Insights into the Dreaded First Page

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…



19 thoughts on “Insights into the Dreaded First Page

  1. “Anchor your reader, nonetheless in place and time”

    I’ve both read and written some opening pages that are very confusing as to place and time. It’s surprising how, if you’re not careful about the way you write, you might mislead a reader to think your story is contemporary when it’s really supposed to be historical, for example.

    For me, I do find it a tight balance between starting with a bang and not providing too much information or being too obvious–in fact one of my stories that I very much love I’m STILL not satisfied with sense of place & time on the opening page. I mean yeah, I can do the “Arizona Territory, 1864” header, but I want readers to feel it within that opening page too. But not so easy when you’re starting with an action moment.

  2. Really solid advice, Clare. Thanks for sharing.

    “Micro-aggressions” sounds like a topic for another post. (First time I’ve heard the phrase.) I recently critiqued a new writer’s short story and it offended me so much I had to quit to take a breather. It made the world and the characters unlikeable in a big way for me. I wanted to keep an open mind about the writing, but I couldn’t. My feedback centered on questioning how commercial the work would be to editors.

    • Definitely think a post on micro-agressions could be a good one – we had quite a bit of discussion on this at the conference in the context of not only diversity but respecting other cultures when incorporating them into your work.

  3. Good checklist, Clare. I’m reading a MS right now where I applied my “Chapter Two Switcheroo” trick. The first chapter was leaden with exposition. I pretended Chapter Two was the new Chapter One. It takes off so much better.

    Readers will wait a LONG time for exposition and backstory if they’re caught up in characters in motion due to a disturbance.

    Counterpoint: I’m reading an old Richard Matheson thriller, Ride the Nightmare. Begins with a phone call to a husband with the voice saying, “I’m going to kill you.” Next chapter, the guy shows up. Husband kills him. Chapter Three, wife understandably wants to know WHY this is happening. Husband has secret he’s not willing to share…etc. The first real backstory we get doesn’t happen until about halfway into the book.

    That’s how it’s done.

    • Jim
      I think many writers fear the ‘wait’ between the question and the answer but the withholding of information is often the driving force behind the intrigue and the desire of readers to keep turning the page. The ‘switcheroo’ is a great tactic – sometimes I think I could use the same method with my own work just to see if that first chapter is really needed at all.

  4. We write those first few chapters for ourselves. WE need to know our characters’ back story. The reader doesn’t. Not yet. I will say I’m getting better — I no longer have to cut the first 8 chapters of a new manuscript.

    • So true – The reader really just gets the tip of the iceberg so sometimes we as writers have to do some backstory dumping to get things clear in our own minds and then remove it from the manuscript.

  5. Avoid mixed metaphors or overly ‘intellectual’ or ‘precious’ turns of phrase

    Falling in love with one’s little darlings is perhaps the original sin of writers. As Samuel Johnson advised:

    ‘Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’

  6. Great, simple, straightforward tips, and always good to review. It seems like if you are writing you are constantly worried about one first page or another. It is always a hot topic! 😀

  7. Hi Claire,

    An interesting weekend for writing conferences, set during a full blood moon with an eclipse thrown in!

    My weekend event was the Flathead River Writers Conference in Montana where I presented an editing workshop, critiquing first pages also. The page was projected so the audience could follow along as I read aloud, as well as see the suggestions made and why I made them. Same issues you mention occurred repeatedly–unclear POV, no orientation in the story world, info dumps of backstory.

    The last event of the conference was a “First Impressions” session where the entire panel of speakers, including an editor and agent, and several bestselling authors, listened to the reading of a first page. They raised their hands when something made them stop reading. There was some overlap between submissions in my editing workshop and the First Impression ones. Thankfully, the problems I noted were also cited by the pros, which reassured me I hadn’t led anyone too far astray.

    Perhaps the most valuable comment came from Florida author Les Standiford who said, “There’s a big difference between being mysterious and being confusing.” He advised not to withhold crucial information under the pretext of intriguing readers, when in fact all you’re doing is frustrating them.

    Conferences are great to reinforce what you already know, but perhaps don’t practice. Also you may have heard the same advice before, but it never quite sank in until someone like Les explains it in a slightly different way. Suddenly, an epiphany!

    • P.S. MY brilliant epiphany from this weekend: do not wear pearls that clatter against the microphone. I sounded like a cow with a bell around its neck!

      • The first impressions session sounds pretty intimidating – I know my necklace would have been clanging round my neck too! Sometimes it feels like ‘sudden death’ at these sessions when editors stop people reading in mid stream – we had something similar and it is very valuable though a little demoralizing too!

  8. “Start with intrigue, leave explanations and extensive backstory for later”

    This is so true. Sometimes I will read something and the POV character is having a conversation and the next thing you know they are thinking back over how they met the other characters, for a page or two or three, and I wonder if the writer forgot there were other characters in the scene. What are they, on hold?

    “Start with intrigue, leave explanations and extensive backstory for later”

    I often find that the character description is too much information for the first page/chapter. There may be intrigue, someone chasing the MC through a warehouse, shooting at them and this is when the writer chooses to break in and tell me what the character looks like. Unless the character has neon yellow hair making them an easy target to spot, this ain’t the time.

    For me the first chapter is a work in progress within a work in progress. I go back and change it over and over. By the time the novel is ‘done’ the original chapter may be two paragraphs in the middle of chapter three, where it belongs.

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