Guest Blogger Bob Begiebing Speaks on Writing

Selling Your Novel: Creating a Compelling First Impression, Robert Begiebing

I’m often asked how to approach an agent or editor with a manuscript for a novel.  Let’s assume that through many revisions and critiques you’ve completed a novel.  You have a referral or a list of agents and editors to query.  You know you only get one shot in the door with each editor or agent, so how do you prepare the most engaging materials possible?  The three basic elements are the query letter, the synopsis, and the first thirty pages (or three chapters, whichever comes first).  There are lots of sources to get help with the first two (both are one page single-spaced documents), but the manuscript sample is perhaps the most difficult and most misunderstood.  So assuming you know how to set up a manuscript typographically, let’s focus on the manuscript sample, based on my own experience and on what I’ve been hearing from editors and agents for years in answer to questions from others.

What does a professional reader NOT want to see in the opening of your novel?

  • Giveaways to your amateurism: all kinds of authorial tics or other repetitive annoyances and hack constructions, (from the use of ellipses to indicate suspense, to italics to indicate moments of fear or stress, to single-sentence paragraphs to indicate climactic zingers or sentimental emphases, and so on).
  • Prologues, especially lengthy ones, that if containing information absolutely needed should be reprocessed into the tale itself; avoid, in short, anything that keeps the reader from getting right into the central drama.  A venerable editor at Norton upon encountering a prologue of any kind used to say, “Get out of the bathtub!” because she read so many fictional prologues set in tubs where protagonists ruminate on life and their problems.

What are the attributes or qualities of successful opening pages, some of which a professional reader hopes to see in your ms.?

Indications that by your reading, your writing experience and education, and by, in short, your long and painful apprenticeship, you are no longer an amateur or dilettante.

  • Energy, animation, originality of VOICE (a question of your point of view choices and the narrative persona you’ve created).  One agent told my workshop students he looks for a certain “intensity” of voice or language.
  • A texture of mind or descriptive power that comes through the prose.
  • “Profluence” ( we’re getting somewhere, on to something, care where the story is going, a power of interest, set up early and satisfied later).  The Pull: novelist John Gardner’s sense (from Aristotle) of character (the emotional core) and plot (the profluent focus of your narrative plan).  An engaging drama has begun.
  • An “Inciting Incident” that radically disrupts the balance of forces in your  protagonist’s life to which he/ she must react, through progressive complications (a point I borrow from Robert McKee’s book Story).
  • Drama vs. Exposition/ Explanations/ Backstory.  Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE) and weave in necessary but brief segments of backstory later, once the reader is hooked and the drama is fully underway.
  • A sense of your opening chapter especially as the crucial “manner by which reader gains entrance,” to quote Douglas Bauer’s The Stuff of Fiction.
  • Questions raised in the reader’s mind.
  • That opening sentence.  As an editor at Houghton Mifflin once said, “If you can’t write that opening sentence, I don’t have much hope for your ability to write the rest of the book.”
  • Your mastery of dialogue (see three chapters devoted to it in Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers)
  • A clear sense of the book’s subject matter and major characters.
  • Any foretelling of theme, purpose, or significance in an intriguing manner.

Once more, you certainly want to avoid any coy, irrelevant, or expository/ explanatory material too soon that might be bottling up your real beginning of the conflict and drama.

Barnaby Conrad presents twelve classic openings for your study in his Learning to Write from the Masters.

The query letter and synopsis are equally important and must, of course, be little gems of perfection, revised till bullets of blood drop from your forehead onto your drafts, but those items are for perhaps another time as space or interest allow.


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