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Ask An Editor: What Grabs Your Interest?

What captures your attention (good or bad) when you read a manuscript on submission?

Easy answer: voice, voice, and more voice. It doesn’t have to be in the first person. But it does have to captivate.

Here are sample first lines from some books I’ve acquired – first lines that hooked me and kept me reading:

From The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander:

Chapter 1: A Hood Ornament in the No-Jesus Christmas Parade

Sundi Knutt had a blue-ribbon-winning sow, a deer hunting license, and a mound of cleavage.

Wow, did that title and first line grab me. I thought it was funny, but also knowing – this narrator knew how to sum up Sundi, a Texas beauty queen, in a sentence and made it feel fresh to boot in one of the best YA debuts I’ve ever published.

From Bystander by James Preller:

Chapter 1: ketchup

The first time Eric Hayes ever saw him, David Hallenback was running, if you could call it that, running in a halting, choppy-stepped stumpy-legged shamble, slowing down to look back over his shoulder, stumbling forward, pausing to catch his breath, then lurching forward again.

This middle-grade novel is about a kid, Eric, who witnesses a bullying incident. Right out of the gate, I admired Preller’s absolute control over everything he wanted to say. There’s a lot here, but it’s organized and impactful. As is the rest of this powerful novel.

From Mortal Danger by Ann Aguirre:

Chapter 1: Death Watch

I was supposed to die at 5:57 a.m.

At least, I had been planning it for months…

What I admire here is the restrained and matter-of-fact way Aguirre handles the thwarted suicide attempt. No drama. No hyperbole. It’s stripped down, raw, and deceptively simple. It makes me shiver, still, each time I read it.

My hunch is that you’re thinking, Really?! Maybe these lines don’t grab you immediately. Maybe they do. As you know from being part of this community, not every book is for every reader. But I stand behind these examples as grabby. I try to give most books I read on submission a good three chapters – six if there’s a spark. But if I’m not all in by then, I’m out. I can’t take more (precious and 99.9% of the time, personal) time reading through a manuscript in search of a spark.

What am I looking for in a “spark?” Here’s a short list:

1. Voice (see Sweetheart of Prosper County, above)
2. Character (see Mortal Danger, above)
3. Action (see Bystander, above)
4. Tone – humor, pathos, romance, danger, etc.
5. Voice, as in good dialogue (see my previous blog on “teenspeak” if you think that will grab an editor’s attention)
6. Setting

That’s a tall order for the first few lines of a book, isn’t it? And that’s your job as an author – to fill that order and bring readers to your book.

Author spotlight

Liz S.

Hi, I'm the Editor-in-Chief at Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. I've worked in the book biz for over 30 years (let's just …

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