What Hooks Agents

Want to get a literary agent? Tired of getting rejected? We asked the young adult literary agents who judged our recent Pitch+250 Contest, plus selected additional literary agents, to tell us what they love and hate to see in the first pages of a submission.

Thank you to all the YA literary agents who generously took the time to give us quotes for the post!

Sarah LaPolla, Curtis Brown Ltd.

To me, a good opening is one that takes me by surprise. First lines are important to me. I particularly like when they’re quirky in nature or just beautifully written. Something about the beginning of a novel needs to draw me in, whether the writing style, the main character’s voice, or an interesting hint at the plot to come. Beyond the clich├ęs of “don’t begin the main character waking up,” there are beginnings to novels that make me bored or hesitant to continue. The first is dialogue. It would need to be pretty special dialogue for your reader to trust this opening. Beginning with dialogue, to me, asks a lot from your reader. It’s forcing them to hear from a character they don’t know yet. The other pet peeve of mine is beginning a novel with the weather or setting. These introductions can be very well-written, but they essentially say nothing. Unless the storm that’s brewing eventually leads to the main character’s death, I don’t need to hear about it first. Beginnings of novels should be about making a reader feel something before the story even begins. Being excited about where a book will lead me or who I’m about to meet is one of my favorite things about being an agent, and being a reader.

What I don't like seeing in an opening: Too many times I've come across an opening that describes the sky. and they were all described very similarly.

What I love to see: A strong hook, and opening lines that do a fantastic job at setting up the setting and introducing the characters. I look for openings that draw me into the story and keep me reading.

Added from the comments: I very much agree (and would like to add to what I had already mentioned) that I'm often dismayed when I come across a manuscript that begins with a dream, flashback, or something similar. It can become very tedious to read so many similar submissions.

NEVER open your scene with:
1) The mundane. In a YA novel, that would be our main character waking up in the morning, noon, or night, either because she or he could not sleep, or because of some sort of a nightmare. I think it's a waste of time to begin with such a scene, which eventually leads to the character contemplating some strand of her/her life. Anything that is mundane bogs the manuscript down, and definitely should not be the first thing an agent or editor sees. Sets the tone for the rest of the story.
2) With a dream. I've seen so many of these openings, and I don't see the point in it. Not unless the dream has a major role to play in the story. Even then, I would rather it came later.

What I love:
1) Quirky first lines that startles me and introduces me to the character at the same time.

2) The character thrown right into a scene of action (mind you, not a monumental scene of action, but an important one that leads up to the monumental one at some point- this requires a certain amount of build-up, so I can be invested when it happens). Such an introduction sets the tone of the story and gives us the lowdown of the character's immediate problem with the least amount of exposition.

What I like: Openings that immediately bring me into the world of the protagonist--whether or not the protagonist is present yet.

What I hate: Cliched openings- the protagonist waking up, from a dream, then going into the bathroom and describing themselves in the mirror. This happens more often than you'd think!

What I get excited about: Opening lines that give me chills, that make me eager to read the rest of the book, even if it's only a five page sample!

What I love most about a great YA/MG opening is the sense that I'm in very capable hands. When you write with assurance--capturing voice, creating atmosphere, crafting authentic dialogue--I'm more likely to turn the page. On average I receive over 50 YA/MG queries a week, so it's important to be submitting the most finely honed work possible, and that includes your query letter. The more well-crafted the query (I prefer queries that expertly mimic what you'd find in jacket copy), the more I'm prone to request a partial or full.

Natalie Lakosil, Bradford Literary

I love to see voice introduced with the first line; when I’m surprised, I sit up and take notice. I hate when first lines don’t set up anything at all – in other words, I hate wallpaper first lines (lines that just blend in to the surrounding narrative without any pizzazz).

Suzie Townsend, New Leaf Literary

In opening pages of a book, I love to see anything that is going to make me sit up and pay attention. For me that generally means the voice has to have something in it that stands out right from the start. One of my favorite openings is Josh Bazell's in Beat the Reaper. Just reading those first few lines told me who that character was, and underneath was an unwritten promise that if I followed him and his story, it would be interesting.

I would also say there's an art to opening a book. Getting into the middle of things so that even the first line is gripping, giving and withholding the right amounts of information so that the reader will be invested in the characters but wondering what is going to happen.

A great example of this is in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. When the cops are surveying the scene and asking Nick questions about Amy's disappearance, he answers a number of them and then says something to the affect of, "That was the fifth lie I'd told," and right there I was hooked. I had to know what the other lies were, what he wasn't telling us, and what that meant in terms of the plot.

Emily Keyes, L. Perkins Agency 

A strong opening shows me that I haven't read this book yet, and makes me want to keep reading further. It gets to the point, and doesn't take too long to introduce conflict and interesting characters. I love a sense of humor that gives a sense of the tone a voice of the main character. I hate an opening that begins at the wrong place, or takes too long to get to the meat of the story. I particularly dislike opening with a dream sequence or a character waking up and getting ready for the day.

Michelle Johnson, Inklings Literary 

What I love to see in a novel opening? - I love to be pulled into the main character immediately. Give me something to identify with and a character I feel for and love and I'll be hooked all the way through. Also, I love a good hook line that makes me laugh. Humor throughout a book, no matter how serious or dark the subject matter, always makes me sit up and take notice.

What I dread seeing in a novel opening? - The usual cliches - A character just waking up. A character waking up and looking in the mirror and using that to describe the character. A group of characters all introduced at the same time. A dream sequence.

John Cusick, Greenhouse Literary 

An opening should grab our attention, be shocking, intriguing— or preferably both! Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book kicks off with a life-and-death situation: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” It sets a creepy, gothic tone, while drawing us into the action. An intriguing first line can juxtapose apparently contradictory ideas. Libba Bray’s Going Bovine opens, “The best day of my life happened when I was fine and I almost died at Disney World.” How could the best day of your life be the day you almost died, and how could that happen at Disney World, of all places? The question seizes our interest, and compels us to keep reading. In both examples, the reader wants to discover more, what happens next. Plain and simple: your opening should drive us to keep reading.

Andrea Somberg, Harvey Klinger, Inc. 

I know that openings cause a lot of anxiety for writers - how do you make an impression and get the essence of your novel across in just a few paragraphs?! Some things I look for/look out for: Cliches are a huge warning sign, as is too much telling within the first few paragraphs. Also, prologues are often problematic, so if it's possible to avoid one, definitely do! What is is that makes me sit up and take notice? The most important thing for me is narrative voice - is it engaging? Is it unique? Does it immediately draw me in? This is extremely important -- and if the writer is good, the narrative voice will remain consistent throughout the novel. Unfortunately (or, fortunately, depending on how you look at it!), whether a narrative voice resonates is a highly subjective thing.

Alyssa Henkin, Trident Media Group 

For me, the opening is about being drawn into the story. Strong openings establish an emotional connection to the character(s) and give the reader a reason to care without dumping tons of back-story or description. I can fall in love with an atmospheric setting, with good writing, or great characters, but voice is omnipotent.

At the most basic level, what I love in a opening is connecting with the main character in a meaningful way that also demonstrates the uniqueness of themselves or their situation. What I hate to see in openings is when that doesn't happen.
Not a very helpful answer, but the most honest I can give. I could say that I hate opening with prologues, dreams, waking up, traveling, or those openings that try to trick the reader (like opening with a big battle scene, but oh wait, turns out that battle was just a video game the protagonist is playing). All of this is true, except when someone very talented and savvy manages to do them right. I am a big believer in breaking rules, if you can pull it off. So stripping an opening to the most basic elements, it comes down to that connection and that uniqueness.

I tend to refer to this as the balance between the familiar and the unexpected. Think of Beethoven's fifth symphony. Those first four notes are strikingly recognizable, but the first three are the same. It's the fourth, that unexpected changeup, that catches your attention.

In a more literary example, consider these two opening sentences:
1. "I sat slumped on the sofa, my eyes glazed over from boredom as I watched real housewives yelling at each other on the TV."

2. "I sat slumped in the passenger seat, my eyes glazed over from boredom as I watched my mom set fire to the body."

Which makes you want to read the next sentence? My bet is on #2. Both have the same style, voice, and level of skill. Both have the same emotion, one most readers will be very familiar with. The difference is in the situation. The first sentence will make the reader think, "Yeah, I know those feels." The second, "Yeah, I know those fee--wait, what?"
This is not to say that all openings have to involve setting someone on fire. But no matter how ordinary your protagonist and their life is, there should be a little something out of the ordinary to pique the reader's interest. The reader opened your book because they were curious. Make them curiouser.

Jenny Goloboy, Red Sofa Literary 

When I request a manuscript, it's because the query letter indicates an appealingprotagonist facing a difficult challenge, and I want to know more. So how do I lose interest?

Some serious problems:

1. The story starts in the wrong place.
The protagonist's crisis is presented in the query letter—but the first chapter isn't really about that. And it's clear we're not going to get to the meat of the issue for some time. Ex: If the story starts with the protagonist waking up and going through his “normal” routine, you've lost my interest by the time he starts brushing his teeth.
2. The protagonist is interesting, but no one else is.
Lots of flat characters-- lots of characters who are exactly who they appear to be. For some reason, this is a problem I see a lot in YA submissions: schools populated by Prom Queens, Evil Jocks, and the rest of Matt Groening's 81 Types of High School Students.

Think: is your Brainy Girl as distinctive as Hermione Granger?

3. The transition from the real world to the fantasy world is ineffective.

Many YA novels have their heroes discover that there's a secret fantasy world, which is much more engaging than the "real" world. The problem with this type of transition is the lack of authenticity in the fantasy realm, let alone a well-thought-out setting that’s equally as plausible as the real world.

What traits in your sample chapters will result in the request of a full manuscript?
Some good signs:
1. I need to find out what happens to your hero, RIGHT NOW

Successfully make it possible for readers to identify with the book’s characters, in addition to structuring a story and ending chapters in a way that forces readers to keep moving forward. These are two separate, valuable skills.

2. It’s evident that the “world” is going to grow

There will be hints of back story that I want to see fleshed out, there will be characters who retain levels of mystery that I want to see resolved, or the overall sense that there is a whole society beyond the places we've all visited.
3. I like your sense of humor.

As a literary agent, I’ve had the opportunity to read my fair share of book openings. When an author queries me, I ask her to include the first ten pages of her manuscript. These ten pages are crucial territory, because they tell me, almost immediately, whether or not to pursue her work. Your book’s opening is its way of introducing itself. It’s the handshake at the beginning of an interview. You definitely want it to make a good first impression.
As you set about trying to write the kind of opening that will pique an agent’s interest, it’s important not to forget the basics. The opening pages should establish the basic premise of the story and introduce the major themes. Theyshould also be chock full of “establishing details”— the basic Who, What, Where, When, and Why of the book.
This may sound simple, but you’d be surprised how many writers neglect to ground their readers at the outset!
Once you’ve established these basic points, you want to make sure that you’ve written something engaging, an opening that will create an overwhelming desire in the agent to read more. I personally love novels that begin with an intriguing conflict or mystery that I can’t wait to see play out over the course of the book.
I’m also likely to want to keep reading a novel with a compelling narrative voice. It’s crucial to find the right storyteller for your story—think of the ultimate narrator as a captivating traveling companion. The reader must want to listen to this personfor the entire journey of the book.
I also love books that are set against the backdrop of another time, place, or culture – real or imagined.Whether realistic, speculative, or fantastical, it’s crucial to explain the “rules” or “logic” of thebook’s fictional universe in the opening. For instance, what is the hierarchy of a certain school, family, pack of wolves?
Finally, because publishing is also a business, I like to see an opening that gives me a sense of how the book plans to differentiate itself from others on the market. If it’s a book that deals with a popular subject matter or genre, the opening really needs to show me how the book will make a unique impact on editors.

There are two qualities I love in novel openings: 1) something unexpected, 2) the establishment of voice. What I mean by unexpected doesn't necessarily have to do with the subject matter, though. No car crashes, sad clowns, or man-eating turtles will achieve what I mean if the unexpectedness isn't part of the writing itself and how the opening sentences are structured. One of our agency books I adore is the YA book Amber House by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed (Arthur A. Levine Books, October 2012). Chapter One opens, "I was almost sixteen the first time my grandmother died."  Initially the sentence lured me into thinking I would be reading something rather normal, but then "first time" appeared, grabbing my attention. The structure creates the surprise. If the sentence had led with "first time," as in "The first time my grandmother died, I was almost sixteen," it wouldn't have been quite as effective. This sentence also successfully establishes voice. The main character directly addresses the reader with authority and honesty, confessing something to the reader that also raises the reader's curiosity: how exactly could this grandmother have died a first time?
Problematic openings often fail to show me within the first page why I as a reader should care about a character or scene. What makes this character or scene so intriguing, so stand-out that a whole novel can grow from its foundation? I also get tipped off that the writing may not be as strong as I'd like when there is an excessive number of adjectives and adverbs in the opening sentences. These words signal to me that the author is trying to force images onto the reader, but unfortunately excessive adjectives and adverbs often create too many images to focus on at once, preventing the reader from getting anything out of the scene. Verbs and nouns are stronger--they anchor a sentence--and so if you can find a way to describe a particular image, action, character, etc. by removing as many adjectives and adverbs as possible, you will likely create a more vivid opening.

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