The First Page

By John Gilstrap

Greetings from Muncie, Indiana, where I have the honor of serving on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference on the campus of Ball State University. As part of my responsibilities, I’m evaluating students’ manuscripts. I had forgotten how much I learn about my own writing by helping others improve theirs.

The manuscripts submitted to me are all thrillers, and the submissions were limited to five pages in length. As you might expect, the competency of the writing–from a commercial standpoint–varies fairly significantly among the students I’m evaluating, but I’ve noticed a common denominator among all of them that I think is a potential trap for writers everywhere: Slow first pages.

In this particular batch, the slowness trap is mostly about physical description. We open with a detailed rendering of eye color, fabric, hand gestures or in one notable case, breast size. In six of the ten manuscripts I evaluated, literally nothing had happened by the end of the five-page submission.

In the early drafts of everything I write, I seem to need a few pages of warm-up before I really get down to the business of telling the story at hand. That’s my process, and like all things process-related, I don’t even try to understand it anymore. It just is what it is. But I always go back and edit out all of that stuff. At least I try to.

I occasionally hang out in bookstores and watch people shop for their next book. The pattern is universal: Look at the cover; read the jacket notes; read the first page. Inexplicably to me, a significant minority also read the last page. Then they make their decision. I make my decision the same way. Don’t we all?

Those first few pages need to really sizzle. With any luck at all, the first line really sizzles. Ditto lines two, three, four . . . all the way to the end of the book. There’s probably some forgiveness somewhere in the middle, once you have the reader hooked, and they’ve already spent their money, but man those first pages are the audition. They’re the sales pitch. Thy’ve got to scream.

Do you obsess about your openings? Do you re-write the beginning a dozen times like I do? Are you constantly aware of that reader out there who’s judging you from a cold start based only on those first words?