Notes from a First Page Panel

Let’s face it:  first pages are hard work. Half the time you start your first page without knowing where your novel’s going; many times, those original first pages end up getting heavily edited, if not actually deleted. Been there, done that! And what might seem fine to us just isn’t fine to agents and editors.

The Rose State Writers Conference was in September. One of my favorite parts of this conference is what’s known as the ‘First Page Panel.’ Attendees bring the firs page of their manuscript and drop it into a box when they arrive that morning; at noon, the box is brought into the main auditorium, we all gather with box lunches, and the panel – composed of the guest agents, writers, and teachers – tell us what they like and don’t like. Each page is read aloud; anyone on the panel has the right to stop the reader at any time.

At first, the panel’s nice. After they get through about 10 pages, they start to get a bit tougher. 🙂 Here’s some notes from this year’s panel:

First – not too much backstory or dialogue. A lot of the pages broke this cardinal rule. In fact, one agent went so far as to say this:  No backstory. No exposition. Start with the character and their problem. You can fill in everything else later. Otherwise, it’s lazy writing. 

Don’t start with dialogue. Especially when there’s no speaker delineated, or grounding for the reader. There’s no context; it’s just wasted words. And contrary to popular belief, it generally doesn’t incite curiosity in the reader, unless it’s the right dialogue. Most isn’t.

While I’m on the subject of dialogue . . . Dialogue cannot be used to get information across. “As you know, Bob . . .” Just don’t. Agents will throw your manuscript across the room and curse you forever. Well. Maybe just for a bit. 🙂

And before we leave the subject of dialogue . . . Give us an idea of your MC in your dialogue. Age? Speaking voice? Dialect? (Not too much of that, though.) Remember, show us what they’re like. That means the voice, too. What words they use. How they structure sentences. What they talk about.

Make sure you set the time and place, and let the reader orient themselves. Don’t set them adrift! This is one of the reasons why starting with dialogue is bad – because there’s no context. Think about your favorite movies. Do they start with dialogue? Or do we start with a few opening scenes that let us know when/where we are?

But:  Choose your details carefully. Watch the pacing. Too many details will slow it down and the reader will walk away. This is NOT an info-dump. This is not backstory. Setting is never separate from the story. Choose your details well. Give just 1-3 telling, specific details; the reader will do the rest. More, and the reader will start to skim, or even get resentful. If you describe a house as a “pink Victorian,” for example, the reader knows what that should look like, and they’ll fill in the rest with their own imagination. And this gives them buy-in! The house they imagine won’t be like yours, and it won’t be like anyone else’s, either. It’ll be theirs.

Create conflict from the get-go – or at least, create interest intrigue for your readers. Hook them with a question. As I’ve said before in other blog posts, that’s the job of the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page – to lure the reader in by asking questions they must know the answers to. 

The first page should ask questions. Questions should be asked throughout the book. Picture these as stepping-stones, leading the reader from one to the other, until they are done. But don’t lay down your questions in a way that confuses the reader! Lay them down in order. Answer one, raise two more. Sure, we’ve got this solved – now what conflict arises because of that?  Or, as author Katherine Center put it so eloquently,

“The readers are in your roller coaster. Lock them in and take off!”

BUT . . . There’s a subtle line between making people curious and overwhelming them. Once they’re confused, they’re lost. Don’t pull them out of the story! And don’t let them put the book down.To hook readers, give them one little thing that’s out of place. Set up questions for them. One example from the conference was this gem:  “When I got home the door was locked – and I never lock the door.” Doesn’t that put a question in your mind? Maybe two or three, even?

Emotions:  make the reader feel them. Show, don’t tell. Every single word needs to be there because it’s important to the story. Make sure the reader knows what they have to know. Give the basics – that’s it. Description kills the urgency. The pace of the story should reflect the characters’ emotions.

And on that note, watch your writing. The first page may be all you get to entice agents, editors, and readers. Do. Not. Use. Adjective and Adverbs. Too many adjectives make agents and readers ‘too aware of the writing.’ They notice and stumble over it. Make the words disappear. Never pull them out of the story. And don’t make them think about the language. Or again, as Katherine Center said, “Thinking is hard. Stories should be easy!”

One tidbit I learned is that agents have what they call the ‘modifier zone’ – the point at which agents stop reading because the author is putting in too many modifiers (dapper, plush, etc.). Just tell us what’s what. Tell us what we have to know to move forward. Picture the first page as the opening scene of a movie. Do we need to know everything? No. Should we have some hint, some clue, as to the central conflict and characters? Yes.

Prologues:  it’s hard to gauge a novel on the prologue, especially if it’s about 5 pages long and the agent or editor has asked for the first five pages. It’s often written differently than the rest of the novel, and usually it’s info-dumping. Get to the story.

More importantly, ask yourself:  why am I starting the book here? What is the purpose of this scene? If the answer has anything to do with backstory, you’re not staring in the right place. Backstory = prologue, in most cases. Get rid of it.

We weren’t able to get through very many in an hour and twenty minutes – of the 50+ submissions, I think we read about 15 aloud. But those 15 bold guinea pigs helped their fellow attendees, and I hope they may have helped you. 🙂 I do, however, want to leave you with just one more tidbit from Katherine Center:

“Anyone who writes has to know what they LOVE to read.” And then they should be writing that. Not something else. That. “Write the story you wish was out there in the world. If it’s romance – great! Whatever it is that lights the reading fire in you is what you should be writing.”

 

Katherine Center’s website:  http://www.katherinecenter.com/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/first-month-first-week-first-lines/

 

 

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