At the Atlanta Writing Workshop two weeks ago, I attended their signature panel called “Writers Got Talent”—a Page 1 Critique Fest. Participants anonymously submitted the first page of their manuscript for critique by a panel of agents and publishers. They got through 18 entries of various genres and skill levels and I took copious notes on their feedback. While I can’t share the manuscripts themselves, I did sort through the comments and found some pretty common trends across the board.
So, without further ado, here are your Do’s and Don’ts for writing an Amazing First Page:
Do’s (and where to find examples)
1.) Set the scene. Who are your characters? Where are they? What’s going on? These are three things you need to establish in your first page in a coherent way. Good openers introduce the reader to your world and draw them in. It’s also a great time to establish the tone of the work or the overlying themes.
Examples: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, or 1984 by George Orwell.
2.) Have a unique, memorable voice. A unique voice will pull the reader into to narrative and gives them an immediate investment in your characters. I also noticed that the judges were more forgiving of other flaws if the voice of the piece captured their attention.
Examples: The Martian by Andy Weir or Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger for first person narration; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and anything by Terry Pratchett for third-person POV that still retains its own unique voice.
3.) Draw them in with an intriguing set up. You could start with some sort of action sequence that sets the scene or dive right into the premise of your story if it’s off the wall.
Examples: The Gunslinger by Stephen King, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson or either The Trial or The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. (Tell me you don’t want to read more about a man who wakes up as a bug…)
4.) Tactile, sensory imagery is a plus. If you’re going to start by describing the environment rather than establishing a quirky voice or introducing your main character, make sure the imagery is excellent and the scene is rich enough with sensory details to set the mood and immerse your reader.
Examples: The Scarlet Pimpernell by Baroness Orczy, Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind, Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe. Anything gothic that relies on atmosphere could fit here.
5.) Send them something they can sell. This is a little more nuanced, so bear with me. Publishers are going to have their own tastes, but of the submissions that were read, humor, “classic” genre fiction (as in it read like it was written in the fifties), and tone that clashed with the intended readership were all tough sells. Not impossible, but tough; agents and publishers just won’t accept work they can’t sell. My advice? Research your market and see if you can imagine your book on the same shelf as your contemporaries.
1.) Don’t go overboard with your action. Your opening page shouldn’t jump around to different characters, different settings, or different points in time. Why? It’s hard to build momentum and investment in characters if you switch gears too soon at the beginning. (This is also why a lot of prologues don’t work.) Too many scenes lead to bad transitions and instead of drawing the reader in, you end up leaving them behind.
2.) Don’t introduce too many characters at once. Like with too much action, too many characters will be confusing for readers who are meeting your cast for the first time. Even the Harry Potter series had catch-up chapters to reintroduce readers to the world.
3.) Watch your language. The judges would get stuck on clunky metaphors and word repetition, which threw off their reading rhythm. You’ll catch a lot of this if you read your opening page out loud, so be sure to proofread and find some betas who will be honest with you. Ask them if there was anything they stumbled over when they first read it.
4.) Don’t fall in love with your own description. This is the opposite problem of too much action in that it takes too long to build your momentum. In a first page you have roughly one paragraph to set the scene and then it’s time to move on. Keep up the pace and don’t indulge yourself with flowery prose.
5.) Don’t be cliche. Turn off’s for the judges included pieces with stock characters, situations, or voices that were too much like what they had seen before. To impress, you have to know what’s out there and prove you’re doing something different enough to catch their attention. So how do you avoid tropes? Check out small publishers in short story markets. They’re not shy about posting what they’re seeing too much of lately. (Don’t know any small publishers? Check out my Publisher’s Spotlights for some ideas of who’s out there.)
Well, that’s all the advice I have for now. Got any tips of your own? Disagree vehemently with any of mine? Leave a note in the comments and share your advice!