So, just how little time does one’s masterwork get to spend before the eyes of an agent? In truth, many manuscripts fall apart in the first chapter. You can agree or disagree with their methods or reasoning, but the simple fact is that agents want that instant gratification I mentioned in a previous post. Who wants to sit and suffer while waiting for a book to get good, right? Agents want action and story right off the bat. They want to see that bestselling blockbuster from Page 1.
Here are a few things agents say turn them off in the first chapter:
1. “Avoid descriptions of the weather.” Because even though approximately 50% of books ever written start with some sort of expository weather description, evidently we’re not allowed to mention it’s raining. In all seriousness, though, what does a “stormy night” really add to the story we’re trying to tell?
2. “If it’s not essential to the story then it doesn’t need to be in the first chapter or any other chapters.” This is absolutely true and I think this is something with which many fledgling writers struggle in the beginning. The first instinct might be to write down anything that pops into one’s head. Read: Anything. Keep your story focused at all times. Have your characters do relevant things and don’t mention peripheral items that serve no purpose. We don’t need to know a female character keeps a purple hairbrush that belonged to her long-deceased grandmother unless granny’s coming back as a hellspawn to kick some ass and reclaim that brush that was rightfully hers in the next chapter.
3. “We don’t like grocery list character descriptions. Eyes, nose, weight, height, age, etc.”
The sign of a good writer is being able to show description instead of telling it. Although I’m not exactly sure how to “show” a reader that a character’s eyes are blue, for example, perhaps the reader doesn’t need to know that a protagonist’s eyes are blue in the first place. It’s quite okay to let a reader paint them himself or herself. If a character is neurotic, obsessive compulsive, vain, insecure, etc., those features are much easier to show without flat-out saying it. I still prefer some fairly clear-cut physical descriptions, myself, but the point is to not linger. Dispense with the basic looks in a brief, well-written paragraph and then move on!
4. “We hate prologues.”
These agents can straight suck it. Not that I love prologues. I’m just saying that a prologue, in my eyes, should not automatically break a whole book. I’m appalled by the idea of an agent dismissing a book just because it has a prologue. That’s laziness on their parts. There are great books that have well-written, necessary prologues. I’m sure there are some awful books, too. I’m sure there are even some awful books with prologues that still got published! My own book, The Notice, for example, once had a prologue that explained four pages of essential background historical information about Yugoslavia. I ultimately removed it, but I don’t think having the prologue was ultimately detrimental to the story I sought to tell. Some books have prologues, agents—buck up and read them. The one favor a prospective authors asks is that you at least give us the benefit of the doubt.
5. “Avoid clichés wherever possible.”
It speaks for itself. You may not even know a cliché as you’re writing it, but if you find yourself penning something just because you really liked it in that other book or movie, well it’s probably cliché. I wish there were a better index on the Internet of clichés, but this site has some decent ones: http://www.joe-ks.com/phrases/phrases.htm
Once again, you may agree or disagree with these entries and that is your prerogative, but these 5 rules are widely reflected throughout the publishing community. And whether you like them or not, the point should be to have an agent someday finish your entire book. In order to do this, we have to sell our books to them using only our writing and story-crafting. We are disposable. The trick is learning how to put a fresh peel on a stale banana.
…Not sure where I was going with that. Now it’s all I can think about. I think I’m hungry. I’m going to get a banana.