How To Write A First Chapter A Literary Agent Wants To Read

By Michael Caligaris

Naturally, agents have their own subjective preferences when it comes to making a decision on a manuscript query. A broad sense of these preferences can certainly be found on an agent’s submissions interests page. However, there are other preferences that sit outside the realm of genres, tropes, and audiences. For me, when I conduct a review of a manuscript, there are a few technical aspects that I prefer to see. Sometimes these can be a deciding factor in my decision to continue past the first 15 pages.

So, without further ado, I’d like to talk about one of these technical aspects of which I am a huge advocate: Active Openings.

“Active Openings” isn’t necessarily a coined term, but I’ll coin it now. I define this term as a combination of active voice and present action found in the opening of a novel or memoir. Active voice and present action are commonly used literary terms—if you’re having any workshop flashbacks, I sincerely apologize—but used together, in my humble opinion, can perhaps help craft a more focused opening. But even more importantly: ensure that the opening is not weighed down by qualities that can kill it, such as character or plot clutter; overly-verbose narration; abstraction without a defined purpose.Wooden signpost with two opposite arrows over clear blue sky, Passive versus Active messages, Lifestyle change conceptual image

This is an example of the passive voice: The mayor’s car was crashed on April Fool’s Day by John.

This is an example of the active voice: John crashed the mayor’s car on April Fool’s Day.

When I read an opening line of a manuscript, I want immediacy. Many of you already probably know that a passive voice can kill immediacy (and emotional tone).

Allow me to further explain. Take the opening lines from the infamous Russian novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:

“The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o’clock as always. Time to get up.’” (Solzhenitsyn pg 1).

This is an active sentence. If we change this to a passive sentence, the immediacy suddenly changes: “The hammer was banging reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at always. It was time to get up.” With this change I no longer feel that urgency.
The other aspect is present action. I define this as the actions of a character occupying a scene. This differs from context given for a scene, which would be writing along the lines of setting description or expositional backstory. In my example above, Solzhenitsyn does not wait long to enter the character’s actions onto the page. “Time to get up”—the character is getting up by the second sentence, and I also know that a hammer bangs in the distance. That has me hooked and I feel the immediacy in the writing.

 arton5I stress this almost as an overcorrection—many of you writers may already do this—but I’ve read novel after novel that begins with a narrator who waxes poetic—“There are six things to remember about the concept of beauty and grace”—or by choosing to inform the reader of 2 or 3 different past experiences—“I had once gone to the carnival with Lily and she was playing the ring toss until the sun went down”—but, in many cases, neither of these (made-up) examples end up being that integral to the opening scene. Many writers believe they need to weigh the opening down with backstory or vivid setting description or even plot clues (i.e. “Chekov’s Gun”) in order for the reader to really grasp the scope of the book. As a reader, I want to jump right into the story—Where are we? Who’s doing what? And why? I’m sure we’ve all picked up a book, read through an opening that drooled on and on, and said, “Meh. Not for me.” From my view, a manuscript opening that has an active voice rooted in the present action is more enticing than having to read about something that was going on or had been happening before the actual scene takes place.

Of course, there are numerous examples from literature that contradict this. For example, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises begins with:

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton” (Hemingway 1).

This is written from the point of view of a narrator, Jake Barnes, looking back or “retrospectively.” A lot of the success of the novel comes from the opinionated yet humbled older Jake Barnes writing about this earlier era of his life. Your novel or memoir may demand an opening that is similar—and that’s fine! With that said, this is where my subjectivity as an agent comes in: I rather enjoy how Hemingway’s second paragraph begins even more: “I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together, and I always had a suspicion that perhaps Robert Cohn had never been middleweight boxing champion.”

100-famous-novels-with-catchy-first-lines-u2Active openings are becoming more commonplace for contemporary writers.  Here are some examples of first lines:

“The day started before sunrise, on March 21, 1979, when Teacher Gu woke up and found his wife sobbing quietly into her blanket.” – The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

“Our mother performed in starlight.” – Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Please, she whispers, how may I help you?” – Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

“In 1966, the President of Cocoloco Pictures broke the news to us in English” –“Monstress” by Lysley Tenario

I’d like to stress again the active openings is not a rule. Not in any way. Write how you write. I do not disregard a manuscript solely on the basis that it does not have an active opening. However, I think taking this into consideration, or at least asking the question, may help focus your manuscript’s opening—which is really important to us, the agents! Why not start with immediacy and present action? If you’re writing a novel or memoir, you’ll have plenty of time to work in the rest.

Michael, who has a Creative Writing MFA from St. Mary’s College is an agent with Holloway Literary.  Learn more about him here and then follow him on Twitter @mikecali31.

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