[ Note: This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter. Go RMFW! ]
Today I’d like to tackle one of my favorite FAQs: What does it take to hook an agent with your opening pages? (Insert profanity if you’ve been through or are in the midst of this process!)
The truth is, on any given page of your novel, agents weigh dozens of factors based on their knowledge, experience, and personal taste. They’re also employing another vital skill: instinct. If their gut isn’t telling them to read on, their brain probably won’t win the argument. But I think I can boil it down to five key elements that really make agents swoon:
A Remarkable Voice. Every author has a voice, but what makes one captivating and another lackluster? One major element is uniqueness—both at the “big picture” level (how your characters see the world) and in the details (word choice, flow, syntactic quirks). Another is authenticity. Do the narration and dialogue ring true with our understanding of the characters and story? A third is unobtrusiveness; while not invisible, a strong voice effortlessly captures the reader without calling attention to itself.
Flawless Writing. An agent is hooked when she reaches the end of your pages and had forgotten she was reading a sub- mission. This happens when the writing is so polished that there was nothing to trigger her “agent brain” and pull her out of the story. The opening pages must deftly balance scene and summary, clear dialogue, and just enough intriguing backstory. Disappointment comes from sending out a project too soon. Find a critique group or writing partner you can trust to be brutal with your early drafts. You’ll thank them later.
Irresistible Characters. No matter how beautiful the writing, a manuscript is in trouble if an agent doesn’t fall in love with the main character(s), or at least find them hard to forget. Like all readers, agents want to feel a strong emotional stake in what happens to these people/dragons/aliens/werefolk. At the end of your sample chapters, you want to leave agents in anguish, dying to know what will happen to your characters.
A Compelling Inciting Incident. Another thing agents look for is an inciting incident within the first thirty pages or so. Granted, there are excellent novels that take longer to get there; Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is an example. But Outlander is an 800+ page tome, and long stories like that are the exception, not the rule. An author has to have a good reason to delay the spark, such as relevant scene setting or character development. In the slush pile, a long delay is more often the result of unpolished writing that needs a trim.
Smooth Mechanics. As sexy as that sounds, this one has more to do with nuts and bolts than instinct. Still, it’s important enough to make the list. One or two typos is probably not a deal breaker, but if a manuscript includes frequent mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, or formatting, agents start to see red flags: Is this author unprofessional? Downright careless? Would our working relationship be a mess, too? Don’t take chances—run it by your exasperatingly anal copy editor friend before you hit that “send” button.
Whether you’re about to start the submission process, or already in the trenches, best of luck!