Blogger: Rachel Zurakowski
Location: Books & Such main office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
The first page of your manuscript is more important than you might imagine. You want the opening paragraphs to shine because, it turns out, if they don’t stand out, often that’s as far as an editor or an agent will read. If the first page of a project isn’t good, plenty of other projects wait in the stack of submissions. Avoid making the “lousy first page” mistake. You could have created a masterpiece that will never get a full review because the first few pages fall flat.
I heard at a recent writers’ conference that the average number of pages a reviewer will read before knowing if the project is a ‘no’ is three pages. If the reviewer is still reading after three pages, he or she most likely will read the entire proposal and/or ask for more of the story.
During this same conference, I was part of a panel of editors and agents. We were asked to listen to authors read their first pages and comment on whether we would turn the page to read more. It’s hard to be put on the spot like that for both the writer and the potential reviewer, but it’s also great for authors to receive that instant feedback on their manuscripts’ beginnings. I have to tell you that most of the time the answer from every person on the panel was, “No, I wouldn’t turn the page.” We gave reasons for our responses.
To help you to avoid these mistakes in your writing, I’ll share some of the reasons I heard:
“Your first lines didn’t grab my attention.” I know we’ve discussed first lines on the blog before, so I’m not going to go into detail here, but the first line needs to grab the reader’s interest.
“You didn’t start the book in the right place.” This is a common error when the book is brand new to the author–like a first draft. Authors tend not to start the book in the most gripping place on the first try. The story is still formulating in the writer’s mind when he or she starts chapter one. Sometimes it helps to start your writing with an outline before you even begin a chapter because outlining the manuscript will give you a better idea of where you should start. Sometimes it’s best to launch a novel in the “middle” of the story instead of starting with “introductions.” Don’t be afraid to revise your story or to try different approaches. You can easily save multiple versions of a book on your computer, so experimenting won’t hurt.
“The first page has too much dialog.” If the reader doesn’t have a clue about what’s happening in the story, a page full of dialog isn’t going to make much sense or encourage the reader to turn the page. Remember that you know your characters, but the reader hasn’t met them yet.
“There’s too much description. I don’t have any idea what’s going on.” If you spend too long describing the scene or the main character, your first page isn’t going to accomplish what it needs to. You usually want to start out with a fast-paced, exciting scene and spend more time describing things later in the story.
“There isn’t a character on the first page.” It’s a good idea to start your story with the introduction of a character who’s experiencing something unusual or exciting. In the case of nonfiction, you could think about starting with a story or introduction that shares something about you as the author. Promote yourself as an expert in the topic you’ve chosen–or as someone who learned the lesson of the book the hard way, by making a mistake. You are, in a way, the character of your book. Or you could start out telling someone else’s story that sets up the problem your book will help to resolve.
The best way to test your first pages is to have a diverse group of people read your first pages and offer feedback. It’s a good idea to find some people from your target audience, but you don’t have to limit it to those readers. Ask 10-ish people to read your chapters and give feedback, and then take the advice that you believe will make for a stronger opening.
Critique groups are a great tool. If you aren’t a part of one, consider joining! You can usually find one in your area by doing a search on the web.
This is helpful. I tend to want to start like the movies do, with a long shot of the small town, then the peaceful neighborhood, then the cozy little house, then finally zoom in on the guy burying his wife in the yard.
Works for the movies, but doesn’t get the job done with books.
Teri D. Smith
Great advice. For those who would like more details, Noah Lukeman has an excellent book call The First Five Pages.
This was timely advice, I just workshopped my first five pages with a writing group yesterday.
Great advice, especially about the starting point. Too often we set the stage for the reader with details before getting to the real action, when we can, with a bit of work, start with a strong opening and introduce the necessary backstory as we proceed.
Thanks for sharing.
Nice!! I’ve heard this before too. Crit groups are great for that. I also have non-writers read my first pages to see if it was gripping.
Although the non-writers don’t crit the same way writers do, their feedback is invaluable.
Great post. 🙂
I’ve enjoyed reading this blog all week. Everyday I get a new insight.
I completely agree that the best way to test the first pages is to have a group of people read them. When I was in the process of writing my last book, which is contemporary teen fiction, I did just that. After I wrote the first 20 pages I wanted to test them so I had my old high school English teacher hand it out to all of his classes as if it were a published book he photocopied. We also put a pseudonym on it to make sure no one was biased. After they read it he had them write a paragraph about what they thought. After about a hundred diverse teenagers, all of them being my target audience, read the first 20 pages there were only 3 who didn’t like it. The rest were begging the teacher to give them the rest of the book. Some even went to the book store to find it. I knew I had to finish writing it then. I am beyond thankful to have had that big of a test group and to get so much positive feedback.
I gotta disagree with you, Naomi. I want to read about that guy burying his wife in the yard!
I learned while writing papers in university that it is often easiest to write the middle and ending first, then come back and write the beginning. With papers, I had to know what I had written about to write the intro. With stories or novels, I have to know what the story is to know where to begin it. 🙂
I agree with Eileen, that I want to read about the guy burying his wife, but I think Naomi is saying she needs to get to the sound of the shovel hitting the dirt faster.
I wrestle with how fast or slow to get to the action, too, but I enjoy the process of figuring it out.
After thinking about this post, I opened the novel I was writing and immediately deleted the first page. Didn’t even bother to save it anywhere else. Just … gone.
I think it’s better, but I still wish I could fit in some guy burying his wife in the yard on the first page. Would someone please write that?
I needed to read this before I sent my proposal package! Now I’m going back to rewrite page one. And possible page two. This is my tweetable for today.
I just cut my first chapter, working in the essential bits later. You make me glad I did.
I’m so glad this post was helpful! It makes me smile to hear that many of you went back to your first pages and revised. My favorite part of agenting is helping an author to make his or her book better and I just got to do that for each of you!