I’ve been attending writing conferences for a while now, and I keep thinking that, at some point, the sessions will start sounding like re-runs, but they haven’t. My favorite part of this year’s MidSouth SCBWI conference, after my two friends winning manuscript awards, of course (Yay! Way to go!), was the first pages session.
For those of you not familiar with a first pages session, people drop an anonymous copy of their manuscript’s first page (i.e. the first 200 words) in the designated box the morning of the conference. (There’s a different box for each category: picture books, middle grade and young adult.) Later, during the first page sessions, one presenter reads a submission out loud, then the critiquer(s)—usually an agent or editor, sometimes with a published author for a second opinion, critiques the first page. Then the reader randomly selects another page from the box.
I’ve always loved the first pages sessions, but this year’s YA session was the best I’ve been in. Maybe it was because the critquers, Kathleen Rushall, from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Darcy Pattison, an award-winning children’s author, did such a great job pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each first page. Maybe it was because, for the first time, I didn’t submit a first page myself, so instead of sitting in the room on pins and needles, holding my breath to see if mine would be read (there are always more submissions than they have time to get to in the hour), I could kick back and listen without any anxiety. Either way, I learned more than ever—and of course, jotted down insights into how to pump up my first page.
Though I don’t necessarily agree with every assessment every year (different people have different tastes, after all—and even the critiquers occasionally disagree), after fifteen or twenty minutes of sitting in the audience, listening, I often start to see patterns: both what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t.
One year, it seemed like a majority of the first pages started in the middle of an intense action sequence. I can’t say that was wrong, but after a dozen or so submissions along those lines, it started to exhaust me. I got numb to the action. I left that session realizing that a book doesn’t have to start with a literal bang. In fact, without context—and every first page is read without context—it can really backfire.
This year, the pattern was introductory, backstory paragraphs. I’m not saying they weren’t good, in fact most of them were great, but that kind of beginning accumulated during the session, and I could see how an agent or editor—after slogging through submission after submission—might become allergic to that type of opening. I started to see that most of those introductory paragraphs, though well written—were not necessary, and did not add.
What did work, the critiquers pointed out, was when, with a line or two, the author established the story’s setting (the when and where), and the character’s action.
The best beginnings had the main character doing something. It didn’t have to be a very active thing—the protagonist didn’t have to be running, fighting, or scrambling for his or her life—but something—some kind of action. In one awesome first page, the character was just walking down the street and saw something gruesome. That was enough action.
So here is my takeaway recipe for writing a bang-up first page. (I’m calling it the Three W’s and a Plus.)
- First W—The When:
I need to establish when the story is taking place. The when doesn’t have to be specific, i.e. a date and time, but has to anchor the story in the past, present or the future. I’m not talking about tense here, but whether the story takes place in the middle ages, modern day, or in a future sci/fi universe.
- Second W—The Where:
The where doesn’t have to be specific, either. The reader doesn’t need to know the name of the city, country or planet, but whether my character is inside or outside, ambling down a beach or floating in a spaceship, on an alien planet or walking a dog down a darkened city street.
- Third W—The What:
My character should be doing something. If the first two or three paragraphs don’t actually have the character engaged in some activity, they are most likely introductory paragraphs, and I’m going to axe them. They may fit into the story later, in some form or another, but I’m not going to put them in the book’s first page. And the action doesn’t have to be big; staring at a phone and willing it to ring counts as doing something—explaining to the reader who the protagonist is, or how she got where she is, does not count as doing something.
- The Plus:
The plus is something that piques the reader’s interest. In the first page, there needs to be some element that hints that something interesting is going to happen soon. There has to be something that makes the reader curious—some element of mystery, intrigue or suspense. It doesn’t have to be a deep dark serious plus either—it can be an awkward and funny plus, as in the reader sees a prat-fall coming up that the character doesn’t.
First pages is all about first impressions and gut reactions, but let’s face it—that’s how readers usually pick books. Browsing in a bookstore, I’m attracted by the cover first, then I read the back flap, then the first page. If I don’t love that first page—unless the book has been recommended to me by someone whose taste I really trust—I’ll set it down and go on to the next book.
And, of course, these are just my impressions. The other writers in the session may have completely different takeaways. I have loved a lot of books that started with what I now recognize as introductory paragraphs, as well as a books that opened in the middle of action scrambles, but after listening to first pages this year, I’m not going to start my book with either of those methods. I’m shooting for when, where, what and a plus—not necessarily in that order.