First Pages: Will Agents Like How My Novel Starts?

So far, my biggest hurdle in writing a novel has been the first few pages.

There is an insane amount of pressure to make the first pages of your manuscript mind-blowing, and more than a few guidelines have been provided by literary agents and publishers alike. The problem is, these guidelines aren't exactly a recipe for a brilliant book so much as they are ways to cut back on the number of pages a member of the publishing industry has to read before he feels justified in shooting the manuscript down. 

Here are some common rules for the first ten pages of a novel that I have come across in my research:

1. Start your novel in the middle of the action, but don't bore the agent with your typical chase scene.  

2. The conflict of the story must be evident by at least the second page, preferably the first.

3. Also, set up the world and backstory . 

4. BUT, don't over-describe your world.

5. Do not begin with the protagonist waking up in the morning. So passé. 

6. We need to know the protagonist's want and what is preventing her from it on the FIRST PAGE.

7. Don't you DARE write a prologue. Literary agents respond to prologues the way vampires respond to garlic (the non-sparkly kind of vampires). 

8. Avoid clichés such as dreams, overly dramatic flashbacks, and coming out of unconsciousness without knowing what is going on.

9. Just be really, really unique. Make it unlike anything anybody's ever read before in the history of reading.

I detect a message, here: We don't want to waltz into your story, breath in the new atmosphere, and shake your protagonist's hand in preparation for an exciting journey. We want you to barrel past us like a bullet train and throw us a rope. If your novel is not a bullet train, don't disguise it with metal scraps and sound machines. Just save us some time and keep your manuscript to yourself.

Sometimes I read bullet train novels. I admit I don't do it often; I prefer the waltzing kind of book. However, on occasion, I'll settle in for a thriller or a boyish work of sci-fi. Unfortunately, I don't write like that. I may be so bold as to say, I don't think all books should read like that. If they did, we'd all be looking over our shoulders for the zombie apocalypse, or for the clash of the classes and hoards of pitchfork-wielding peasants (do peasants still use pitchforks?). There would be no time for reflection or wonder. There would be no time to apply what we've learned or mourn a loss. Books should reflect life, and life is not a perpetual series of explosions and twisted dangers.

Agents and publishers will tell you these fast-paced, one-dimensional stories are what sell. I'm sure that's true, but I'm just as sure that they are not the only stories that sell. There are many stories that sell because they speak to our human nature, because they paint complicated and fascinating characters. 

I don't doubt that there are a lot of below-average manuscripts that pass over an agent's desk, and they may begin by violating some or all of the above guidelines. But, isn't it also possible that agents just don't have the time, patience, or energy to settle into a manuscript the way your average reader can?

By way of challenging the commonly touted guidelines for a manuscript's first pages, I offer you the following examples:

ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND begins with a girl who is bored and watching her sister read. She sees a rabbit go by, wearing a waistcoat. Alice's want is not at all evident -- except to be entertained. We do not start in the middle of the action, with Alice about to be decapitated by the Queen of Hearts. We start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews would say. We, the readers, are perfectly happy to follow Alice and discover as she discovers, rather than being tossed into Wonderland and trying to sort out what in the name of sobriety is going on. 

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING begins with Bilbo getting ready for his birthday party. Seriously, it's like twenty pages of getting ready for Bilbo's birthday party. I know what you're thinking: THE HOBBIT came out first, which made the way for readership and therefore less is expected in terms of hooking the reader in later books. Don't you remember how THE HOBBIT starts?

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole and that means comfort. 

The next three pages describe Bilbo's hole in detail, his family history and his neighbors' family history.

Here's another great example, WATERSHIP DOWN, one of my husband's favorites from his childhood. Look at how it opens:

The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog's mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit holes.

Want a contemporary maverick, daring enough to break the first-pages rules? THE PRINCESS ACADEMY by Shannon Hale begins with the protagonist waking up in the morning. So does PALACE OF STONE, the next book in the same series. These are New York Times best sellers.

The rules are helpful to a certain extent. They aid the novice writer in avoiding common pitfalls and red flags. But, I feel it equally important to recognize that these guidelines are far from "one size fits all", particularly with regard to genre. After looking at the above examples, I propose a set of guidelines that might be more to the point:

1. In the first few pages, show the agent that your writing is strong, and that you know how to be economical with words. 

2. Maintain a consistent, engaging voice.

3. Don't confuse your reader.

4. Make the reader care about what happens to the protagonist.

5. If the reader has honored your work by picking it up, earn his trust.

An in-depth conversation must follow from each of these rules, but at least they could transcend genre a bit better. I think they are really what agents want when they ask for things like "unique manuscripts" and "a good hook". I could be wrong.

My strategy? Take the industry seriously. I am so green I could be a celery stick with limbs. I know I haven't earned the luxury of starting a novel with my protagonist getting out of bed. I don't mind the challenge of meeting the innumerable standards of the literary agents out there, as long as I remain myself. One day, when I'm not so green, I'll start a novel with fifteen pages of genealogy, just to see what happens.