Wednesday, June 23, 2010

why the first page of your manuscript is so dang important

Just briefly, because I am up to my tailbone in manuscripts.

Heaps and heaps and heaps of manuscripts. At the moment, all of them fiction. 90% of them debut novels. All of their authors hoping desperately for a book deal, for a home for their beloved novel.

When I read submission after submission after submission--which, let's face it, is everyday--my mind starts to dull. My eyes begin to glaze from all the white on black. My butt begins to hurt from sitting. I'm pretty hungry (because I'm always pretty hungry), and this is making me cranky. As the day wears on, I get irritable. The reading gets faster, and the disappointments stack up more quickly.

I don't want to reject books--I want to buy them! But I can't buy something that I'm not passionate about. So many of these manuscripts are only 60% of a book I'd want to read. There are different reasons they don't fit the bill--maybe the content doesn't interest me personally; maybe I don't like the writer's style; maybe there's nothing special about the book, it's just adequate. Maybe the agent didn't do a great job of pitching it, and I was expecting something other than what I got.

Or maybe it's a beautiful, perfect, exquisite book, exactly the book I've always dreamed of publishing. But I'll never know, because the first page was CRAP.

There are different ways to create a crappy first page. Boringness. Cliche. Too many fancy schmancy words. Immersing your audience too quickly into the action. Immersing them too slowly.

Yeah, I know, it's basically impossible to win at this game. But YOU MUST TRY.

Above all things, YOU MUST BE SPECIAL.

Assume whoever is reading your submission is going to be in a terrible mood when they look at page 1.

You just don't have until page 2.


Kay said...

Why are you confirming my guesses?

moonrat said...

Kay--tell me your guesses. Perhaps you are just very wise.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I take it you get a lot of the:

"Just read it. You'll love it."


"It really picks up after the first ten pages."

Kind of pitches.

onefinemess said...

I think this is a good illustration of the difference between an editorial/agent type reader and my own reading tastes.

I frequently find myself incredibly annoyed when everything explodes on page 1, etc. Now that I've been exposed to the "biz" for a while (in the sense of all these agent/editor blogs and reading up on how to break in) I can often pretty clearly see how things have been shifted up front to entice an agent/editor, following various bits of advice I see repeated all over the web, etc.

But you know... most of those books that I pick up in the book store and the first page explodes like that (usually debut novels, the same kind of pressure doesn't seem to exist for others??)... I put it back down and find something else.

I recognize that this is just The Way Things Are (TM), but the more I find out about the wizard the more I wish I hadn't messed with the curtain.

moonrat said...

onefinemess--SO INTERESTING. It's true that acquisitions trends do NOT reflect reader trends. Mostly because there's no way to really predict reader trends. We just get lucky when they match up.

Lisa_Gibson said...

Great post. Thanks. *Note to self: pull reader in right away.* :)

angelle said...

seriously. yes. i mean, things don't need to EXPLODE, but they need to be interesting, and in a good way - language and voice, preferably, if not in action. SOMETHING. and please, for godssakes, have clean prose.

my eyes are bleeding.

Laurel said...

No pressure. Nope, none at all.

This from the girl who wrote the body of all her papers first, conclusion second, and then took nearly as long to write the introductory paragraph as the entire rest of the paper.

JEM said...

Um. What an awesome post. Assuming your reader is in a bad mood...brilliant.

I've often wondered about the "not my interest" thing. I mean, I wouldn't want to rep a book I didn't personally find interesting. Maybe that's why I'm not an agent or editor. Hunh.

Bethany said...

I was all prepared to leave a comment related to the post and then I saw onefinemess and it totally weirded me out. Like bumping into someone at an unexpected place.

Anyway, yes. First page.

Anonymous said...

Yep. If that first sentence, that first paragraph and that first page doesn't grab the're done.

WendyCinNYC said...

I always read the first page when I'm selecting a book at the bookstore. Nothing needs to explode, (in fact, if it does, odds are the book won't be my thing) but something has to get me thinking "hmm, interesting. I wonder what's in the box?" or "is he going to walk out on that tightrope?" or even "geez, what's HER deal?"


Dan said...


It's not a question of everything exploding. I think that's a very common misconception. The trend is to start mis en scene, with something happening, but the thing that is happening shouldn't necessarily be literal action, like a fight scene or a car chase.

Your goal as an author is to quickly introduce a character and a problem.

Dropping into the story in the middle of a swordfight usually isn't the best way to do this. When you have action without context, there's nothing at stake and the reader won't engage with it. Your introduction to the character gets buried in the mechanical details of the fight or the chase, and the set piece ends up being counterproductive.

A good first page could be a character sitting in an exam room at a doctor's office, waiting for a test result.

A good first page could be the protagonist telling his wife a lie.

The goal is to show the reader something about the character and to engage the reader in what is going to happen next.

What you don't want to be doing on the first page is describing a house or a town, or talking about what a character looks like.

Rachel said...

That's good advice. Thank you. :)

My problem is that, while I'm very happy with my pages 1-30 of my draft, I hate the rest. I'm assuming the rest is important, too. Unfortunately.

Debra L. Schubert said...

Awesome post. We debut authors are bombarded with suggestions as to how to go about writing the first page. In the end, it's like everything else we write - it has to inspire us and, hopefully, it will inspire others. Overthinking anything in life, including Page One, often leads to trouble. Breathe in, breathe out, and write the best you can from Page One to The End.

JES said...

Assume whoever is reading your submission is going to be in a terrible mood when they look at page 1.

Love it. But, well, there IS an alternative: somehow arrange things so that your MS is at the top of the stack on a given day. I'd love to know the secret to that.

Keith Popely said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simon C. Larter said...

So what you're saying is that we should use different-colored fonts to break the monotony of white on black, yes? This is good to know.

jjdebenedictis said...

With my first (publishable) novel, I got rejected 25 times.

Then I rewrote the first scene.

And then I got an agent almost immediately.

So I totally see your point.

Ray Rhamey said...

You've touched upon the whole focus of my blog, Flogging the Quill, where I (and my readers) critique the first page of a manuscript. If you're curious, it's at I'd like to quote a little from your post here and, of course, attribute and link it. Thanks for the validation of my notions about the importance of the first page.

Rachel said...

Keith, I agree with Dan and think this might be more in line with what moonrat is saying. The post didn't indicate that something really dramatic has to happen in the first 2 paragraphs.

It's sort of like food. The first course doesn't have to be jalapeƱo poppers to make you like it. A perfect soup or elegant salad has a lasting effect on a taster, and I think a first page is the same.

A strong, compelling style and interesting (even if they're soft-spoken) characters can really pull a reader into a book on the first page.

But I'm not an editorial assistant, so I can't be sure. ;)

Bernita said...

I'm happy with mine.
I wrote the entire book around that first line.

Keith Popely said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Theresa Milstein said...

I agonize over page one like no other. And now I think they'll make readers want to go to page two. I'm querying now, so I'll see if I've improved.

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

I've found the comments interesting. I've revised my first five pages at least 50 times. I think the first page has to have voice, no matter what's happening. A boring scene is interesting if it's described with personality. I tend to write with momentum. I get better towards the end. I write nonfiction and it's taken me 9 years to realise that 'I', my voice, was absent.

Good luck. I hope you find something good.

Whirlochre said...

Kung fu aromatherapy elves.

That's what you need.

Equally kick ass and soothing, guaranteed to knead your irritation into a Brad Pitt's butt circa 'the baby years' softness scenario as you're sat, tethered to the MSS machine, reading ream after ream after ream of bizarrely thrust hopes.

Some of them play in Japanese indie bands.

All bake sumptuous cakes.

Don't wait for their chance arrival, awaft on a flurry of smoke.

Call to them now — oh, kung fu aromatherapy elves, so glad of Japanese indie, so stuffed to bursting with cakes, visit yourselves upon me, bring light to my mortal suffering etc.

Might work.

Nancy Coffelt said...

I like what Keith Popely has to say about EVERY page needing to be good.
I'm neck deep in revising right now and I have a question taped to the wall above my monitor - "Am I boring you?"

No car crashes - yet - in this book but voice, motivation and hopefully, that somethin', somethin' is coming through to someone other than me.

J.D. Roa said...

Yes, about that first page. I think all writers should just treat it like a conversation with someone else. You wouldn't necessarily start telling them about your battle with cancer (maybe), but you also wouldn't start launching into 21 questions about your favorite color, how many siblings, etc. (maybe). Divulging relevant information starts with tone.

Your reader has to know that you're speaking to them, and the best way to do that is to start off with a good tone or ambiance that gets them in as quickly as possible and makes them feel like they're entering a symbiotic discussion.

You can't go wrong when you have an appealing tone and/or sense of humor. It dispels crankiness and assures the reader that you're not out to "get" them or "trick" them.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

LOL at Simon C. Larter. Yes, use those colorful fonts. I'm pretty sure agents and editors LOVE reading yellow on white. ;-)

I agree that the voice needs to be there from page 1, some type of internal conflict, at least. But I don't personally like a ton of action on page 1. I picked up a fiction book on Templars (huzb loves them) at B&N, but neither of us could get past the 1st page because it started with a battle and names and microscopic emotional indicators that were hard to attribute to the right character. Blah. I want to read, not work.

Although, for you it is work. *shrugs* What do you think is more important on the first page: voice or conflict?

OfficeGirl said...

I think its safe to say that talking about magical chickens who carry around tissues is a good way to make someone really happy...or want KFC..which in your case..may be both.

meyerprints said...

Queni said...

nice post!!

moonrat said...

Katrina--voice, hands down!!

Kate Lacy said...

I'd love to see your response to a story in which the crisis has already happened, but we don't know what it is until half-way through the book. I'm thinking of Anybody Out There by Marian Keyes.
How do you think you'd have responded to her first page? Of course, I realize this would be second-guessing, but when you tell me that you're impatient and hard on first pages because you're up to your tutu in manuscripts, it sounds like expediency trumps quality.

Ian Lewis said...

I can really see your point here and if I ever do write that novel inside me I'll bear in mind what you say here.

I have frequently chosen the books I read by reading the first page. When I get to page two or three and come out of my reading reverie I know that this is probably the one for me.


Anonymous said...

I think some of the comments here are potentially misunderstanding the point. I'm not so sure that this is about plot expediency - after all, the post says that sometimes stories can start too fast! No, it's saying that if you're a good writer, there's no excuse for not pulling in the reader immediately. And that doesn't mean a bomb has to go off. Because sometimes bombs are boring, especially if they're too early and there are no stakes yet.

I find first pages really difficult. But I started to get better at them when I realized that you don't need to start the story off with "action", at least not the action movie kind.

What you need to start off a story is this - a compelling question. And compelling questions can be surprisingly subtle. If you make the reader ask a compelling question, a "What's going on here?" moment, then you create the impetus for the reader to read further and find out. Actually, I get kind of annoyed at all the "Start the story with action" advice when I think what people really mean is, "Start the story off with a question".

Then I think a high-quality novel will deepen the question and/or create new questions in order to maintain reader interest, while also raising the stakes in order to create emotional impact. If you have just one flashy question or moment in your first page, then people feel gypped in the long run.

Sorry. Didn't mean to write my own blog about it. I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I've written some of my first novel and I took a breather to outline and make sure I knew where I was going. So questions of reader interest and tension are really on my mind. I don't mean to sound like I even think I know what I'm talking about.

moonrat said...

Thanks, anon. You heard me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I'm glad you liked some of my thoughts.

Actually, openings are my favorite part to write. It's the first flower of your idea; the contract between you and your reader: "This is my vision. Do you wanna come for the ride?"

They may be a pain to write, but the work feels better when tempered with enthusiasm!

Anonymous said...

I have never, ever purchased a book based on the first page. I base virtually all my purchases on word of mouth, reviews, even the jacket copy -- basically, once I hear what the book (the entire book) is about, I decide if I want to buy it.

Obviously, when querying, the query has to be stellar. The first pages have to be stellar. But cautioning writers that "your first page better rock my world" just seems so contrary to how people choose books.

Keith Popely said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mac said...

The first pages have to be stellar. But cautioning writers that "your first page better rock my world" just seems so contrary to how people choose books.

I think this is a bit of a generalization. Plenty of people choose books by the first page, particularly that sort of person who browses in stores for the pleasure of the atmosphere. It's how I discovered Marjorie Liu -- a kickass first sentence.

That is not to say this is the only way I choose books. But an excellent opener defnitely ups the chance.

I often hear a variety of "tests" bandied about -- there are people who read the back blurb, the fisrt page, and then the first chapter in store before purchase, or people who read the first page and then a random page in the middle to see if the writer's style is consistent -- page 65 or whatever. Some people flip through to see if the thing is dialog-heavy, or description heavy, depending on whether they enjoy those things.

My point being, I guess, that one can't assume the general reading public chooses books in the same way one might themselves choose.

I personally don't trust word of mouth et cetera to apply to my tastes, much. I've been disappointed by fads, or even by reviewers or friends I respect. Taste is just too arbitrary and individual. Gotta have the hands-on experience on my own -- I've found it to be surer. And the fist page definitely plays into that (though not necessarily exclusively). For me.

Matt schulz said...

Keith, you're 100 percent right about Dragon Tattoo. Just started reading it and have been baffled by how dull the first 75 pgs were. Hope it gets better.

Beyond that, of course, the first pg has to be strong. If someone stumbles across your book, picks it up and is not grabbed on pg 1, they'll just set it down and not buy it. Kind of a big deal.

The Recalcitrant Scrivener said...

This is of course all true, and anyone who submits a fiction manuscript to an agent or publisher needs to be aware of these constraints. On the other hand, judging fiction by its immediate impact, specifically by the impact of the first page, is to define oneself as a superficial reader.

Unfortunately, this is what writers are faced with. It also explains why Tinkers by Paul Harding was rejected by every major New York publisher and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Isn’t something very wrong here?

Annette Lyon said...

I hate first pages for this very reason. So much pressure to get it right--and "right" is painfully subjective.

One writer friend put a it a good way, though: you earn the reader wanting to go to the second sentence, the second paragraph, the next page.

I don't write about explosions and the like. But if I can keep the reader interested, then it works.

I still hate first pages, though. I always have to rewrite them a gazillion times.

Matt Sinclair said...

This post and several cogent comments made me feel a smidgen better about my manuscript. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Recalcitrant Scrivener:
"George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died." That's how TINKERS starts, fwiw. Pretty compelling, no?

I'm curious as to how you choose a book to buy among the thousands at the bookstore. Assuming you don't have all day to browse and can't afford every single one. Blurbs? The cover? Awards won?

Eeleen Lee said...

'Assume whoever is reading your submission is going to be in a terrible mood when they look at page 1."

Trust me, I don't have to assume- I "know*

writtenwyrdd said...

Can you possibly describe the intangibles, the emotional reactions, or whatever it is that you find particularly irresistable? Or what things are generally markers of being interesting or outstanding?

I realize this is like asking you to describe color to the blind, or defining je ne sais quas (I hope I spelled that right.) Thanks!

funny in the 'hood said...

I just re-wrote the first page of my novel because of this post.

And it's better.

Great advice.

Anonymous said...

I guess because I don't feel good I'm going to be a bit snarky here, but if a commenter wants to give writing advice, I'll take you much more seriously if you learn how to use the shift key and punctuation.

Now, on to Moonrat.

I've rewritten my first page and my first chapter so many times I don't know what reincarnation this is. I'm fine with that. I like what I have now. I learned a hard lesson at an Idol workshop at a conference how important it is to hook an agent immediately.

That being said, I also get a little weary from the open with action mantra. I have a friend with the most beautifully written fantasy. I revel in her words and she has the most visually entrancing opening, it's like walking into a Kincaid painting and then being hit with a legend. After reading over and over how you have to open with action, she scrapped the beginning and went to one with action. It's nice and it has intrigue and action, but I loved falling into her world.

Regardless, this is the world we live in and we either adapt or read our unpublished manuscripts to our grandchildren and tell them stories about how we dreamed of being a writer.

moonrat said...

Ok, guys, though, seriously--I really NEVER said open with action. I said open with special. That's the world we live in.

June said...

Now, I am far from an expert and I'm seeking publication too, but I've been to enough writer conferences to have some idea of what Moonrat is talking about.

After listening to writers read their first pages and queries, I often find myself simply bored. It's not that the writing is bad or the story poorly written, most are written just fine, but there is nothing special to pull me in and think "OMG, I've got to know more! or What is this about?!"

If I feel this way after only hearing a relatively few first pages, imagine someone who does this for a living and is looking for awesome, but consistently seeing "okay, fine, boring, ho hum" This is on top of the stuff that is poorly written.

Moonrat has confirmed what I suspected and experienced in my own tiny way. She makes it clear that I have to make sure my story has a voice that draws one into it and that the story is a little different and unique. No one wants to read the same old stuff, especially an editor who's seen it all before!

Keith Popely said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Becca said...

Excellent post! I'm glad you commented on immersing the reader too quickly, because I see that a lot in critique groups. People who think something happening means shooting at your MC in the opening paragraph. To me, you're shooting at a cardboard cutout. I just don't care.

I've heard you want something happening on every page. It doesn't have to be a bomb going off, but just SOMETHING that moves the story forward and holds the reader's interest.

Heliotrope said...

This is one of the most honest posts I've read. Still, I can't be sympathetic with anyone too passive and acclimated do his or her job. That's the trouble with the industry these days. Decision-makers are burned out. Publishing is losing steam!

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Ditto for magazine editors. If I don't know what your story's about by the end of the first page, it's unlikely I'll read on.

Anonymous said...

Check out the blog below. Peter Selgin, an award-winning fiction writer and teacher, is offering free anonymous critiques and discussions of submitted first pages:


Ita Roche Author said...

Oh what a tangled web we weave - when we start playing with the bloody alphabet!

Anonymous said...

I feel compelled to write to this topic as I am currently reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, and revising my own novel. It's unfortunate that an editor would give up on a book by the first page. A beautiful, involved book such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (I could name others) requires a significant investment---90 pages or so, for a pay-off. If I were to give up on the first page, and decide that the opening line told an event about someone I didn't care about, I would miss out on a great story.

I hope this post is not a reflection on all of publishing. I believe everyone should listen to your intuition and write the book you believe in.

A brilliant first page doesn't count for anything if the 300 folling pages don't deliver.

Rhyanna said...

Interesting Aricle I've kind of wonder if an editor got mad over what they see and wish to see.

I tried some sort of calamity at first...then didn't like it. So then I started with a little back story, which got the story flowing. Then I edited it and made a mess. Great start over huh???? not really frustrating as I tried to recreate the manuscript.

On another it starts off kind of funny... a pet in the picture taking the show, ham parrot that it is, made the heroine laugh, then cringe (Just because her brothers' trained it!!!))))

Also in another ms that I've been working on, again a 'pet' gets in the scene, causing some laughter, before it starts to get dangerous.

So is it wise to include humor at the start, I don't know...I just know that it seeme.
Has anyone checked out Rachelle Gardner's article on writing a great book?



Rhyanna said...

gee I just realized that part of my sentence was cut off.
The sentence was about adding humor, but substance to start off, does it work, I don't know but at the time I wrote the scene it seemed appropriate. However, since I am trying to direct it towards Harlequin-Silhouette Nocturne series, where they want it a bit dark. SO again would starting out with a little humor help? I don't know. What I do know is that I am willing to take the chance...after all it can be edited out later right?
Anyway, great article.

LouieBella said...

Thanks for the advice... PS... love your blog! (i know i'm late)