Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)

PERSPECTIVES

HOW NOT TO START YOUR BOOK

Agents dish about all those things they hate to see in Chapter 1.

by Chuck Sambuchino

Ask literary agents what they’re looking for in a first chapter and they’ll all say the same thing: “Good writing that hooks me in.” Agents appreciate the same elements of good writing that readers do. They want action; they want compelling characters and a reason to read on; they want to see your voice come through in the work and feel an immediate connection with your writing style.

Sure, the fact that agents look for great writing and a unique voice is nothing new. But, for as much as you know about what agents want to see in chapter one, what about all those things they don’t want to see? Obvious mistakes such as grammatical errors and awkward writing aside, writers need to be conscious of first-chapter clichés and agent pet peeves—any of which can sink a manuscript and send a form rejection letter your way.

Have you ever begun a story with a character waking up from a dream? Or opened chapter one with a line of salacious dialogue? Both clichés! Chances are, you’ve started a story with a cliché or touched on a pet peeve (or many!) in your writing and you don’t even know it—and nothing turns off an agent like what agent Cricket Freeman of the August Agency calls “nerve-gangling, major turn-off, ugly-as-sin, nails-on-the-blackboard pet peeves.”

To help compile a grand list of these poisonous chapter one no-no’s, plenty of established literary agents were more than happy to chime in and vent about everything that they can’t stand to see in that all-important first chapter. Here’s what they had to say.

DESCRIPTION

“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress—with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves—sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice and ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.”

—LAURIE MCLEAN, Foreword Literary

“Slow writing with a lot of description will put me off very quickly. I personally like a first chapter that moves quickly and draws me in so I’m immediately hooked and want to read more.”

—ANDREA HURST, Andrea Hurst & Associates Literary Management

VOICE AND POINT-OF-VIEW

“A pet peeve of mine is ragged, fuzzy point-of-view. How can a reader follow what’s happening? I also dislike beginning with a killer’s POV. What reader would want to be in such an ugly place? I feel like a nasty voyeur.”

—CRICKET FREEMAN, The August Agency

“An opening that’s predictable will not hook me in. If the average person could have come up with the characters and situations, I’ll pass. I’m looking for a unique outlook, voice, or character and situation.”

—DEBBIE CARTER, formerly of Muse Literary Management

“Avoid the opening line ‘My name is …,’ introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. There are far better ways in chapter one to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader.”

—MICHELLE ANDELMAN, Regal Literary

“I hate reading purple prose, taking the time to set up—to describe something so beautifully and that has nothing to do with the actual story. I also hate when an author starts something and then says ‘(the main character) would find out later.’ I hate gratuitous sex and violence anywhere in the manuscript. If it is not crucial to the story then I don’t want to see it in there, in any chapters.”

—CHERRY WEINER, Cherry Weiner Literary

“I recently read a manuscript when the second line was something like, ‘Let me tell you this, Dear Reader…’ What do you think of that?”

—SHEREE BYKOFSKY, Sheree Bykofsky Literary

ACTION (OR LACK THEREOF)

“I don’t really like first-day-of-school beginnings, or the ‘From the beginning of time,’ or ‘Once upon a time’ starts. Specifically, I dislike a chapter one where nothing happens.”

—JESSICA REGEL, Foundry Literary + Media

“ ‘The Weather’ is always a problem—the author feels he has to take time to set up the scene completely and tell us who the characters are. I like starting a story in media res.”

—ELIZABETH POMADA, Larsen/Pomada, Literary Agents

“I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further. It is what keeps me up at night saying, ‘Just one more chapter, then I’ll go to sleep.’ If everything is explained away in the first chapter, I’m probably putting the book down and going to sleep.”

—PETER MILLER, Global Lion Management

“Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes and thinking, staring out the window and thinking, tying shoes, thinking. Authors often do this to transmit information, but the result is action in a literal sense but no real energy in a narrative sense. The best rule of thumb is always to start the story where the story starts.”

—DAN LAZAR, Writers House

CLICHÉS AND FALSE BEGINNINGS

“I hate it when a book begins with an adventure that turns out to be a dream at the end of the chapter.”

—MOLLIE GLICK, Foundry Literary + Media

“Anything cliché such as ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ will turn me off. I hate when a narrator or author addresses the reader (e.g., ‘Gentle reader’).”

—JENNIE DUNHAM, Dunham Literary

“Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player. I also don’t want to read about anyone sleeping, dreaming, waking up or staring at anything. Other annoying, unoriginal things I see too often: some young person going home to a small town for a funeral, someone getting a phone call about a death, a description of a psycho lurking in the shadows or a terrorist planting a bomb.”

—ELLEN PEPUS, Signature Literary Agency

“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of chapter one. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”

—CRICKET FREEMAN, The August Agency

“1. Squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief—been done a million times. 2. A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape. 3. A trite statement (‘Get with the program’ or ‘Houston, we have a problem’ or ‘You go girl’ or ‘Earth to Michael’ or ‘Are we all on the same page?’), said by a weenie sales guy, usually in the opening paragraph. 4. A rape scene in a Christian novel, especially in the first chapter. 5. ‘Years later, Monica would look back and laugh…’ 6. ‘The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.’ ”

—CHIP MACGREGOR, MacGregor Literary

“A cheesy ‘hook’ drives me nuts. I know that they say ‘Open with a hook!’—something to grab the reader. While that’s true, there’s a fine line between a hook that’s intriguing and a hook that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue. Or opening with a hook that’s just too convoluted to be truly interesting.”

—DAN LAZAR, Writers House

“Here are things I can’t stand: Cliché openings in fantasy novels can include an opening scene set in a battle (and my peeve is that I don’t know any of the characters yet so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn’t realize how common this is). Opening chapters where a main protagonist is in the middle of a bodily function (jerking off, vomiting, peeing or what have you) is usually a firm no right from the get-go. Gross. Long prologues that often don’t have anything to do with the story. (So common in fantasy, again.) Opening scenes that are all dialogue without any context. I could probably go on…”

—KRISTIN NELSON, Nelson Literary

CHARACTERS AND BACKSTORY

“I don’t like descriptions of the characters where writers make the characters seem too perfect. Heroines (and heroes) who are described physically as being unflawed come across as unrelatable and boring. No ‘flowing, windswept golden locks’; no ‘eyes as blue as the sky’; no ‘willowy, perfect figures.’ ”

—LAURA BRADFORD, Bradford Literary Agency

“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them—it’s in their DNA—even after the cut. To paraphrase Bruno Bettelheim: The more the character in a fairy tale is described, the less the audience will identify with him … The less the character is characterized and described, the more likely the reader is to identify with him.”

—ADAM CHROMY, Movable Type Management

“I’m really turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story; a story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is (usually) a red flag.”

—STEPHANY EVANS, FinePrint Literary Management

“One of the biggest problems I encounter is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.”

—RACHELLE GARDNER, Books & Such Literary

OTHER PET PEEVES

“The most common opening is a grisly murder scene told from the killer’s point of view. While this usually holds the reader’s attention, the narrative drive often doesn’t last once we get into the meat of the story. A catchy opening scene is great, but all too often it falls apart after the initial pages. I often refer people to the opening of Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, which is about nothing more than a young couple getting an apartment. It is masterfully written and yet it doesn’t appear to be about anything sinister at all. And it keeps you reading.”

—IRENE GOODMAN, Irene Goodman Literary

“Things I dislike include: 1) Telling me what the weather’s like in order to set atmosphere. OK, it was raining. It’s always raining. 2) Not starting with action. I want to have a sense of dread quite quickly—and not from rain! 3) Sending me anything but the beginning of the book; if you tell me that it ‘starts getting good’ on page 35, then I will tell you to start the book on page 35, because if even you don’t like the first 34, neither will I or any other reader.”

—JOSH GETZLER, Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency.

“One of my biggest pet peeves is when writers try to stuff too much exposition into dialogue rather than trusting their abilities as storytellers to get information across. I’m talking stuff like the mom saying, ‘Listen, Jimmy, I know you’ve missed your father ever since he died in that mysterious boating accident last year on the lake, but I’m telling you, you’ll love this summer camp!’ ”

—CHRIS RICHMAN, Upstart Crow Literary

“I hate to see a whiny character who’s in the middle of a fight with one of their parents, slamming doors, rolling eyes, and displaying all sorts of other stereotypical behavior. I also tend to have a hard time bonding with characters who address the reader directly.”

—KELLY SONNACK, Andrea Brown Literary

CHUCK SAMBUCHINO (chucksambuchino.com, @chucksambuchino) edits the Guide to Literary Agents (guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog) as well as the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. Chuck’s other writing books include Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed., and Create Your Writer Platform (fall 2012). Besides that, he is a husband, guitarist, sleep-deprived new father, dog owner, and cookie addict.