01 July 2015

Writing a great novel opening: tips from the agents

by Wei Ming Kam From the Agents, Writing Tips

With the deadline for applications for our next round of creative writing courses fast approaching, many of you will be honing the opening to your novel to prepare for your submission. To help you out, we went to the agents at Curtis Brown and Conville & Walsh for advice on what makes a great beginning for a book, and asked them what was the best start to a novel they’d read, and what they look for in a novel’s opening.

Gordon Wise

Best start to a novel I’ve read: ‘Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it.’ (Gone With the Wind) If you need reasons why, it subverts from the off the ‘ideal’ qualities in a heroine and also implies that the writer is going to more than compensate for the lack of these attributes in the form of other compelling character traits. And of course it is somewhat disingenuous as the next few paragraphs have men falling at her feet. But never the one she really wants…

If you’ve seen the film of course, or ever seen a picture of Vivien Leigh even, it’s even more striking as her incredible looks on screen are pivotal to the story’s success. But how interesting to discover that Margaret Mitchell had something else in mind for her very complex heroine – someone you end up rooting for, despite her many many faults and often despicable behaviour, but because of her unquenchable conviction.

What I look for in a novel’s opening: A hook to pull me straight in, something that hints at more meaning than the words themselves belie. Sometimes it will come on the first draft, sometimes only after working out the proportions of the work as a whole. Don’t hold up writing your book trying to get this right. But do remember how important it is to get right before you go out with it – it’s the key to getting someone to read the second sentence, and the second paragraph, and the second page, and the second chapter…

Alice Lutyens

Alice Lutyens

What I look for in a novel’s opening: To be sucked in viciously and spat out again, dazed and confused and longing for more.

 

Lauren Pearson

Lauren Pearson

Best start to a novel I’ve read:  I love the beginning of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman:  “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…” Gaiman grabs your attention instantly, and then lures you into the novel as he fills in the details.

What I look for in a novel’s opening: Generally speaking I want to feel like I am caught in a moment in the middle of a story.  (It’s a common answer, but there’s a reason for that.) I look for the sense that I opened the book and this world was already there, going on without my involvement; Gaiman’s opening does that brilliantly.

That’s not to say that starting with a character’s thoughts can’t work too, of course—I remember as a teenager loving the opening to Stephen King’s novella The Body, where the narrator briefly gives his thoughts on secrets and life in general and then jolts you with ‘ I was twelve going on thirteen the first time I saw a dead human being.’

The important thing is that there’s so much contained within King’s first paragraph or so; an amazing narrative voice and a promise of action and suspense and the wisdom that comes with growing up.  I guess I’m a fan of starting things off with a bang…

 

Emma Herdman

Best start to a novel I’ve read:

She gave a startled cry.

‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.

Notwithstanding the darkness of the shuttered room he saw her face on a sudden distraught with terror [sic].

‘Some one just tried the door.’

‘Well, perhaps it was the amah, or one of the boys.’

‘They never come at this time. They know I always sleep after tiffin.’

‘Who else could it be?’

‘Walter, she whispered, her lips trembling.

The Painted Veil – W. Somerset Maugham

 

This is an incredibly skilful opening – there’s no putting this novel down now. You’re thrown straight into the action – you’re there. Where? Well, a hint of that is given (‘the amah’, ‘one of the boys’). You know someone is doing something they shouldn’t (why else be afraid) – why are they doing it? Who are they doing it with? How long have they been doing it for? And further, she isn’t just afraid – her face is ‘distraught with terror’. What will happen if ‘Walter’ finds out – and who is Walter?

These eight lines (and I could have quoted more) drip with intrigue. Stunningly simple, yet instantly compelling.

What I look for in a novel’s opening: Well, I look for the above, really. A scene to be set, a question to be asked – and there are so many ways of doing this cunningly. The most difficult part of writing an opening, I think, is that it has to be heavy with promise, but light and effortless to read. No wonder so many writers find this the hardest part…

 

Susan Armstrong

 

Best start to a novel I’ve read: Impossible for me to pick the ‘best’, but I do adore the opening to The Secret History by Donna Tartt: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

What I look for in a novel’s opening: In terms of what I look for in a novel’s opening, I love an early and distinct sense of voice. Not only does this give me a feel for whose story I’m about to read but, if done really well, should also be so compelling that I want to read their story.

 

Sophie Lambert

Best start to a novel I’ve read: There are so many reasons to get swept into a novel but nailing a killer opening line, paragraph and page helps. While there’s lots of talk about contemporary novelists needing to grab the immediate attention of readers, there are plenty of classic novels with iconic openings. I think the finest example is one of the best known and loved – Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ It’s bold, provocative and flips the focus on to the significance and importance of women despite being written in 1813.

With my second example I’ll confess immediately to it being an author I represent, but when I first read the final draft of Nathan Filer’s debut novel, The Shock of the Fall, I knew that it was very special. ‘I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I’m not. So when it was my turn to cover my eyes and count to a hundred – I cheated.’ Nathan climbs into Matthew’s character in a way that few authors are able and in doing so we are offered a glimpse of a young man suffering from a mental illness. It’s an emotional journey that Nathan takes the reader on, but he demystifies a subject that is commonly misrepresented.

What I look for in a novel’s opening: We receive and read so many submissions that I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of the opening. There’s no magical equation for what’s going to pull me in and keep me reading but it’s got to set up a glimpse of the flavour of the whole as well as providing something of a curtain raiser moment. Your novel deserves to have a brilliant opening, otherwise no one will ever read on.

 

Norah Perkins

Best start to a novel I’ve read: Impossible to choose favourites. Austen is the past master. Sarah Waters’ ‘Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?’ is perfection. Raymond Chandler’s first lines are hard-boiled brilliance every time. Sylvia Plath pulls you under in a single line: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ But today LP Hartley wins it for me with the first line of The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’

What I look for in a novel’s opening: The best first lines take you right deep down into the voice of the novel. They hold all the promise of the book – the premonition and distillation of everything that comes after.

 

Jonny Geller

Best start to a novel I’ve read:  It is a tie between Ford Madox Ford’s “This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard” from The Good Soldier and from the opposite end of the spectrum, the complex and magical opening to 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

What I look for in a novel’s opening: I just want a novel to start. That might sound odd, but I need to have the ending implicit in the opening sentence, a sense of place and time, a firm illusion of control from the very start and, most of all, an indication I am in the hands of a writer.

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our selective three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.

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