...there was a first sentence that killed any chance I ever had to find an agent.
It's an undeniable truth. For all the work you put into that manuscript, for all the effort you pour into character, story, plot devices, twists, graphical oddities, and the like, you won't get a solid read without a strong opening. You may feel, as you package that manuscript in a manilla envelope, and drop it off at the Post Office (hey, please allow me these simple rememberences, and don't remind me that my email inbox is the post office of the future...I'm not ready yet.), that you are a solitary voice on the way to a private meeting with the agent--or agents--of your choosing, but the truth is, you are but a shallow echo in the cavernous cacophony of potential suitors. The agent simply does not have the time to meander, and suffer their way through every manuscript that arrives on their desk. It boils down to what you present when the assumed Once upon a time is out of the way. Hook them, or you're in the slush pile.
Seems a bit harsh, right? Seems like they'll miss some true quality simply by stopping a few paragraphs into a manuscript. And they do. They miss quite a few. They miss quite a lot. They miss them all, and stamp them with, "Not." Which is the reason why you have to invest so much into that intro. You have to make them want to read on. Sure, they might push forward if you display talent, and the potential to even things up as the book goes along. That's the kind of work that can be molded. But if you offer a generic peek into your world, or hand them a limp stick to walk through your path, they'll just toss you aside, and forget your name before they've properly let go. They don't have the time for writers who won't invest the time in a few paragraphs that make their time worthwhile. SEE?
You don't have to blow something up, or kill someone, in the first paragraph (though it never hurts, right?), but you do have to offer something. Think of any time in your childhood when you had to ask mom, or dad, or grandpa, or whomever, for that big favor. That big request. That biggest of the big things that you wanted, or places that you wanted to go. How did you present it? Did you just run up screaming, "OHMYGODMOMIHAVETOHAVEIT!" And if you did, it probably didn't get you too far. Surely, some explanation would be necessary to woo her/him/them. Or, instead, did you take some time to plan out the intro to that conversation, so that you calmly presented yourself more in the, "So, you remember that time you said I should broaden my spiritual horizons? Well guess where Randy, and his family are going?" frame? A place in which the question was intriguing, and the answer was left dangling ever so slightly out of reach? Well, your manuscript is what you want published, and the agent is your mom--far too busy to invest in lengthy discussion for something she's not likely to let you do/have, and unwilling to take your word for it simply because you're screaming at her about it.
Take the time. Plan it out. If your manuscript is solid, if it is strong, it will stand on its own (or can be worked through edits) if you offer a door worth walking through. Work on the intro. Find the interest. Make it move in your hands, draw your reader (and, naturally, the agent) to the pages beyond. It's the kickstart to the engine. Make it purr.
Keep it reigned in, and don't let it get away from you.
The agent will love you for it.
Zachary Steele is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, and the forthcoming Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction, and has been featured on NPR and in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publisher's Weekly, and Shelf Awareness. He can be found boring the world with his thoughts on his blog, The Further Promotion of ME.