The metaphor in the title of this article might be a cliché, but it is true. The number one reason for agents and editors to reject a manuscript is a poor beginning for the simple reason that if the beginning is bad, they read no further.
So what is a good beginning? I can tell you that it must be interesting; it must hook the reader; it should introduce the main character and the basic conflict; it must pertain to the story and not be tacked on simply to attract attention; it should not contain any adverbs; it should not contain any backstory; and it should be well written without being unintentionally funny, such as a character who thinks to himself — who else would he think to? But I can’t tell you how to write a good beginning, and after reading Hooked by Les Edgerton, I am even less equipped to tell you than before I read it. The problem is that I was not moved by even one of the first lines or first paragraphs that he held up as stellar examples of good beginnings. In fact, as constant a reader as I am, I was so unimpressed by every single one of them that I did not add any of the novels to my reading list. This does not mean I think they were bad beginnings, only that they didn’t move me.
Since I can’t tell you how to write a good beginning, I will tell you some of Edgerton’s red flags that keep agents and editors from reading further:
Opening with a dream. Understandable why they would hate that beginning; I do, and I’m sure you do too. Talk about a cliché! The only thing worse is having your character wake up at the end of the book and discovering the entire story was a dream. Makes me feel cheated.
A character waking up to an alarm clock or a radio announcement of a major event. This tells the agent or editor that your book will be filled with tedious details. If your book is filled with the tedious details of day-to-day living, it would be a good idea to get rid of them. If it isn’t filled with such details, it would be a good idea to write an opening that better reflects your writing.
Too little dialogue. If there is no dialogue on the first page, editors and agents will generally pass because it is a sign of densely written prose, which no longer sells well.
Opening with dialogue. The only time this is acceptable is if the speakers are immediately identified. If we don’t know who the people are, why would anyone care what they are saying? I know I don’t. This goes double for rumination. Nothing is more boring than a character who sits around “thinking to himself.”
Other than that, you will have to find your own way to a good beginning, as will I, and hope that whatever beginning we write will be so great it cannot be ignored.