Saturday, October 9, 2010

Agent Jill Corcoran: Activate Your Story

Angela’s agent, Jill Corcoran of the Herman Agency, recently posted an amazing article about how to write an engaging beginning. She’s given Operation Awesome permission to repost it for all you awesome blog buddies.


Jill Corcoran of the Herman Agency



I have been doing a lot of first 10 pages critiques lately, and I find myself writing…START YOUR STORY and ACTIVATE YOUR STORY on almost 100% of the manuscripts. Choosing where to start you story is so very important in grabbing your reader and willing him to keep reading, captivating him so he cannot put your book down.

Unfortunately, so many writers start in the wrong place. They start in what seems to me like they are taking to themselves, working out what is happening or who their characters are or what the back story is and putting that in the first chapters rather than starting where the book needs to begin. Starting right before everything changes for your main character.

Right before? Yes, I know you have heard so many times to start in the action, to start at the moment your character’s life is about to change, but by doing this we often do now know who your character is so we don’t care that their life is changing. We don’t care about who they are or what is their peril.

Don’t start by describing what is going on. Don’t start by having your main character ‘think’ about/tell us about all that is happening in their life. Don’t start with shot from a gun, waking from a bad dream, dialog of people fighting, random thoughts from your character that does not activate your plot and bring the character and the reader into the character’s world. Don’t write a passive, telling, descriptive beginning.

START YOUR STORY. Show your character in his world, interacting with other characters that give us a glimpse into who your character is, what problem is he facing and why this problem means something to him, and to us the reader.

In one of my favorite books, Gayle Foreman’s IF I STAY, Gayle does not start the book at the moment of the car crash. We first see the family together, we actually fall in love with the main character and her family so when the car crash happens, we are devastated along with the main character. Gayle starts the first line of the book with an intriguing sentence….a sentence that activates us to pay attention to this first meeting with the main character’s family. That foreshadows the doom and gloom to come:

            Everyone thinks it is because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.

And then we are back in her world.  A world where the main character is not telling us what is happening but shows us through other characters’ actions and dialog, as well as her own.

These are captivating beginnings that establish voice, character, plot, setting without plunging us blindly into the ‘problem’, the ‘crisis’. They also do not bore us with little details that talk down to the reader to make sure they are going to ‘get it’, that make sure the reader knows everything they need to know so they can follow your story.

Often you have to finish your book so you can rewrite/re-envision your beginning. Often you have to toss out your first couple of chapters. Do not mourn those lost words.  Thank them for helping you get started, for helping you understand where you book is going, for activating you to write rather than spend your years like so many wannabees saying I have a story I want to write but I just don’t know where to start. Congrats. You started. You got to the end. Now rewrite that beginning. Activate your story.

Jill Corcoran represents primarily Chapter Book, Middle Grade, and Young Adult authors. For more helpful writing tips and industry news, check our her blog:


  1. I have struggled with this as well, and *think* I've finally come up with something that works. This is a great post, definitely one worth bookmarking! Thanks!

  2. This is great advice,and those first pages are SO hard sometimes! I find myself re-thinking my beginning and I'm not that far in. I agree that finishing it will help to fix those first pages, and I think I just may ignore them until then : )

  3. Excellent advice. This is why we writers agonize over page one more than any other.

  4. hi miss katrina! thanks for this cool post. im saving it for sure. miss jill makes it pretty easy to understand how to get started. i like stuff that could help me be a better writer.
    ...smiles from lenny

  5. Thanks for reposting this! Great advice!

  6. That's great advice! The beginning is so important, we really have to nail it. Thanks!

  7. I see this a lot, too, and I've absolutely been guilty of starting in the wrong place myself. My book has had several very different beginnings, but I like the current opening.


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