William Nolan, author of the award-winning dystopian novel Logan’s Run, described the process of editing for Gamma magazine as far back as the 1960s at the Write to Publish 2012 convention this weekend:
Every Thursday I went into the office to go through the slush pile of manuscript submissions for the magazine. I reached the point where I’d open each box or envelope, slide out the first page, and just read the first couple of paragraphs. That was all the time an author got to impress me and convince me to keep reading.
With the advent of email submissions, agents and publishers increasingly find their inboxes swamped by unsolicited manuscripts–leaving them even less time to wade through backstories and prologues to get to the action, the theme, the meat. This is true even for query letters. I’ll leave that topic for another day.
Here are some suggestions I picked up at the Write to Publish conference to help you clean up your manuscript for submission.
Start with a grabber. We all heard this back in the days of college entrance exams: try to hook your reader with a catchy first sentence. The same is true for book manuscripts. You have a mighty important story to tell; give that agent or publisher on the receiving end a clue as to your wit and the magnitude of your tale. A number of editors that appeared on the Write to Publish editing panel could recite from heart their favorite opening lines, including, “Inside the bellies of the dragons were men, and inside the bellies of the men was whiskey.”
Get to the point. Tell us enough about the character to get interested, but avoid vomiting up a backstory. Don’t play coy with the reader; make sure to provide enough relevant details about the character and environment to make the writing cohesive. It’s a fine line to walk, but I trust you to walk it. The goal is to give the reader a sense of your plot by the end of the second paragraph.
Action! Action doesn’t mean gunfights or explosions (necessarily); the type of action depends on the type of manuscript. If your book is a thriller, well, by all means–start with a top-secret mission or a car chase. Just make sure you give the reader a situation to care about. This emotional investment and interest on the part of the reader keeps her reading.
Always follow up. Sure, those first few paragraphs were great; but now that you’ve got an agent or publisher’s attention, you have to hang on to it. Find beta readers (avoid friends and family) to look over your work and find the “reading lines,” or places where the manuscript might lose a reader, and buff them up. Make sure you keep up the tension after that kick-ass introduction.
Just read a book with a great hook? I’d love to hear about it!