Catching a publisher’s eye; hopeless task or hope for the future?

Mr Stink by David Walliams

What makes an exciting first chapter, and what instantly turns us off?

Following on from Alex English's Killer First Lines feature, Celia Anderson takes a look at how focussing on crafting your first page and opening chapter can be important in getting your writing noticed. With the Undiscovered Voices competition looming, she tells us how competitions can be key in getting your work out there, and can even lead to publication.

When your ultimate ambition is to find an agent or a publisher – preferably both – these questions haunt your dreams. It is soul destroying to be a long-term ‘Undiscovered Voice’, trawling the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for possible recipients of our works of fiction. But how can we give ourselves the best possible chance of catching the eye of someone with the vision (and power) to get our work into print? The slush pile is a place where none of us want to languish for long. But what makes an agent, publisher or competition judge, sit up and take notice?

In my experience, competitions are the key. I began my own search by firing off random submissions to agents chosen from the W&A Yearbook. Ok, I was very green. I thought all it took was a great story. It took several months before light dawned – yes, the great story was vital, but the most important factor was to make the opening of that story fizz and buzz. The breakthrough came when I entered an adult fiction submission for the Novelicious online competition. The top twenty winners would be featured on the website and anyone – absolutely anyone - could vote for the best opening chapters. Oh joy! I was shortlisted and I very soon realised that I had got the competition bug badly. I dug out anything I could find, and entered everything available. Children’s books, poetry, short stories – you name it, I had a go. And of course, as I went along, I picked up various do's and don’ts as to how to make my submission stand out above all the others.

  • Don’t start at a tranquil point in the story – leap straight into the action if you possibly can.
  • Do read the competition guidelines very thoroughly – and then re-read them...and again...and again.
  • Do make every word count.
  • Do edit over and over – until the words blur in front of your eyes – and then open the wine.
  • Don’t doubt yourself – someone’s got to get that prize. Why not you?

What makes a great opening chapter?

In a recent lesson on great story starters (back to the chalk face) I read these opening sentences aloud to a class of eleven year olds. At the end of the session I was inundated with requests to borrow the books featured. Whatever the authors did, it worked. Here are a few of the examples I used:

Mr Stink – David Walliams

Mr Stink stank. He also stunk. And if it is correct English to say he stinked, then he stinked as well. He was the stinkiest stinky stinker who ever lived.

There’s a strong flavour of Roald Dahl here, but with David’s own twist. Irresistible.

I Shall Wear Midnight – Terry Pratchett

Why was it, Tiffany Aching wondered, that people liked noise so much? Why was noise so important? Something quite close sounded like a cow giving birth.

A great start to the latest story about the feisty young witch, Tiffany. Loved the cow reference.

Then – Maurice Gleitzman

Then, we ran for our lives, me and Zelda, up a hillside as fast as we could. Which wasn’t very fast.

The blurb promises desperate escape, and a book both funny and shocking. We wanted to know why they couldn’t run fast – too small? Injured? Who is Zelda?

The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham

One of the luckiest accidents in my wife’s life is that she happened to marry a man who was born on 26th September.

The children were intrigued – who was the narrator? What happened on September 26th? Why was the wife lucky?

Dear Diary – Siobhan Curham

Dear Dylan – Oh my God, this feels really weird writing you an email as if I know you or something. But the thing is I really feel as if I do know you.

The ten and eleven year olds loved the use of email as a communication tool. I know this has been done to death lately but it strikes an immediate chord with the generation who have never written a letter and who text rather than speak to each other.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs do when they’re chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead.

Sympathy by the bucket load for the dog and many questions. Whose dog? Why is it dead? What has the time got to do with it?

The Tempest – William Shakespeare

Even for a Shakespeare play, The Tempest is full of magic and illusion. There is action in spades, but the characters can often act in a deceptive and confusing way. It begins with the howling storm throwing the little ship about and threatening to kill everyone before the play has even got off the ground. The Bard still appeals to all age groups if his work can be made accessible. Where were the sailors heading? Why? What happens next?

Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder

A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the big Woods of Wisconsin. They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees, and they never saw that little house again. They were going to the Indian Country.

This is one of my own all-time favourites. I think it’s down to the excitement of the unknown mingled with the sadness of leaving the familiar. I wanted to travel with them but I also wanted to shout ‘Stay!’


The Hook:

My own Eureka moment came from another gamble. The Piatkus Entice competition asked for opening chapters of a contemporary romantic novel and resulted in finding a publisher willing to work with me to develop my novel and an agent who was ready to help me to take the next steps. So, if you’re standing on the competition/agent/publisher search diving board, my advice is – JUMP! But never forget the power of the first lines.

Now over to you: What are your all-time favourite opening chapters, and why? What do you look for in a story starter?

When she’s not marking children’s work, or writing stories involving pants, Celia spends far too much time on Facebook (Celia Joy Anderson) and does a lot of walking to counteract the cooking, eating and drinking which form another of her hobbies. She blogs as part of the Romaniacs online writers’ group, and can also be found on Twitter. Her own website is now nearly ready to be launched.

Celia’s first novel, Sweet Proposal, a contemporary romance involving chocolate, a jacuzzi and a bespoke bookshop, will be published by Piatkus Entice on August 1st. Her ultimate dream is to have her children’s books published too.

Usually sea-starved in the depths of the Midlands, she can often be found wandering happily around Brighton visiting her two daughters pretending to collect ideas for her next book.


  1. Celia, great competition tips and encouragement to have a go with Undiscovered Voices - thank you.
    Your class are great - I wonder if they'd be up for competition judging? I've been mulling an idea for a while...

    1. Celia J Anderson15 May 2013 at 11:29

      Oh, they would definitely be up for that! They love reading, love competitions and are always impressed by anyone with a blog so you're onto a winner there...

    2. Fabulous!
      I love the way you involve the children in your posts, Celia.

  2. Thanks Celia - great post! I love this opening:
    "CHAPTER ONE How Nobody Came To The Graveyard. THERE WAS A HAND IN the darkness, and it held a knife." First double-page spread to 'The Graveyard Book' by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean (Chris Riddell also illustrated it equally brilliantly). I'll never grow out of reading books with illustrations.

    I had to read on. Fear and intrigue kept me reading. What was a knife doing in a children's story? (I hadn't read Knife Of Never Letting Go yet & Graveyard book is aimed at younger readers). Where could such a sinister opening possibly go from here? The dark art of Dave McKean is perfect for the first pages - a hand thrusting a knife towards the text and over the page a character walking upstairs, the knife hand ahead of him out of the frame - a cloth in his left hand. Great story telling. Brilliant pairing. Oddly - I feel safe in their hands!

    Great tips - I'll look you up on facebook and twitter

    1. Celia J Anderson15 May 2013 at 11:34

      Wow, that's an amazing opening, will try to get this for the class! Thanks for the FB follow - my Twitter account says it's not functioning right now so will follow you back there when it stops having a tantrum.

  3. Great article, and i agree with Sue, the graveyard books first line is great.

  4. Celia J Anderson15 May 2013 at 13:00

    Yes, I love getting first hand tips like this - it's hard to keep up with what's around and it really helps when you get ones like this to have a go at. Talking of knives, I love Philip (one L or 2??) Pullman's The Subtle Knife too, very thought provoking. Thanks for commenting, Sally.

  5. Great post, Celia! I spend more time on the first page of a novel than any other, I reckon. And even then I go back and rewrite it a few dozen times! Dx

    1. Celia J Anderson15 May 2013 at 15:42

      I know the feeling, Donna - sometimes (or often if I'm honest) it bears not a shred of resemblance to the one I started with. Thanks for commenting, Donna - good to see you here.

  6. Wonderful post, Celia! First lines are so powerful, even when they're not!

    1. Celia J Anderson15 May 2013 at 15:47

      Hi Terri, erm, yes I see what you mean...I think. Sometimes the 'not obviously powerful' ones are the ones that get you thinking about why they work. Or am I just talking out of the top of my head...or worse? Blah blah blah. You can tell I've been writing school reports most of the day!

  7. Replies
    1. Celia J Anderson15 May 2013 at 18:34

      Thank you! Glad you liked it :)


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