Monday, February 4, 2013

14 Inspired Openings: Anita Mumm of Nelson Literary Agency

Character & Voice in your Opening Pages

It’s safe to say I’ve seen more than my fair share of novel beginnings. Over several years ofhandling submissions for Nelson Literary Agency, I’ve read something like 3,000 partial manuscripts. And though we ask for 30 pages, the truth is I usually have a good idea of whether a story is going to work after just one or two. So what makes a beginning great? It takes a lot of ingredients—and a little alchemy—but if I had to boil it down to the two most important, I’d say character and voice. Let’s look at a couple of examples of how these two components work together to draw readers in.

The first example caught my eye in the slush pile and became Jennifer Shaw Wolf’s debut BREAKING BEAUTIFUL, about young love, physical abuse, and forgiveness. Here’s the opening:

The clock says 6:45, even though it’s really 6:25. If everything were normal, the alarm would ring in five minutes. I’d hit the snooze button, wrap Grandma’s quilt around me, and go back to sleep until Mom came in and forced me to get up. I used to stay in bed until the last possible minute and then dash around getting ready for school—looking for my shoes or a clean T-shirt, and finally running out the door to the sound of my boyfriend, Trip, laying on the horn of his black 1967 Chevy pickup.
                  Nothing is normal, and no one makes me go to school. 
                  Mom comes in and stands at the door to see if I’m awake. I’m always awake.

These emotionally charged opening lines give a hint of back story and introduce the mystery on which the entire story is based: what changed Allie’s “normal” life into the nightmare she is now living? That’s a feat in itself, but what really seals the deal is that in less than half a page I already know this girl. She sets her clock ahead twenty minutes to guard against habitual lateness but still ends up in a mad scramble (ahem, I can identify with that!). She’s close to her family (wrapped in her grandmother’s quilt) but we already sense a pulling away—this, too, has changed. She’s going through something very difficult (to the point of constant insomnia), but she’s not trying to make us feel sorry for her.

It’s the combination of a strong, unflinching voice and the information she chooses to give us that make this character instantly likeable and deserving of our concern. I had to know what happened to her and how she would overcome it. I had to read the rest of the novel.

Here’s another example, from Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN (obviously, not from our slush pile):

I was born with water on the brain. 
                   Okay, so that’s not exactly true. I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors’ fancy way of saying brain grease. And brain grease works inside the lobes like car grease works inside an engine. It keeps things running smooth and fast. But weirdo me, I was born with too much grease inside my skull, and it got all thick and muddy and disgusting, and it only mucked up the works. My thinking and breathing and living engine slowed down and flooded. 
                  My brain was drowning in grease. 
                  But that makes the whole thing sound weirdo and funny, like my brain was a giant French fry, so it seems more serious and poetic and accurate to say, “I was born with water on the brain.”

What do we know about this character, Junior, in less than half a page? That he’s smart and quirky, even when he’s trying to tell us about his brain being messed up. That he’s down to earth (brain=car engine) but he feels out of place—a first taste of one of the themes of the novel. We suspect he’s prone to exaggeration, but it’s good-natured, and what teenage boy doesn’t like to embellish a little now and then? These are the elements that create a unique voice and an unforgettable character—the foundation for the novel’s great success.

So what can you do to make readers fall for your characters from the very first page? Here are some ideas:

Give your characters a quirk or two. Does he avoid wearing white because he heard it’s a funeral color in Asia? Does she decide, for their own good, that her pet fish are vegans? By weaving in little eccentricities, you create a character that is both memorable and real. None of us have exactly the same quirks, but we all have ‘em. (I always pick the middle car on the light rail. It ought to be the safest, eh?)

Let them see the world a bit differently than the rest of us. Had you ever heard someone compare his brain to a giant French fry? Could you possibly get bored with a guy like that? Without using heavy dialect, give a taste of speech patterns and vocabulary that let us glimpse your character’s identity. “Water on the brain,” “weirdo me.”

Make us worry about your characters. Jennifer Shaw Wolf infuses her very first paragraph with tension: we like this girl (good), but something happened to her (bad) and we can’t sleep tonight if we don’t find out what it is. Sherman Alexie does it, too—there’s more humor, but we’re still concerned. How did this guy survive such an alarming birth defect? Were there lasting consequences? Can he fit in at school? Will he get a girlfriend?

Whether you’re looking to hook an agent, an editor, or a large audience of readers, the same rule applies: you have to do it from the first page. Teens have little patience for wordy stage-setting. Jump right into the story by showing them who your characters are, what makes them tick, and what they’re up against.

Best wishes for your writing!

About Anita Mumm

Anita Mumm joined Nelson Literary Agency in early 2010. As NLA’s talent scout, she screens all incoming submissions and presents and takes pitches at conferences across the country. Mumm has picked a number of exciting new authors for the company, including Stefan Bachmann, whose international bestseller The Peculiar (September 2012) sold in a major auction to Greenwillow/HarperCollins; Jennifer Shaw Wolf, author of the edgy YA novels Breaking Beautiful (Walker, 2012) and Shards of Glass (Walker, 2013); and Monica Trasandes, author of the debut literary novel Broken Like This (Thomas Dunne, November 2012). In addition to her role as submissions manager, Anita is NLA’s foreign rights manager for the Asian territories. She taught English and creative writing to international students in the U.S., China, and France before joining the publishing industry. She blogs at Word Café.


  1. What a wonderful post! This is very useful stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Anita, Great tips. I will stash this away with my info on writing great openings.

    I received a copy of the March/April Writer's Digest magazine this weekend with my 25 words or less entry. We were supposed to write an opening with the help of a photo prompt. Although, my was kind of "out there" it was so much fun to write.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Thanks for sharing the great tips and examples. I loved your example of the character quirks too. So true Asians might not wear white but you might not think to include it. And I loved THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN.

  4. Thank you, Anita! Opening lines give a hint of character and leave a question - love that. Summing up what's truly necessary on the first page is really helpful.

  5. Thanks for the great info, Anita. It's especially timely for me since I'm completely re-writing the first three chapters of my novel based on the advice of an editor and two agents. I'll definitely keep your advice in mind as I work to hook my readers from the very first sentence.

  6. That's great advice with beautiful examples! Thanks for the tips :)

  7. Wonderful tips on how to establish character and voice quickly! Love it.

  8. Great advice. Now I must go off to my WIP and make sure my MC isn't too whiny (i.e. trying to make the reader feel sorry for her). Super food for thought--and practical practice!

  9. Enlightening and valuable information! Thanks! Great post.

  10. I'd love to see some third-person examples, if anyone's got 'em.

  11. Thanks so much for stopping by, everyone! And many, many thanks to Anita for such a great post!

  12. Excellent tips! Thanks for sharing : )

  13. Great examples and article. Beginnings ARE incredibly important. But it's not good to think of that on the first draft or it can cause ya to freeze up. LOL


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