Happy Thursday, everyone!
As mentioned last week, we have another contest in the works (details on that to come next Thursday!). But in the meantime, we wanted to take another moment to thank our agent judge on the recent Red Light/Green Light contest, Patricia Nelson.
1) What were some of the best things you saw about those openings?
The single most important thing an opening sentence needs to do is make me curious enough to want to read the second sentence -- there should be something unique about the situation, character, or setting that pulls me into the story's momentum and makes me say "Huh. I wonder what happens next?" The other element that put a first sentence in the definite yes column was voice -- a way of saying something that was beautiful, or quirky, or startling, or daring, or otherwise unexpected. In a situation like this where I was reading 50 first sentences in a row, the ones that grabbed my notice were the ones that made bold choices that helped them stand out and held the promises of equally bold and attention-grabbing sentences, paragraphs, and pages to come.
2) What were some common mistakes you saw in entries' opening sentences?
Grammar errors or awkward syntax put the author at a disadvantage from the start, as did anything that sounded generic or overly general. That first sentence should give me a sense of a specific character and tone, so any opening sentences that felt ordinary, bland, or confusing didn't keep me reading on. I think sometimes writers want to start with something profound or big-picture, but you have to earn generalities -- there should be a specificity and uniqueness to that first sentence that some of the weaker entries lacked.
3) What stood out to you about the winning entry and made you choose it?
I loved the voice in this entry -- I actually wasn't sure about the first sentence, which sounded like it might be leading to a bit more of a "gross-out humor" book than I tend to go for, but it was definitely a bold choice that made me intrigued, so the author made it to round two, and from there I was completely hooked on this character, who the author has painted with lots of intriguing specificities that make him start to come to life on the page. I also thought the author did a great job with the pitch here -- just from the premise, I can tell that this story has the potential for great conflict between the characters, strong forward plot momentum, and clear stakes.
4) What, in your opinion, are the common elements of a strong opening to a book?
The very best openings make me connect to a character and voice -- overarching plot, backstory, and worldbuilding can all kick into gear at the end of the first chapter, or even in chapter two, but what I want on page one is the sense that this is a person I want to go on a journey with. That's not to say that you should have a first chapter where nothing happens -- part of what's going to make me connect to a characters is seeing them DO something -- but I think that a lot of authors try to overstuff their first chapters and as a result the character gets lost. The tricky negotiation is to allow the reader time to get their footing in the world you're building while still bringing in enough action to hint at the conflict this character will face and make us curious what will happen next. It's definitely a balancing act!
5) Going along with that, what are some of your favorite opening scenes in books you've read?
Such a hard question! I'll go with a couple favorites from different genres for variety. All of these first scenes pulled me in right away:
Sarah J. Maas' THRONE OF GLASS, in which a prisoner is escorted to a throne room (first sentence: "After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point.")
Laurie Elizabeth Flynn's FIRSTS, in which a teen girl does something she's done many times before (first sentence: "Tonight, I'm doing Evan Brown's girlfriend a favor.")
Rebecca Stead's LIAR & SPY, in which a girl learns some new information in science class (first sentence: "There's this totally false map of the human tongue.")
Liane Moriarty's THE HUSBAND'S SECRET, in which a woman tries to decide whether to open a sealed envelope she knows she's not supposed to have in her possession (first sentence: "It was all because of the Berlin Wall.")
6) Bonus Question: Name one oddly specific thing you’d love to see in your submissions inbox right now!
Recently I've been desperately wanting to find a magical realist middle grade with lovely/timeless writing, diverse characters, and a lot of heart and warmth (without being sappy or sentimental). So if you have something like that, send it my way! (That said, I want to see lots of other stuff too! I'm constantly tweeting on the #MSWL hashtag and always like to be surprised by wonderful stories of all sorts.)
That’s all! On behalf of everyone at AYAP, huge thanks again to Patricia for generously donating her time to this contest!
And remember, check back next Thursday to hear more about our next contest—it’s going to be another fun one!