Amateur writers ask one question a lot when I’m doing my pro bono work over on Amazon Kindle’s writeon site. Why is there so much emphasis placed, by developmental editors such as myself, on the opening few pages of a novel?
The short answer is because I’d love you to get published and/or win awards. Unless you’re writing extremely highbrow literary fiction, an immediate impact is a must. But you like your opening, you mutter, and are really quite resentful of my gentle hints to change it. In fact as long as you can leave your beginning unchanged, you tell yourself, you’re happy to categorise your work as “highbrow literary fiction”. Well, by all means. It is your book, and my role as developmental editor is not to rewrite it for you. However, you should bear in mind that the market for literary fiction is minuscule. Anything less than a Booker Prize short list and your book will be lucky to make it into three-figure sales in its lifetime. And that’s if everyone likes it.
The truth is, most new authors aren’t writing literary fiction. They’re writing genre fiction, the type of book that fills the shelves at airport bookstores. In this case, if the opening doesn’t have an immediate impact, it’s not likely to stand out from the crowd enough for an agent or commissioning editor to want to run with it.
So what does “impact” actually mean?
What is “an immediate impact”? Is it shoot first and fill out the blanks later? What’s wrong with a slow burn? Well no, it doesn’t mean that you need to start with a bloodbath. There are various ways to catch a commissioning editor’s eye and not all of them require extreme action from the word go. Different commissioning editors are looking for different types of book. (This is where due diligence at the submission stage pays off. Don’t send your dystopian, paranormal, YA romance to someone only publishing historical fiction.)
Here’s a link to what the commissioning editors at Penguin Random House are looking for in a submission’s opening. Note that none of them say violent action or stunning hook (although in context either one of those things can be great). Things as insubstantial as the description of a river seen through an industrial haze, an ability of a mother to “wear the sun like a hat”. These impressed the editors at Penguin.