It’s no secret that editors see a lot of submissions. Hundreds of envelopes cross our desks each year here at EBYR, each one from an author or illustrator hopeful that that their story will catch our attention.
So how do you get a busy editor to pay attention to your story? Here’s a hint: it doesn’t involve glitter or colorful envelopes. It’s not about gimmicks or luck — it’s about craft.
Editors are looking for stories they know will hook readers. And they know a story can do that when that story has managed to draw them in first.
An editor’s job is really to be a stand-in for a savvy, attentive reader — albeit readers in the unique position of being able to call out a writer when their story isn’t working. But what catches our attention is the same thing that catches any reader’s attention: a compelling, well-written beginning that makes you want to keep reading.
So how do you craft a good beginning that will hook readers in? Here are some tips:
1. Establish a unique voice.
This is the thing that will most set your story apart. Consider carefully what distinct words, what rhythm, what tone will be best suited to your character and your story. Use language that is vivid, concrete, and particular. If the voice is distinct and intriguing, readers — and editors — will be more likely to stick around and listen to it for another hundred or two pages.
2. Get the reader invested in your main character.
Nothing will get a reader hooked on your story as much as caring about a character. They don’t necessarily have to be likable (though that certainly helps), but they should be interesting enough that the reader wants to find out more, and they should also be recognizable and relatable to the reader in some deeply human ways.
3. Show your main character in action.
This is one of the strongest ways to get a reader invested in your protagonist. Give your hero something to do that’s more interesting than eating cereal and catching the school bus. Let the reader hear the distinct way that they talk and see how they react to or shape their situation. Show the reader that your character wants something; if you can introduce some conflict or show what’s at stake for your character, that’s a reason to keep reading.
4. Establish setting, but don’t get too bogged down in exposition.
I often see sci-fi, fantasy, or historical fiction that starts off by barraging the reader with details about the setting. Getting the reader to care about your character is much more important than building the backdrop. And a single image or a few carefully chosen words can do much more than paragraphs of exposition to draw the reader into the world of your story.
5. Show, don’t tell.
I know you’ve heard this one before (over and over again), but it’s always worth remembering. Don’t tell the reader everything about the character, the setting, or the story — just give them enough details to intrigue them and make them want to keep reading. Don’t tell the reader what to think about your story’s setting or characters; give them the details they need to form their own opinion. And if you have to describe how a character is feeling, there’s a good chance that you’re not taking the reader deeply enough into that character’s experience.
6. Make sure the beginning of your story feels true and real.
This is good advice for the entire book, of course, but it’s even more critical in those first pages. If your character or your voice feels false or contrived, you’re going to lose your reader. Make sure your character speaks and acts in ways that are plausible for their age and situation.
Your goal as a writer in that first page or two is to make the reader (or the editor) care enough that they’ll keep reading. Check back next month for a few more suggestions on how to do this!
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Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Read her From the Editor’s Desk column — packed with editorial insight and behind-the-scenes info on Eerdmans books — one Thursday a month here on Eerdlings.