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Louise Penny: Murder in the first (chapter)

The four-time Agatha Award winner gives her top tips for getting your crime novel noticed. (Hint: throw a body in there quick.)

Let's start at the beginning. The first few words, the first sentence, the first paragraph and the first page—you might have heard that readers and literary agents and publishers make up their minds about a book in the first few seconds of reading.  

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is absolutely true. Sad. Devastating. Unfair. But a fact of a writer’s life. Especially with a first novel. You must nail it in the first few paragraphs.  

There are always exceptions. Some wonderful books start badly, but build and improve. And somehow, they got through the net. But for the rest of us mere humans, it is important to grab the readers interest early. This isn’t simply a marketing tool, only applicable to commercial genre writing. It’s across the board.  

Now, since novel writing is so subjective it’s almost impossible to say what will catch one reader/agent/publisher and not another. What will find a readership and what will not? 

In my own case, I was turned down by at least 50 publishers and agents before finding one who liked what I’d done. My first crime novel, Still Life, went on to bestseller lists and international awards.  

Getting your first book noticed

There really is no formula, thank heaven. But there are suggestions.  

  • If you’re writing your first work of crime fiction, place the body near the beginning of your book—preferably on the first page, perhaps the first sentence. In later books this won’t be as necessary, but agents and editors like it established early, so readers know what they’re getting. This is a murder mystery.  

  • It’s important to have hooks, to propel the reader/agent/editor further into the book. There’s the Big Hook of ‘whodunnit’—but a terrific read should have many, smaller, hooks. Little mysteries within the larger mystery. Why did a person who always wore black and gray suddenly wear pink? Why did a wealthy person buy a home in a poor part of town? Is the tapestry a reproduction, or an actual representation of Sissa’s Chessboard? And so on.  
No editor or agent turns down a good manuscript on purpose. But they’re overwhelmed and mistakes are made. They have hundreds of submissions a week. These aren’t functionaries, these are people who genuinely love books and storytelling. But you have to give them a reason to want to read more than the first paragraph of your novel. Frankly, they have a stack on their desk they want to get through (or more likely today, on their e-reader). They hope the next To Kill a Mockingbird is in there, but they don’t have time to read 200 pages of each manuscript to find it.  

That is simply the sad reality.  

So grab them. With great writing. Not purple prose, but something that compels them to read on. Stay away from clichés. Make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors. Do not write it in crayon. Double space, using 12-point font.  

Set the scene and do it with an economy of words. Establish character and tone. But most of all—give them a mystery they want solved. Give them a reason to ask for more pages. 

The most successful books grab people’s heads, but also their hearts. Agents and editors have hungry hearts too.  

Start your first draft wherever and however you want. Have fun with it. Be creative. But start your final draft with finesse, with professionalism, with respect for the reader and editor, and with—if possible—a body! 

    Louise Penny didn't begin her writing career until her mid-forties, when she set to work on her first crime novel, Still Life. Set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of Homicide for the Sûreté du Quebec. Her books have been translated into 23 languages and have hit the major bestseller lists, including The New York Times, the London Times and The Globe and Mail.


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