Trembling with anticipation, I submitted the opening three chapters of 'Tick', which at the time looked quite different to what it is now, but with the spine of the story essentially the same.
The letter that came back from Christopher Little Agency was one of the most disappointing reads I have ever read, and that is saying something as someone who has read Matthew Reilly. Firstly - and I swear I do not say this out of bitterness - it was a load of garbled nonsense, and sounded a lot like a tired and stressed office worker offloading their frustrations on me, ones that weren't necessarily my fault. It also didn't make itself clear if it were a rejection letter or not.
So far, so unprofessional. But what was this poor agent so frustrated about? Well, if you've read Tick, you'll know that it's hardly burst-out-of-the-gate, high octane reading. Tick certainly has action-packed moments, but an action novel it is not. I like to think of Tick as being a story that unfolds itself in its own time, at exactly the pace it needs to.
But this agent was having none of that. She made it clear to me that she was sick of reading the same old three chapters over and over again, that it was all boring and same-old, and she demanded action, incident and drama in those opening chapters to really seize the readers by the throat and pull them into the world of the novel, kicking and screaming.
I'm paraphrasing here, admittedly, but this was the gist of the letter. I did send in a second sample of a different novel to Christopher Little which had all that the agent desired and more. I never heard back from her: she must've spontaneously combusted out of boredom or something.
But what made this all especially disappointing was that Christopher Little is the agency that picked up Harry Potter. Yes, that series that was rejected by so many agencies was seen for what it truly was by Christopher Little.
And last time I checked, Harry Potter does not burst out of the gate with all plot-guns blazing. On the contrary, Harry Potter gives the recommended guidelines the middle finger, because it is a long and prolonged setup the reader goes through with the Dursleys at Privet Drive before the all importing inciting incident with Hagrid.
Now look, I am not saying that novels that do unleash an all manner of action and incident on the reader cannot be good - of course they can. One of my favorite trilogies, The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, starts exactly this way (by the second chapter anyway). What I am saying is that these kind of big-opener books stand no more chance of being good than their slow-burner counterparts.
But therein lies the rub: the agents, the keeper of the keys for aspiring novelists everywhere, read the opening chapters of unpublished novels as a day job. They have what is affectionately called the 'slush pile', a stack of unsolicited manuscripts that turn up unannounced on their doorstep daily: huge stacks of paper looking for a bookshelf.
Agents do have my sympathy in that regard. But the problem with this system is that agents inevitably get desensitized to novels where the true worth may not be apparent in the opening few pages. And why would they? That is all they have access to, and they have to plough through a faceless horde of opening chapters all the time.
But just because that poor agent at Christopher Little has my sympathy doesn't mean I like it. So many good, great, and potentially important novels of our generation lie stranded at the bottom of a shredder simply because they couldn't hook an agent suffering from chronic first-chapter fatigue.
And so began this race to supercharge the opening pages, to seize the attention of the agent by any means necessary, even if it meant sacrificing the integrity and structure of the novel. Some results have been hilarious, some tragic, some both: I have read a few and I will never forget one shining example where the novel begins with a car speeding down a highway in the rain, screeching to a halt at the sight of a cloaked figure on the road, the cloaked man slamming a fist through the window of the car and strangling the driver to death.
Fade to black. Exciting, huh? Well, cue two chapters of a long conversation in a café immediately after that. It's sad, because it was obvious that this author had received feedback from an agent that was similar to what I had received and taken it too literally, or worse still (and more likely) other budding authors said to him: "better make that opening more exciting, to grab the attention."
Do you see what I'm getting at here? What's disturbing is that, when referring to grabbing attention, it often means not just of the readers but also the agents. Agents who need nothing short of a supernova on the page to even grab their eye for a moment. Now look, I'm not saying that seizing the attention is a bad thing - we talked at length about the stasis and trigger in an earlier post - you absolutely should. But the problem with our friend here is in the chapter-straddling coffee chat. He needs to carefully rethink the beginning as a whole so that it works within the frame of the book from beginning to end. The opening is, along with the climax and closing, one of the most important and crucial moments in your novel, and it needs to work in a way that makes sense by the time the reader closes your novel. A well-thought-out novel is the type which you pick up a second time and, upon reading again, seems like a completely different novel because you as a reader can see all the carefully laid out hints, knowing glances and secrets, and you can see how intricately it all fits together.
What you don't want is to shoehorn an ill-fitting sugar rush of a start into your novel that has little to no bearing or relation in plot or tone for the whole novel. It looks cheap and desperate. And even when done well, with some novels that kind of opening simply doesn't work at all.
Because seizing attention doesn't always equal a Michael Bay-esque opener. Far from it. My tip? Start with a question. Ask a question of the reader immediately, one which they will want to read on to find the answer. In 'Tick', this happens in the first paragraph, which is "Why does this guy have his name on a Tub Map where a station should be?" and so more questions should arise as the reader goes on, so that there's always something to keep the reader hooked and intrigued as they progress deeper into the novel. Far better to coax your reader into the rabbit hole with mystery and intrigue than to shove them into it.
And do not fear the quiet, calm moments of your book. It's not the same as boring when done right. Some of my favourite moments in 'Tick', both when I wrote it and when I read it back to myself, are some of the quiet moments when Tom simply sits, and just...is. These aren't just holes in the pacing or character development here, but vital moments of introspection. And moreover, they are just simply...relaxing. I take a lot of pride in that, and the fact that I feel I can trust my readers to not need an adrenaline rush on every page.
Hopefully, one day, someone else up high will notice that too, and you will have your Christopher Little moment...of the good kind.