THE FIRST PAGE REDUX
I’ve voiced my opinion on first pages before in the article The First Page. However, after attending our last writer’s conference, a few things came up at the first page read sessions that made me think. I think they’re worth visiting again.
As I told you before, I don’t believe in the first page. As a reader, I’ve never been sold on a book by the first page. On the other hand, there are many agents and publishers that are, so that is a huge hurdle one must overcome to get anywhere in the publishing world. I’m bringing this up because as I listened to the agents critiquing the first pages being read during our Friday lunch, a few things struck me. Universal things that should apply to any story.
First, there’s nothing wrong with getting to the point. Sounds simple enough, right? You wouldn’t believe how many first pages don’t do that. The author goes to all ends to try and impress the reader with their command of the English language by describing minute details about either the scene or the character. By the time we get to the bottom of the page, nothing has happened yet. You don’t have to necessarily slam bang the reader right off, but that’s not a bad idea. On the first page, you should at least move someplace.
Second, something I’m guilty of only once, I found out that it’s a terrible cliché to open a story with the character waking up. I’ve never read a story with a character waking up before. Yet, somehow that snuck into the reading world as a worn out cliché. What’s even worse is the cliché I did know about, having a character look in a mirror to describe themselves. Even worse is to use it on the first page. In one of my stories, I have my character wake up and look in the mirror! Of course, I knew about the mirror cliché and use it for special effect, but also now I have myself a double whammy to fix.
Third, if you’re going to have some kind of action on the first page, which you should, it should go somewhere. It should lead the reader in the direction of the plot. It shouldn’t be a random scene for effect to either introduce the character, one of their flaws or strengths, or to tell a joke. The first scene should always have something to do with the story (that joke could be there if it’s relevant to the plot). Save descriptive scenes for later in the book where they can do no harm. They should be short and sweet, not jarring, not listy but also shouldn’t set the reader off on the wrong foot. Everything has its’ place.
Fourth is to make sure the tone of the first page matches what you’re trying to accomplish with the rest of the story. Don’t start with a slam bang then shift gears, never to return to that style. What??? Don’t jerk your reader around.
There are probably more things I’m missing, but I got those four points just listening to those agents and pondering later what they didn’t say. Very few of them made it all the way through a first page without raising their hands that they’d stop reading.
The first page should be solid and the foundation of what is to come. It doesn’t have to blow the reader away, but it should not waste their time. Every word, every page counts. At the same time, I never judge a book by the first page. It sets a tone, but there isn’t enough room on a half to three quarters of a page to do much.
I look for point of view (third person, past tense), the genre (of course), the book blurb (which doesn’t coincide with the actual story half the time anyway), the author, the cover art, the print size and even the smell of the pages. I also leaf through as I’m checking for point of view to see how much empty space (as in dialogue) is there and if the author likes full page paragraphs (which usually means the author likes to drone on). Once I start reading, it’s not until I get to the third or fourth chapter that I get a feel for the story. Then I can tell if the book is going to be good or is going to suck. Of course, it could all come crashing down if the hero dies in the end, but that’s another story!