternate term for “comparative title” that you’ll sometimes see used) is older. If you simply must weave The Giver by Lois Lowry into your pitch, pair it with a more recent comp and ta-da! The best of both worlds.
Relevance of Comp Titles in a Query
Per the “reasoning” point, above, your comp titles should be relevant to your current pitch. It’s okay to compare your middle grade historical to a young adult dystopian comp only The Hate U Give if you give a specific rationale. For example, The Sun is Also a Star by Angie Thomas and by Celina Yoon don’t have a lot in common in terms of premise. But they both explore societal pressures and race in different ways, and those are connections you can draw for an unlikely “meets” comparison.
As long as you’re thoughtful about it and guide the literary agent or publisher on why you made the choices you did, and the choices make sense, you can do whatever you want here.
Similarity to Your Book
You can get away with book comps that aren’t really similar to your book, except for an element or two. But what if your comp titles are too The War That Saved My Life similar? This is a fine line. If you’re pitching a story about a disfigured girl whose mother hides her away during World War II and using by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley as a comparative title … uhhhhhh … you’re maybe calling too much attention to the fact that your idea already exists. And then you may have to justify how yours is different or better. It’s a better idea to pick books that are similar but not eerily so.
Picking Comp Titles from the Agent or Publisher’s List
Some smart writers customize their comp titles in a query to reflect books represented by the literary agent they’re querying, or the publisher they’re submitting to. This can be an effective strategy. Keep in mind, however, that agents and publishers won’t want to cannibalize their own lists. So if the book you’re pitching is too close to one the agent represents or the publisher has published, this might actually be a liability for you. Their loyalty will always be to the author and project that already exists in their portfolio.
Number of Comp Titles
The ideal number of comp titles in a query is two or three. I recently read a query with six book comps mentioned. That writer had clearly done their research, but they need to tone it down. Two strong comps are better than four lukewarm comps and way better than six comps that just all happen to be in the same category. The more specific the better, so you don’t want to dilute your pitch by citing too many other books.
How to Find Book Comps
This is a quick answer: Read! (Here’s my argument that reading not only exposes you to your market, but helps develop great writing voice, which every writer should care about.) Read in your category. Read outside your category. I will never, ever, ever understand writers who refuse read because it pollutes their process. Spinning in your own echo chamber is fine, but it also tends to produce (ironically) derivative fiction because the writer doesn’t know enough about what’s out there to realize that they’re repeating common tropes, using cliché language, or not exposing themselves adequately to what’s possible.
Reading is a delightful way to get to know the publishing landscape, discover new voices, add fresh ideas to your own writing toolbox and, yes, discover book comps that you can use in your pitch.
As a freelance manuscript editor, I not only work on your book, but I help every client with their pitch, query letter, and book comps, too. Let me set you up for success in submission!
Picture book manuscript format flummoxes a lot of aspiring children’s book writers because there is so much potential variety. In my career, I have seen hundreds of examples of picture book format. To help you stand out in the slush as polished and professional, I’ve developed a picture book manuscript format handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers. (Need advice on actually creating a picture book?)
Picture Book Manuscript Format
Picture book manuscript format tends to vary WIDELY. Some writers have it down. Others think they’re paginating correctly if they allocate a separate manuscript page to each line, resulting in a 32-page Word document that contains 300 words. (More info on picture book word count.) What if a picture book manuscript template existed? It would certainly streamline things. As is, some writers include illustration notes, others stay far away. How do you paginate a children’s book? How do you format illustration notes correctly? This resource answers those questions (and here are more thoughts on illustration notes in your children’s book manuscript).
Remember that picture book format is just one small component of a successful children’s book submission. You also have your picture book query letter, and, well, the most important thing: an awesome manuscript! Don’t focus so much on picture book manuscript format that you lose sight of character, plot, and writing style. Those are going to take you a lot further than a nice-looking, polished file … but the latter certainly doesn’t hurt.
As a picture book editor, I work with writers on all aspects of the picture book craft, from creating a compelling children’s book manuscript (in proper picture book format, of course!) to nailing the query letter. Contact me for personal, actionable advice on your project.
This post is all about query letter format, a perennially popular topic that won’t quit! While there isn’t just one query letter format or query letter template out there, I’ve developed a handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.
Query Letter Format
From my recent webinar on query letters, I’ve learned that writers continue to be fascinated with this little one-page document. It’s my most popular webinar by far, and a constant fixture of Google searches about writing.
But what makes successful queries? And can I get a query letter template? Writers are desperate for query letter examples.
When I was speaking at writer’s conferences, I always gave out a handout with a query letter example that I’d written for Twilight. Cue your eye rolls, but it’s a well-known story that everyone has at least glancing familiarity with. (My query letter example is written with Edward as the protagonist because I think Bella is such a wet blanket, ha!)
Writers are also curious to see if there is a query letter template that they should be following for formatting their query letter. Is there a set formula for writing a query and organizing the information? Not really, unfortunately. Even if I was going to call my query letter template the perfect way to write a query, many writers wouldn’t get the memo and the slush would still be filled with queries that don’t follow this flow.
But I believe very much in my query letter template, which you’ll find in the second page of the PDF. It has a nice flow to it, and is a good way to organize all of the elements of the query letter.
Here’s something to keep in mind about writing a query letter: IT’S A ONE-PAGE COVER LETTER. Your query letter length? 250 to 450 words. That’s it! Sure, it feels so much more monumental than that, but the query letter only has one job: To get the agent or publisher interested enough to move on to your writing sample or proposal. That’s it. That’s all. (More query tips here!)
Writers obsess over the query letter. It feels like their “one shot” to achieve publication. Their foot in the door. But believe me when I say that I never offered representation based solely on the query letter, and I have overlooked many crappy queries to then offer on a great manuscript. The query is a means to an end.
The novel synopsis is a source of great consternation for many writers, and I completely understand why. To be honest, I hate writing them, I hate reading them, and I know I’m not alone. They are, usually, both crime and punishment. But they are a necessary evil for several reasons, which I’ll mention. Read on to find out how to write a synopsis in a way that’ll keep your sanity intact.
How to Write a Synopsis: What It Does
A novel synopsis is, in very basic terms, a one-to-four-page document that explains every major plot point and character development moment. That’s it and that’s all. For such a short and simple document, it sure seems to stir up a lot of angst.
Okay, so maybe my perspective is biased. I’m sure not everyone hates the novel synopsis. I’m sure there are writers out there who write amazing synopses, and agents/editors who gobble them up. Don’t get me wrong, they serve an important purpose.
A novel synopsis demonstrates how you think about story, how you plot, and how you wrap everything up. These are very important skills. A wonderful elevator pitch can very easily fall apart in the execution.
Agents and Publishers are Curious to Know the Following
that you have a lively cast of characters
that you are working with enough plot and subplot, or whether it’s too little or too much
that you’re building appropriate stakes and tension as the story progresses
how you plan on landing this thing once it’s going, whether everything will be resolved or you’re leaving some threads open for potential future stories
if you have any big red flags or fatal flaws in your story, which usually happen in the second half (see “Fair Warning”, below)
Some agents and publishers pay a lot of attention to the synopsis. Some glance at it. Others don’t even request one. But no matter what, you should know how to write a novel synopsis. Better yet, it would behoove you to have this document available in at least two lengths, to deploy when necessary.
How to Write a Synopsis
The best way to write a strong synopsis is to sit down and do it. Sorry! That’s it! There’s no secret magic dust that I can give you in this case. (Check out this post on what makes a good novel.) But once your butt is in the chair, here are some basic tips on how to write a synopsis.
Open a blank document and jot down all of the major plot events of your story. You can start in bullet points, if that helps, but eventually you’ll want to write them out in narrative format. Don’t worry about making it cute, pitchy, or voice-y. Your writing should be clear and tight. Just the facts, ma’am. Be sure to fold in the three or four biggest character turning points, too. These are the changes your character goes through as they get where they’re going. My strong belief is that a synopsis will involve character somehow, to give a sense of how plot and protagonist play together.
For plot, at minimum, you want to hit your opening (the inciting incident that launches your story), a handful of strong points in the middle as things go wrong and obstacles arise, your climax, and your resolution.
Mention only those details that are necessary for clarity and understanding. If the mom’s job is important to the plot, include it. If the dog and cute neighbor factor into the story but not in a big way, you may want to leave them out. For the purposes of this document, you are running lean.
For all of my surprise and reveal fans: Sorry. I’m about to crush your dreams. But you have to reveal your twists and turns, and your ending. I know you want to tease, tease, tease an agent into reading the whole manuscript. You think that if you just withhold the major twist ending, they will fall over themselves to request and sink five hours of reading into your novel because the suspense will kill them otherwise. Well, catch-22, the odds that they’ll request the full and then get all the way to the end are slim if you don’t demonstrate that you know what you’re doing first and that your twist is worth it. (There are people who vehemently disagree and will fight me on this. You’re not changing my mind, but I fully expect to hear from you!)
Tips for Novel Synopsis Writing
The most common lengths for a novel synopsis are: one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages (roughly the same as one single-spaced page), two single-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages. The reason for this wishy-washiness is that different agents/publishers will request different things in different formats. I recommend having three synopses available to send when you start submitting: a tight one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages (this one will not be requested that often).
So you can attack this beast in one of two ways:
Option 1: You sit down and write your entire novel in one single-spaced page (you still need normal 1″ margins and paragraph spacing, so you can’t just use every available centimeter of space). This is the more difficult approach, because I’m guessing your novel probably has more than one page of material. So whittling it down so drastically is daunting. But doing it all at once is also very helpful, because once you’ve shrunk it, you can much more easily add some substance to make a longer synopsis for a two-page and four-page option.
Option 2: You sit down and you do the painful shave. Start with four double-spaced pages. Put down more detail than necessary. Introduce the bulk of your secondary and tertiary characters. Mention events that don’t have a lot of bearing on character change or plot stakes. Save this version. Open another document. Now you’re aiming for two double-spaced pages. Shave, shave, shave. Delete everything possible that doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding of your story. Save this version. Then single-space it and realize that you’re over one page. Now the real agony begins as you distill further. Save the one-page version. And voila! This is perhaps the more scenic route, but the destination is the same.
There is one great test of a novel synopsis that I recommend to everyone: Show it to someone who doesn’t know your story, and then have them explain your book to you. If they kinda sorta get it and are able to hit the major points, you’ve written a successful synopsis. If they start to squirm, you’re not being clear enough. Your synopsis is either too thin or too detailed.
The only way out is through, my friends. So sit down, embrace our love/hate relationship with this document, and let’s get started.
Fair Warning: Part of the synopsis’ job is to reveal story problems. If you write a synopsis and have trouble filling it with actual plot points, it might mean that your plot is too thin. If you can’t possibly omit any plot points and your synopsis is five pages, that might mean that the scope of your novel is too broad. Be prepared to learn that you might have bigger issues as you write this summary document. It definitely happens.
I had a client recently come to me for a 30-minute discussion of his query and opening pages. My big piece of feedback was, “I don’t know if this is a query problem or a novel problem, but I’m not seeing any plot here. Something should be kicking into gear in these opening pages, and the query should be covering more development than I’m seeing.” We moved on to a complete manuscript service and, guess what? There is very little plot, and that is a big issue. Keep your eyes and ears open as you prepare your synopsis documents, you might learn more than just how to write a synopsis.
I include synopsis comments with every service as a manuscript editor. If you’re really struggling with yours, let’s work on it together.
Delaying an agent submission if an agent requests a full manuscript isn’t usually a writer’s top concern. Why would a writer want to hold off on sending a manuscript? If an agent requests a full manuscript, most writers want to serve it up YESTERDAY. But wait! There is a really compelling reason to be strategic in capitalizing on an agent’s interest.
The Perils of Submitting Too Soon If an Agent Requests a Full Manuscript
Writers are humans. They are, whether you want to think so or not, vulnerable to the quirks of human nature. And one of those foibles is impatience. A lot of writers tend to submit their manuscripts before their manuscripts are truly ready.
I have been beating this dead horse for over a decade, but it’s true. In a lot of cases, writers are too eager to get their work out there. If an agent requests a full manuscript, they’re immediately off to the submission races. But wait, later that day, they have an epiphany and desperately want to claw that submission back. WHAT TO DO?
It’s okay. It happens to everyone. But this is my level-headed plea that you try and recognize if this is happening to you. Did you rush into submission? Are you about to send some manuscripts out that may need more revision?
Did you put your work away for a few months before doing one last pass? (Nobody ever follows this advice, but if writers disciplined themselves to wait, even if an agent requests a full manuscript, the slush pile may be a very different place.)
Too often, writers really want to see the fruits of their labor. They want to get “out there”, like, yesterday, and see if their project is worth anything. I get it, I really do.
But this sometimes results in a submission that will get rejected because it hasn’t had enough time and revision. And then you may have shut the door on a promising potential agent/writer relationship. (Dealing with rejection? Read some tips.)
Twitter pitch contests and similar opportunities only tend to make this worse, because they create this false sense of urgency. That you need to submit now now now or you’ll miss your chance forever.
Worth the Wait
Here is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a client. This client wanted my blessing to send the first 50 pages of a manuscript to an agent. The manuscript needed some work. This is how I responded:
Looks like you’re moving ahead full steam with this submission. However, you told me that you originally wanted to wait. Now it sounds like you talked yourself out of it. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! I need to do it!” Well, I’m about to suggest some serious revision. And I worry that you’ll be tempted to rush through it in order to submit. Remember, even if an agent requests a full manuscript, you can call the shots on timing.
You seem to have a very hard time managing whether or not you’re comfortable waiting. “Not sure I can tell her to wait?” Why the heck not? I think you might be making these situations into life-or-death, now-or-never in your head. They’re not. Plus, if you send the first 50 and it’s well-received, I think you’re going to be up against this very same dilemma again if an agent requests a full manuscript. Immediately, it’ll be, “What do I do? Do you think the next 200 pages are okay to send?”
I suggest delaying an agent submission until the whole thing is ready. To pull off a successful revision will take months (learn more revision techniques). We’ve had extensive discussion about what happens when someone submits, then revises, and realizes, “Oh man, I submitted too early.” Even though it seems like you’re self-aware enough to know that you might be doing this, you still keep doing it, or wanting to do it.
You’re investing a lot of time and energy to get editorial feedback so that, I would imagine, you can revise your manuscript into submission-ready form. So do you want to submit early anyway? I would say no. Not only can you tell someone to wait on a submission, but there are contests running constantly.
This attitude of do-or-die, now-or-never is not going to serve you, not even if an agent requests a full manuscript and you are dying to get it out. It’s going to result in nothing but little bursts of anxiety when, frankly, you should forget completely about submission and focus on your book. Your strongest shot at publication isn’t getting into a closed agent’s inbox via the Twitter contest back door, it’s having a rock solid manuscript to impress them with.
Delaying an Agent Submission If an Agent Requests a Full Manuscript
Maybe now I’ve convinced you that a strong project, no matter when it arrives, is your best asset. That delaying an agent submission while you revise is a good thing. And that the Twitter pitch contest isn’t going anywhere. (We run a pitch contest with our editors, too! Check if there’s an upcoming StorySnobs workshop.)
Nope! You can absolutely tell an agent that you need to go do some revision, and you’ll be back. Here’s an example of what you can say if an agent requests a full manuscript and you’re not yet ready:
Thank you so much for your interest. I’m doing one more revision pass, and I’ll submit as soon as I’m ready.
Boom! You don’t even have to give a timeframe. That might put even more arbitrary pressure on you that you don’t need. In most cases, agents will understand. They want to see a strong project, too, even if it takes a few extra months.
So cool your jets. Revise a little more. And come out of the gate with something that demands attention. It’ll be worth it when the full manuscript request comes through.
Need help getting a manuscript submission-ready? Hire me as your developmental editor. My “Submission Package Edit” gives you notes on everything an agent or publisher will want to see.
Oceans of ink and blog posts have been spilled talking about novel openings and hooking your reader in the opening chapter. And with good reason. Your novel’s first pages are the only thing an agent gets to see before they make their decision about you. Well, that and your query letter and synopsis, which is why those are such hot topics. But how do you nail your novel’s opening? The advice may be simpler than you think.
Great Novel Openings Start With Conflict and Action
Basically, you want to give them just enough of your character so that they care, without over-indulging in information (see next section). And you want to put the character in motion. They want something, they’re experiencing an obstacle, they are frustrated or full of longing. This is a good state for your character to be in.
And, very importantly, they are starting in action, where they’re either being frustrated by an obstacle or striving toward something. You need that balance of internal conflict and external conflict.
If you start with too much external action right away, readers may not care because they don’t know the character, their objectives, or motivations.
If you start with no external action, then it’s easy to get bored. For example, a character sitting in their room, philosophizing about life and all the ways in which it has gone wrong. Maybe you start with generalities, for example:
Life can be funny sometimes. I spent 13 years thinking I was normal. Totally lame. And then one day, everything changed.
But the character is just sitting and thinking. There’s no action. This is 100% internal conflict, and you want to avoid it because nothing is actually happening.
Avoid Too Much Information in Novel Openings
In the same vein, information overload can sabotage your opening chapter in other ways. You might start with action, like the character getting bullied, but then you stop and go into great detail about the school, everyone in it, and the character’s history with the bully since kindergarten.
“Context is important!” you say. But you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. If you start a story with a ton of information about everyone we’re meeting and all of the details of a character’s life, the plan will not get off the ground, so to speak.
There has to be a balance of action and information, and if in doubt, action should win out. For every piece of information that you introduce in the first few pages of your opening chapter, ask yourself: Does this really, really, really have to be here? Otherwise, you may insert it later, or not at all.
Pick a Moment You Can Sustain
Finally, to tie your novel opening together, you need to pick a moment you can sustain for two or three pages without either stopping the action to give tons of information, and without leaving the moment to go into backstory (more information on writing backstory).
If you currently start with general philosophizing (per the example above), a ton of information, a lot of jumping around in time to gather various details, or without a sense of balanced internal and external conflict, it’s time to take another look. Your beginning really is your make-or-break. So it’s your job to make it good.
Struggling with your first pages? My Submission Package Edit revamps your first ten manuscript pages, query, and synopsis, so you can make an amazing first impression in the slush. Hire me today!