At the 2009 SCBWI Los Angeles Conference, editor Courtney Bongiolatti (Simon and Schuster), and agent Dan Lazar (Writer’s House) shared their views on what they look for in young adult and middle grade book openings. It all boils down to five main ingredients:
Immediately understanding the age of your character helps the agent/editor to get a feel for your book’s market. Age is often communicated through voice, therefore it is essential that your voice matches your intended characters age. Not to mention that the age of your character will change/effect the story you want to tell, so make sure it is appropriate.
Voice will be one of the first things to grab and editor/agents attention. They are looking for a strong and confident voice that jumps off the page. Voice can make or break your book so nail it from the start.
Start with an undeniable and interesting situation. Don’t begin with a character waking up and starting their day. Get to the action! A great example would be to start with an explosion, followed by a kid falling out of a plane – on page one! Put action and adventure into the first sentence!
You need to know the tone of your book and define it for an agent or editor. The tone will reveal if your book is commercial or literary. If you open with an explosion, then you book is probably commercial. Whereas a book with beautiful descriptions is probably literary. Tone will greatly effect how your book is perceived by an audience.
The magic happens when the reader is drawn in by character, compelling action, or strong emotional elements. Lazar explains that Saavy (by his client Ingrid Law) as a great example of magic in the first five pages. It opens with the compelling line: “When my brother Fish turned 13 we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane, and he caused it.” This was a story about a character who was moving away from the home they love, but there is a very unique reason why they must move. The book is full of energy, and the magic hits you in the face.
An additional note on prologues: If it is skip-able, you don’t need it. Prologues can be okay for fantasy or sci-fi, especially if the book starts with an every day situation, but it is often used to set up the world.