The importance of the first page

All readers know that the first page of a book is make or break. When I pick up a paperback in the bookstore I do three things–look at the cover, read the back, skim the first page. If I get to the first page and it fails to grab me, I put it down and walk away.

Readers get this. But sometimes, even if we’re readers too, we writers forget this. So today I’m talking to all you fellow writers out there. (Non-writers, you’re more than welcome to come along for the ride!)

Live action slush piles

Last summer I went to my very first writing conference. It was a fabulous three days of panels, discussions and workshops on reading, writing, and editing.

My favourite sessions at this conference were the live action slush piles.

In these panels, any writers in attendance could add the first page of their manuscript to the pile of pages to be read. The pages were then read aloud by a reader. A three-person panel of authors, editors, agents and the like listened along with the crowd. The panelists would raise a hand at the point in the page at which they would stop reading if this query came across their desk. Once three hands were raised, the reading stopped and the panelists explained to the crowd what they liked, what they didn’t like, and why they raised their hand. It was gold.

Listening in on these slush piles was so much fun. There were some amazing pages and incredibly talented writers who bucked up the courage to invite criticism and have their piece read aloud in front of tons of strangers. I loved it and I’m planning on bringing a page next summer.

I learned so much during these panels. It was nice to hear practical examples of common writing guidelines and fun to watch faces as people tried to understand the sentences they were hearing.

Basically, these live action slushes are all about advice on first pages and how to hook an agent, an editor, a publisher, and the all important READER into your story so much so that they can’t stop reading it.

Here is the briefest of glimpses into what I learned (seriously. I have like 45 pages of notes from the weekend):

What do you need to give your reader in your first page?

  1. Give your reader a character.
  2. Give your reader a setting.
  3. Give your reader a conflict.

Your reader needs to know who they should care about, where they are, and what is going on. You need someone, somewhere, involved in some thing.

On the first page, tease your reader – give them just enough information that they care, that their interest is piqued, that they want to read more, but hold some of your cards close to your chest. Ooo – cliché! That brings me to the next bit of info I gleaned in these panels…things to avoid.

What do you want to avoid in your first page?

  1. Avoid using lots of adverbs and adjectives.
  2. Avoid info dumps about anything – setting, character, back story, problem.
  3. Avoid attempts at being clever.

The overwhelming majority of panelists I listened to mentioned giving unnecessary information as one of the main reasons why they stopped reading. Trying to cram all the background information alongside clever turns of phrase and adjective after adjective on the first page bogs the reader down so much that they are likely to drown trying to piece it all together. This type of writing points to you, the author, and says look at me, I’m such a great writer.

On the first page, think about the information your reader absolutely needs to know. Give them only that information and give it to them in such a way that it connects them to the point of view character rather than to you, the author. That is, after all why we read about characters: to experience their adventures and journeys.

What first pages have hooked you into the story? Why do you think they succeeded?

  1. Yes! Completely agree. In this age of digital reading, the Amazon “Look Inside” sample is crucial. It’s what I look at when I see someone advertising their fantastic, amazing, mindblowingly wonderful book – and if the first few sentences don’t grab me, or (even worse) have mistakes or lame writing in it, forget it.

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