Whether you’re preparing your application for our selective writing courses in London or online, or getting ready to formally submit to an agent, nailing those first few chapters is absolutely crucial. So what can you do to make those 3,000-word openings as strong as possible? Here’s what a few of the agents from Curtis Brown and C&W said:
Richard Pike, C&W
Pay particular attention to the pacing of your novel. It’s surprisingly common for a promising opening to be let-down by a slow, meandering middle-third and then a rushed ending as an author tries frantically to tie-up all of the plot’s loose ends.
Sophie Lambert, C&W
Once you think you’ve finished your draft, set it to one side for several days (or weeks) and return to it with as critical an eye as possible. It’s amazing what you can spot when you haven’t been up close to the coalface for a while. Reading your prose out loud can also be another valuable exercise – if it sounds awkward when read aloud then it’s likely you need to do some more work.
Stephanie Thwaites, Curtis Brown
Try to avoid making further changes once you’ve submitted. If you’ve spotted a typo or spelling mistake once you’ve sent your manuscript out, don’t panic – we’re not expecting perfection and will forgive minor mistakes if the material itself is engaging. Having said that, do try not to send sample chapters riddled with errors.
Gordon Wise, Curtis Brown
Here’s a little practical tip about objectivity. When you think you’ve written your last sentence and placed your last full stop, take a deep breath. Save your script (triply perhaps, and with a backup), make a printout and go for a walk. Or have a drink. Or a lie-in. Don’t be afraid to let that walk/drink/lie-in last at least a week. Then go back to that hard copy, and read it as though it was someone else’s work. It being something physical will show you (a) just how much you have achieved and (b) just how much you are foisting on someone else. And probably, you’ll see it more objectively than when you scroll through it on your familiar laptop screen.
Saving it as a PDF and emailing it to your Kindle might also do the trick – anything that somehow makes it look as though you’re reading someone else’s work. Put aside the bit of your head that says defensively ‘I know this bit is a bit hard to read/too long but it’s that way because of X/I love what I did there so much’ and try to think what your worst critic might say. Any ‘objective’ niggles you get like that, or scribbles you make, act on them. If it’s occurred to you, the only person in the world who might have read this book so far, then imagine what the hundreds of thousands of other readers you would like to read it might think.
Emma Finn, C&W
I’d say that it’s important to take a break then revisit the novel’s opening before submitting. An agent will often make a decision based on the first couple of chapters and this is where we tend to find the worst cases of overwriting. It’s easily done when you’re trying to offer a strong sense of voice and plot and setting and concept all in one go, but it’s so important for your opening pages to do justice to the book as a whole. Make sure they really do represent what you’re aiming to project – it’ll give you the best possible chance of attracting interest, and it’s much easier to forgive mistakes later in a manuscript, when we’ve already fallen for the writing or the characters.
Norah Perkins, Curtis Brown
First impressions are everything; a beautifully burnished first page that immediately communicates the voice of the novel means it’s much more likely I’ll turn to read the second page (and third and fourth and fifth…). A first draft very rarely achieves this.
Our creative writing courses include advice and guidance from the literary agents at C&W and Curtis Brown. To find out about the courses we run, click here.
Or try our Edit & Pitch Your Novel course, the 6-week online course will show you how to raise your game through the process of editing and redrafting, and prepare your pitch for agents and publishers.