I attended my first local Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference here in Colorado last weekend and there was a strong emphasis on the dreaded first page – one session was devoted to reading random first pages aloud to two editors (I was too chicken to enter!) and in another, more intensive session, the first 3-5 pages of a new novel were evaluated (I did bravely submit for this one!). We’ve dealt with a number of first pages here at the Kill Zone and, although this conference was focused on children’s books (ranging from picture books to middle grade and young adult), the same issues (unsurprising) reared their ugly heads, so I thought it would be helpful to distill and share some of the advice the editors and agents gave on those all important first pages.
By way of background, the two editors who conducted the first page session were Andrew Karre, executive editor at Dutton, and Stacy Whitman, founder and publisher of Tu books (Andrew also provided the novel intensive session). I also attended a session with Kristen Nelson, an agent, where the group evaluated query submissions (which in most cases focused, once again, on those dreaded first pages).
Here’s the advice, distilled and summarized as best I can:
Start with intrigue, leave explanations and extensive backstory for later
Many of the first pages evaluated fell into the trap of over-explaining (usually by way of character backstory) and succumbing to large chunks of narrative exposition before the action even got going. All the editors and agents agreed that the first pages of a novel must intrigue and raise questions in the reader – if those questions are answered too soon then there is no real payoff for the reader and, hence, no reason for them to continue to read. The difficulty comes when trying to achieve the next key point: anchoring your reader in time and place.
Anchor your reader, nonetheless in place and time
Some first pages provided a great deal of mystery and intrigue but too little in the way of ‘grounding’ so the reader felt lost before the story had really begun. Some pieces sounded contemporary only to turn out to be historical (and the reader had no way of knowing the setting or time period from the start which was disorientating). Some pages began with dialogue and no real foundation for the reader to visualize where that dialogue was taking place. Again, the editors all emphasized that a first page has to serve two purposes – to draw a reader in and hook them with the story and also to provide them with enough basic information to know where and when the story was taking place so they were willing to go along for the ride (rather than thinking ‘huh?!”) from the get go.
Overall, the editors emphasized, a balance has to be achieved between action and intrigue, questions and answers, exposition and dialogue. This is no easy task but one that enables a reader to get hooked on the story, suspend disbelief, and want to keep turning the pages to discover the resolution to the issues raised.
Make sure you have a clearly established ‘voice’ and choice of POV from the outset
In the novel intensive program, this issue was raised a number of times as we discussed the choice of POV used in our crucial first pages. Sometimes the choice of first versus third person felt strange or forced, sometimes it was clearly the way the story needed to be told. The key element was one of deliberate choice by the author rather than lack of certainty over voice or POV (which comes through as inconsistency or uncertainty in the writing).
Avoid dialogue that sounds like it’s only for the reader’s benefit
All too often the dialogue in some first pages was too obviously providing information for the reader and so it felt forced and inauthentic. All the editors agreed that authors should avoid using dialogue as a backhanded way of introducing exposition or in a way that sounds like people are only telling each other facts or backstory for the reader to ‘overhear’. The critical element, once again, was to create a sense of authenticity and voice when using dialogue in the all important first few pages of the book.
Avoid mixed metaphors or overly ‘intellectual’ or ‘precious’ turns of phrase
As part of the editing process, the editors emphasized trying to pare down the first pages as much as possible so extraneous information is left out and readers aren’t slowed down by turns of phrase or metaphors designed to impress rather than move the story along. When we discussed this in the first pages session, the editors also emphasized that authors need to be aware of inadvertant ‘micro-agressions’ that come from using racially stereotyped or inappropriate phrasing. One of the main topics for the SCBWI conference was the issue of diversity in children’s literature (or rather the lack thereof) so this came up occasionally when dealing with the initial pages of some authors’ work.
So there you have it – further insights into the pitfalls to avoid in the first pages of your book! While there were no real surprises in terms of the feedback provided, I think it never hurts to have these issues repeated. Feel free to add your own comments or further insights…