It’s January and I’ve got beginnings on my mind—in this case, the opening pages of your novel. In 2012 we read 1,029 sets of sample pages and from those we requested 81 full manuscripts. So what made the difference between a “no thanks” and a “tell me more”? Here are five key elements:
- Voice. Every author has a voice, but what makes some stand out from the crowd? In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass calls voice “not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world…” Another key element is authenticity. Do the narration and dialogue ring true with the characters and story? This is particularly important for YA and MG—nothing turns young readers off faster than writing that feels like an adult trying to mimic them. In that sense, the voice should be invisible— effortlessly capturing readers without calling attention to itself.
- Stand-out writing. We see dozens of fairy tale retellings and spin-offs every month. Nevertheless, one of our newest clients is the author of a reimagined Sleeping Beauty tale. Her secret? The story felt incredibly fresh while retaining key elements of the fairy tale—a recipe for reader satisfaction. Beautiful writing can make an old theme feel new; focus on polishing your craft, not worrying about what is in vogue.
- Authentic world. While it’s especially important for sci-fi/fantasy and steampunk, world-building can make or break any story. Your goal is to create a literary microcosm that feels real (historical authors—don’t skimp on the research).
- Stories with heart. We’re looking for novels that feature relevant issues without compromising story. Examples: stories about bullying, contemporary YA with teens battling real-life issues, LGBT stories.
- Characters who face great challenges with grit and integrity. What they don’t do is become jaded, nasty, or overly angsty. That definitely works for some stories, but our personal taste leans toward characters who rise a little higher.
Keep in mind that these elements can—and must—be firmly established or at least introduced in your opening pages; we ask for thirty, but it’s usually obvious in five. Take a hard look at your opening pages and if they feel a little flat, it’s time to consider a revision. Because no matter how amazing chapter five is, without a dynamic start readers may never get that far.
May 2013 bring success and satisfaction in your writing career. Best wishes!
Anita Mumm is a Literary Assistant at the Nelson Literary Agency. This post was taken from their monthly newsletter and posted here with permission. To get more great industry news, subscribe to their newsletter.