Sorting through the abundance of advice on what agents and editors are looking for can be confusing, contradictory and disheartening. Sometimes the advice comes across as rules, but we (I) need to remember that most of this advice should be thought of as guidelines rather than rules.
The bit of advice that had me worrying this past week was this (paraphrased): Start with action on page one. Grab us by the throat and don’t let go.
I didn’t really want my novel to start with an action scene, or at least not a grab-you-by-the-throat kind of action. But I worried that if this really was the trend, I would hurt my novel’s chance of success if I chose not to follow this advice.
With this in mind, I decided to do a little research. I pulled out twenty-five recent MG and YA books and went through each to see what sort of scenes took place in the first chapters. While I was at it, I decided to check out a few other myths about book beginnings. So were the myths busted or confirmed? Here are the results of my findings.
(Disclaimer: twenty-five books is a small selection, and since my taste runs to MG fantasy, that represents most of the books I used for this exercise.)
MYTH 1: Agents and editors hate prologues. Lose it!
CONCLUSION: Busted! Nearly half the books had prologues. Only one was disguised as the first chapter, something else I have heard advised. However, many were not identified as prologues; they were simply untitled text placed before the first chapter. These were often decorated with some kind of frame.
MYTH 2: The first line should be the best line in the book.
CONCLUSION: Plausible. Almost all of them had catchy first lines, but a few had first lines that were totally forgettable. (I won’t give examples, because I hate bad reviews on something that someone has worked so hard to perfect.) With these books, it wasn’t about the first line, it was about the story set up, the overall mood of the first page.
MYTH 3: Nobody wants books written in third person omniscient or third person with multiple viewpoints.
CONCLUSION: Plausible. More true than false. Only four books had this kind of “head-hopping”. Most books written in third person limited the POV to the main character. More than half the books were written in third person overall.
MYTH 4: Start with action on the first page.
CONCLUSION: Busted! Only one-fifth started chapter one with an action scene. Two others had an action scene as the prologue. (And the prologue that was disguised as chapter one was one of the action-oriented first chapters.)
MYTH 5: The main character must do something heroic in the first chapter.
CONCLUSION: Plausible. Nearly half had heroic acts of some sort in the first chapter. Some, of course, were more heroic than others, but all sorts count if the action makes the reader have more sympathy for the MC.
MYTH 6: The first chapter should end with a cliffhanger.
CONCLUSION: CONFIRMED. Only one of the twenty-five did not end with a cliffhanger. This was a stand-alone companion novel to a mega series, so all bets are off on this sort of thing.
MYTH: The one thing every agent and editor looks for in a book is Voice.
CONCLUSION: CONFIRMED. If all the books I analyzed had one thing in common, it’s that they were all unique. VOICE CONQUERS ALL.
So here’s some advice from an as yet unagented and unpublished author: Find your voice and write the best story you can. It may not get you published, but it can help you stay sane while you try.
Oh, and get a great critique group.