Monday, April 22, 2013

What NOT to do when Beginning Your Novel - Advice from Literary Agents

Compiled by Chuck Sambuchino, over at his excellent blog, Writer Unboxed.

Here's the beginning of this compilation of great advice for novelists from literary agents:

In a previous Writer Unboxed column, I discussed the value of starting your story strong and how an “inside-out” approach to narrative action can help your case. But just as important as knowing what to do when beginning your novel is knowing what not to do.

No one reads more prospective novel beginnings than literary agents. They’re the ones on the front lines — sifting through inboxes and slush piles. And they’re the ones who can tell us which Chapter 1 approaches are overused and cliche, as well as which techniques just plain don’t work. Below find a smattering of feedback from experienced literary agents on what they hate to see the first pages of a writer’s submission. Avoid these problems and tighten your submission!


“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter 1. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”
- Cricket Freeman, The August Agency

“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.”
- Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary


“A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.”
- Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary


“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page 1 rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
- Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
- Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
- Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary


For more invaluable advice from literary agents for avoiding reader (and agent) turnoffs in your first pages, click HERE to read the rest of this post at Chuck Sambuchino's blog.

Besides publishing her popular craft-of-writing books under the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller (and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers), as well as her handy, clickable e-resources, Spelling on the Go and Grammar on the Go, Jodie Renner is a sought-after freelance fiction editor and author of numerous blog posts on writing captivating fiction. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her posts alternate Mondays on The Kill Zone blog. Subscribe to Jodie's sporadic newsletter HERE.


  1. Awesome article. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You're welcome, Summer. Lots of good advice there! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

  3. Thanks Jodie for sharing this article. Great info.

  4. Thanks for sharing Jodie! These are good to know. :)

  5. Thanks for dropping by, Rachna and Diane. Yes, I found those tips from the agents to be excellent, and right on with my own thinking as well.

  6. Whew. As someone who just self-published their first novel, I managed to avoid all of these!

  7. Good to hear, Connor! Good luck with your sales on this one and your future writing!

  8. Almost ever single book I read has a prologue, often with a character dying at the end. Every Song of Ice and Fire, Every Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Prince of Nothing, William Gibson. Pretty sure the Dune books had them. These literary agents sound like mutual fund managers not willing to take a risk on something that would be obviously smart had they the knowledge. I have to agree on the "it was all a dream" thing. That's annoying.

  9. I think prologues work best for fantasy novels, Nova, when the author is introducing a whole new world to the readers. For other types of novels, if used, the prologue should be short and really compelling, "showing" a scene in real time, with lots of tension, action and dialogue, not "telling." Grab the readers right away. I get discouraged when I see a long prologue - I just want to jump ahead to Chapter One and get into the "real" story right away.

  10. I don't mind prologues, but I prefer that they are either very short, or not necessary to the actual story. For instance, in David Eddings books, the prologues are all typically long, but they only provide extended historical data to the world. It's nice background information, but you don't really need to read it to understand the story.

    - Adam

  11. To me, the main problem with long prologues is they can seem a bit daunting or discouraging to read, a kind of impediment to starting the actual story. And how do you know until you read the whole thing whether it's critical or not, or whether some important information is woven in among the general background info...?

  12. I suspect literary agents nix prologues because their writers are often told by editors to get rid of the prologue, and the agents want what will sell. But as an acquisitions editor, the main reason I might tell a writer to chop the prologue or first chapter is because either it's "first draft of first novel syndrome" in which the quality of the writing improves as the writer goes along and gets more practice and the first part just isn't as good as the rest of it, or the writer is playing with their world and characters at the beginning and the actual story doesn't start until later. Also, there are fashions in fiction; the modern fashion is to jump right into the action. A novel by an unknown novelist that followed the precise structure of Fellowship of the Ring would never get published today.

    1. You make several excellent points, Erin. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on prologues with us!

  13. I used a prologue only once. It was about a page and occurred a few months before the novel started. It showed a gang hit from the POV of the banger and killed the main character's mother and seriously injured his sister. It's the catalyst for the rest of the story but I didn't want to show the intervening months so I went with a prologue then cut to chapter one, when the gangbangers come back.

  14. Getting rid of the prologue sounds like 'start the novel as late into the story as possible' to me.