The Road to Rejection is Paved with Bad Beginnings

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.

 

5 Responses to “The Road to Rejection is Paved with Bad Beginnings”

  1. Cliff Burns Says:

    Best opening sentence I can think of, from Elmore Leonard’s GLITZ:

    “The night Vincent got shot he saw it coming.”

    Now just TRY to put that one down…

  2. Nancy Says:

    The examples Edgerton used of good beginnings may not appeal to you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good beginnings or good books- it just means they didn’t interest you.

    Diversity is the spice of life. 🙂

  3. nomananisland Says:

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

    That’s way better than Leonard. Who’s Vincent? Who cares? But the gunslinger, that beginning has conflict!

  4. ravencasper Says:

    I say that there are no real rules to writing. It’s just what you do, how you do it, and when you do it. For every bad technique there is a good writer who can take it and manipulate into a major advantage. Something that is not expected by most, perhaps.

  5. K.S. Clay Says:

    I don’t think there’s anything really written in stone here. I think it depends on how you go about it. For instance, you say you have to introduce the main character but a lot of books in certain genres, especially the genres similar to what I’m writing such as thrillers or horror novels, don’t start with the main characters but with an attack on a character who might die in the first chapter or with another approach that is about introducing the villian. It does introduce the main conflict (for instance, a monster is loose and must be caught) but not necessarily the main character.

    Then there’s the dialogue. I think the important thing isn’t so much dialogue itself but some sort of action, something happening. My first page doesn’t contain any dialogue. The second page only contains two sentences, but there’s definite action and when I shared my first chapter with others, the reactions were positive. The readers said they were riveted and had to read on. By the way, the effect of densely written prose can probably be offset by using shorter sentences and breaking it up into more paragraphs.


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