Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Strengthening your opening

My last post was a link to an agent's post about their crazy life and job, and I mentioned how that just illustrates how critical the query package really is. A big part of the query package is obviously the query letter itself, since that is what agents (or their assistants) will invariably read first. But the next big thing, probably the biggest thing, are those sample pages. And I don't care if the agent requests the first three chapters, the first fifty pages, or the first five--you only have a page or two at most to make a good impression and build interest.

Writing is cumulative, in many senses, and if an agent doesn't like your opening, that will at best color their perception of the rest of your sample. At worst, it will make them reach for the form letter without reading any more at all. Our job is to have exceptionally clean prose and get to the point as quickly as possible during those first pages. We need to give the reader reasons to keep reading, while at the same time giving them NO reasons to stop reading. With stacks of queries as bad as what Rachel Vater discusses being pretty common, I've read statements from agents who say that they are actively looking for a reason to put down those sample pages; they already have a fairly full client list, and they only want new unsolicited work that is absolutely immaculate.

I've gone through a number of drafts of my opening with the help of a number of really talented editors (my wife, and author Beverly Swerling being at the top of that list). I felt like the version that I first posted on this blog earlier this month was about as strong as I could get it. Overall, I think that perception may have been close to accurrate, but there was one thing that I was being too subtle about. That has been corrected now, and I think it makes my opening a lot stronger.

The issue is that my prologue includes an exciting event--a death--and then chapter 1 has Sean Sunderland--the main character--waking up. A lot of agents don't like wake-up starts to novels, but mine is handled differently enough that I think it is okay. The problem, however, is that even though we've just seen this death in the prologue, it isn't obvious from the start that the issues in chapter 1 are anything but normal work stuff for Sean. When the start of a novel seems too ordinary, with no concrete promises that anything different or life-changing is coming, readers start to wonder why the story is starting where it does. This problem resolves itself by the end of my first chapter, but in order to really pique the interest of agents and readers I realized I had to resolve that issue much sooner. As Miss Snark likes to say, we need that "flaming corpse."

Thus, my opening line has been changed to now immediately indicate that something significant is about to happen: "On the night the demons came for me, I awoke in a cold sweat, sitting straight up in bed." The highlighted section is what is new, and I think that this really helps to change the tone of the entire opening scene. Something unexpected is happening at work--okay, if I don't know anything beyond that, it sounds really prosaic. But if you first tell me that demons are coming for you that night, then the unexplained event at work suddenly seems sinister and dangerous--which it is. It just wasn't coming across before.

I had already set up a number of phrases and small events in the first chapter that served to create tension, and now they all feed into this one statement of "on the night the demons came for me," and serve to strengthen that tension: the way Sean finds his coworker Derrick comatose, the way Thomas appears behind Sean in the courtyard, the way Sean stays behind while the others leave. . . all of this takes on new meaning with just a small addition.

I made this first edit a couple of days ago, but didn't mention it then on the blog. Today, I've made a second small edit: at the start of the second scene of chapter one, when Sean has just arrived at the office, the line previously read: "I walked quickly as I crossed the parking lot to the back entrance; I found the nighttime silence uncomfortable." It now reads: "I walked quickly as I crossed the parking lot to the back entrance; the deep silence seemed unnatural." I had originally intended for this statement to be mildly creepy, but I was just being far too subtle about it for that to work. The new wording reinforces the fear that a demon could potentially be jumping out to kill Sean at any moment. The fact that the situation doesn't quite resolve itself in the way one might expect is irrelevant; I think that it is actually stronger that the demons "come for him" in a way that is unexpected.

Anyway, these are two extremely small edits to the first chapter, but I think that they help bring to the surface the tensions that I had already set up. Hopefully they will both go a long way towards convincing agents (and later editors, and then readers...) that they want to read more of my book.

16 comments:

Rachel said...

I haven't even begun to query agents for a novel, though I have built up a collection of no thank yous for poetry, essays and short stories. I have a question about that query letter. Some places I've read say to mention prior work that has been published. But what if that work is outside the field that one is querying for? Have you heard anything about that?

Christopher M. Park said...

Hi Rachel,
If I am understanding correctly, you have poetry or essays published? If you have short stories published (or that have won awards or contests), that's not outside your current field, even if it is a different genre.

My understanding of the primary reason why agents ask for pub credits is that they want to see that you have been evaluated by some sort of editorial authority and been judged fit for inclusion (or award). This is why short stories published in magazines are acceptable, but why self-published past works, or works that were published with places like PublishAmerica that have no editorial review or selection standards, are not.

Does that make sense? So, in that regard, if you have some poetry, essays, or short stories that have been published in some way or that have won some sort of contest or award, it seems like those would be the things to include.

But I'm not sure I would fret TOO much about pub credits. It will certainly make things easier if you have them (I'm told), but a great query package will sell itself without any prior credits. Thus has Miss Snark said on several occasions, and from my vantage that does seem to be true (I have no pub credits--not that I have an agent, either, but I don't think pub credits were the problem).

I'm no expert on that subject, but that's what I've read, anyway.

Chris

Rachel said...

Okay, that makes sense.

Karen Mahoney said...

I like the edits, especially the one to your opening line (of chapter one). It definitely works. Just goes to show that a writer's work is never done - changes can be made, no matter how seemingly small, that can have a huge effect on the finished product.

I'm only just learning that now. I'm on Chapter 4 of my first 'real' attempt at a novel and am already itching to go back and change my opening chapters! :)

Cheers,
Karen

Christopher M. Park said...

Karen,
Thanks for the support, and for stopping by the blog! There is definitely no end to the edits an author can make.

The trick, I guess, is not to go overboard, either before or after that rough draft is complete. Good luck on your novel!

Chris

Karen Mahoney said...

Thanks! Oh, and just in case you didn't realise/think about it, I'm the same Karen who commented that your latest work sounds a bit I AM LEGENDish.. :) I've moved over to LiveJournal to start my own blog (http://kazdreamer.livejournal.com/).

Take it easy,
K

Christopher M. Park said...

Karen,
Argh! Sorry about that, I do remember you, but I was having "one of those moments." I'm really much too young to have those, but I blame a full schedule.

Thanks for the link to your blog, also. I just did find that off of Chandra's post last night, actually; looks good!

Chris

Karen Mahoney said...

:-) No worries! Thanks for posting on my blog over on LJ, too. It's so nice to make contact with other writers, even if you're all on the other side of the Atlantic...

Rob Brooks said...

I know what you mean about the "flaming corpse." I'm working on a horror/fantasy-type novel right now, and have decided that I'm going to have to add a short prologue that will be more intriguing than my main character and his lawyer talking about legal stuff.

Christopher M. Park said...

Rob,
That definitely sounds like a good idea. The legal stuff can be interesting, too, but it has to have some sort of underpinnings of tension or you'll lose the readers. A prologue could be a great way to set up that tension--just remember to keep stoking that tension throughout your first chapter if at all possible. Tension doesn't have to be physical danger, remember--it could be burning questions that we have to know that answers to.

Chris

Karen Mahoney said...

Hi Chris, I saw your hook posted on Agent X's blog. Congrats on having the courage to put yourself 'out there'. I couldn't bring myself to go for it, though to be fair my work isn't nearly ready yet...

If you're interested in an opinion (?), you know I already think you've got very 'readable' ideas and a potentially excellent book, but I would say that the hook you submitted might not have done the work full justice. It read a bit too much like a mini-synopsis rather than getting to the 'meat' of what will hook a reader's interest (imho).

Seriously, well done, though!

Christopher M. Park said...

Hi Karen,
Thanks for the support on that. Rachel Vater's response certainly wasn't what I had been hoping for, but I think you are right that my hook was more of a mini-synopsis than anything else. I'll have to think more about exactly what will get a reader's immediate interest, but to be honest that's not my strong suit. I know I'll have to get better at that if I ever hope to get an agent, but as yet I've not figured that out. I've been looking at the other hooks that Rachel posted in my and related genres, so maybe that will help.

But seriously, thanks for the support and suggestion, both. I've been pretty down in the dumps since reading Rachel's thoughts on my hook. I guess that does help explain all the form letters, though: I just don't have a very engaging hook.

Chris

Karen Mahoney said...

But you do have a very engaging story and writing style, so the hook shouldn't be too hard to work on, right?! ;)

I think you'll get your chance, I really do, you just need to pick out WHAT'S AT STAKE at the heart of your novel, and put those things into the hook. And, why should we even care about that to begin with? i.e. why should we care about your main character's success (or not)?

OK, I'll shut up now! :)

Christopher M. Park said...

Those are excellent ideas and points. I'll see what I can come up with, and post a new hook (or perhaps a few different varieties) on here to see what everybody thinks. I guess this is a learning process for everybody who isn't already published (or an agent). You'd think it would be easier to boil this down, but it's hard to know exactly what to include: after all, if the plot and ideas and characters were simple enough to easily fit into a couple of paragraphs, it would have been a waste of time for me to write the whole book. :)

Chris

c.rooney said...

Dude, in case I haven't mentioned in the past few days:

I love that new opening line.

Christopher M. Park said...

Thanks, Chandra! :)