Getting Discovered… starts with an amazing first page

by Sara Grant

On 1st July submissions open for the fifth Undiscovered Voices anthology. If you are an unagented and unpublished writer for children/teens living in the EU – submit the first 4,000 words of your novel! Do it! [For more details, visit www.undiscoveredvoices.com]

Yeah, I’m biased. It’s how I got my agent and ultimately my first book deal. Now I’m on the other side of the submissions process. I’m part of a team of editors who review all the submissions before sending them on to our illustrious judging panel – and we do have an amazing list of judges.

We’ll read more than 200 novel extracts. I’ll focus on each one and read every word. It’s big responsibility and unbelievable privilege. I remember the anxiety of polishing my submission for Undiscovered Voices – Was it good enough? Would it stand out? Was I kidding myself? – and the anguish of waiting to see if it was selected. The Undiscovered Voices team takes its responsibility very seriously and eagerly reads each extract hoping it will find another amazing storyteller, the calibre of our previous Undiscovered Voices finalists.

But what makes a submission stand out? I must be captivated from the first page. I’ve often heard editors and agents say that they could tell from the opening paragraph whether the manuscript had promise. The wannabe writer inside me – the one who struggled seventeen years to get her first book deal – was sceptical. I agonize over and polish every single solitary word of my novel, crafting what I hope is a sparkly beginning, an engaging middle and a surprising yet satisfying ending. How can anyone judge an entire book from a paragraph?

When I read the last round of Undiscovered Voices submissions in 2013, I conducted a little experiment. I read the opening lines and then noted if I thought the extract would make it to the next level of the submissions process. Then I read every single word of the submission, sometimes more than once. I only changed my initial opinion a few times. I could sense the writer’s confidence and tell I was in safe hands from the very start a story.

I love quiet novels and action-packed thrillers. I adore literary novels as much as high concept stories. No matter the story you want to tell – you still have to hook me, entice me to read more from those first lines. I should be desperate to know what happens next. Each year there are those extracts that linger and sparkle and surprise. Even after eight years, I still remember the opening lines from the first Undiscovered Voices extracts:

In my opinion, great openings include:

  • A ‘voice’ – a unique style, a flare and a flow.
  • An intriguing hook that entices me to read on and on and on….
  • A compelling character.
  • And, a hint of the journey to come.

[Want hands on advice about these things? I’m speaking at the Winchester Writers Festival on this topic. Visit www.writersfestival.co.uk for more details.]

Read your opening paragraph. Now imagine you are an agent or editor and you have just read twenty-seven manuscripts in a row. You’re tired. Your vision is blurring. After reading the start of your story, would you suddenly sit bolt upright with that zing of excitement you get when you read an amazing story?

Obviously the rest of your manuscript matters. It matters a great deal. But too many writers save the ‘best bits’ until the end. If your opening doesn’t hook me then I may never get to the final pages – or even the next chapter. Those opening lines are your calling card, your invitation. They must be the best bit.

What are your favourite opening lines? What are the opening lines of your story?

If you do decide to submit to Undiscovered Voices, I wish you the best of luck! Or if not, I hope you’ll be discovered soon!

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