You must have heard of the Mickey Spillane quote that’s often-repeated in writer circles: The first page sells this book. The last page sells your next.
Editors at publishing houses and literary agencies have very little time on their hands – typically twenty or thirty seconds per manuscript during the evaluation phase. They will read your first sentence, maybe your first paragraph, but from then on, it’s all conditional. They will read only as long as your writing grips them.
Authors often complain about this state of affairs (we’re a rather miserable bunch), but we shouldn’t, I think. Even in the real world, in a bookstore, the situation is the same. A prospective reader browsing the shelves is not likely to spend more than a minute reading your prose before deciding whether to buy or to bin.
So submitting to an editor is just like practice. A bit of sparring before the main duel.
I’m no editor, but if I was one, I would like to see the following things on the first page of your manuscript.
1. The main character
I want to know what the name of your main character is as early as possible. In fact, I would prefer the first two words of your manuscript being the first and last names of your protagonist. And then, in the first couple of paragraphs, I want a basic physical description which places him in his world: maybe give me his occupation, his age, and whatever details are necessary for me to understand the story.
You don’t have to describe every inch of the person, only the details relevant to his character. For instance, if your protagonist is an investment banker, what he wears and which car he drives may be more revealing of his personality than his height. Whereas if he is a fisherman, the strength in his arms and his upper body are more relevant.
2. Forward movement
More than anything, in the first three paragraphs, your character should begin moving. This does not mean physical movement (though it can be), but a psychological movement towards or away from his goal.
As Ernest Hemingway once said: Do not confuse movement with action.
While action is great, the movement of your character towards his goal is what creates plot. In the first page of your manuscript, I want to see evidence of your understanding of this concept, because it is what your book will ultimately live by.
3. Clarity of expression
This is important because in its most basic form, writing is communication. A good communicator is not always a good storyteller, but a good storyteller needs to be a good communicator. Grammar and punctuation are important parts of communicating clearly.
In William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, the most important two bits of advice to any writer are these:
- Be clear
- Omit needless words
If I’m reading your first page and I’m not quite getting the meaning of your sentences, then I wouldn’t bother reading ahead. Or reading over.
4. The hint of conflict
The first two or three paragraphs must contain the the beginnings of conflict. Your main character, whom you introduced in the first line, will be in a state of displeasure and discomfort. Something is disturbing his life, and he wants the disturbance to go away. To take a movie example, in The Matrix, the first scene shows Neo getting a call on his pager from Morpheus saying, ‘The rabbit hole runs deep.’
You don’t need to tell me the whole central conflict in the first page, of course, but the hint of it must be present.
5. Originality in voice
Like pornography, derivative writing is hard to define but easy to spot. If you use cliches like ‘eyes like pools’ and ‘white as snow’, if your images are generic and recognizable, if your main characters appear at first glance to be either too perfect or too flawed, if your descriptions are superficial, if your plot elements are contrived, I will most likely set your manuscript aside and move on to the next one. Remember? I only have a minute to spare.
The key to writing in an original voice is to be honest with yourself. While some elements of your story will be borrowed from elsewhere, the key is whether or not you’re putting enough of yourself into it. In other words, are you twisting the known in enough ways so that it appears fresh and new when your reader reads it?
The easiest way to do this is to write in specific, sensory images. No matter how common the topic of the image is, your image will be your image alone. No other person in the world will see the world exactly as you do. If you look deeply enough at those associations and reproduce them faithfully onto the page, it will be only a matter of time before you discover your voice.
So that’s my top five of things I expect to find in a book’s first page. Editors and writers: do you agree? Readers: when you pick up a book at a store, what are you looking for in its first page that will dictate whether or not you buy it? Tell me in the comments below. I’m curious to know.
Image Courtesy: Public Domain Photos