5 Things An Editor Wants To See On Your Manuscript’s First Page

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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

Comments

  1. Seductive woman sprawled out on the bed with D Majors in a C Minor. Wait, I should just be reading online porn.

    Someone I know once said, ‘I can’t read a book if the bullet isn’t fired in the first paragraph.’ I think that sums it up for me. Get to the action already. And while you’re doing that, tell me who the hero is, and what’s his problem in life. Spare me the lengthy descriptions.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Amit. I do concede that action is probably not a pre-requisite, because it depends on the genre. A literary novel may not begin with a bullet going off. But even if there is description, I think there ought to be movement. The part where you say ‘Tell me who the hero is, and what’s his problem in life’ is bang on. I think that one line applies to all kinds of novels.

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  2. I strongly disagree with points 1 (The Main Character) and 4 (The hint of conflict).

    A very small, but considerable fraction of books don’t have a protagonist, what-so-ever. Consider The Glass Palace, by Amitav Ghosh. It is a book filled with imagery, where characters come and go (like a drama or a play), and where the emphasis is given to the lands the characters are in, their wars and their existence in life. He takes the inconsequential aspects to build a image for almost every word in the book, sprinkling the role of characters here and there, as though they weren’t an necessity.

    My point, thus, is that a work of fiction need not have a protagonist nor should he/she be in a conflicting situation.

    Having said that, I admit it must be hard for such manuscripts to be accepted where you don’t get the hang of what the novel is going to be the first few pages.

    That reminds me of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I won’t even go to the details, as the book sails you through the philosophy of life.

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    • Hi Kiran,

      I’m sure you can find examples of published fiction that break the ‘rules’ in the post. I can give you examples myself of many books that break at least one of these rules.

      But these are exceptions and not the norm. A beginning writer who is yet to place his first book is well-advised to first learn the rules, show that he can practice them, and then break them after he gets established or famous.

      You have to earn the right to break the rules. Amitav Ghosh certainly has. An unpublished writer struggling to place his first work, meanwhile, hasn’t.

      You say “a work of fiction need not have a protagonist nor should he/she be in a conflicting situation” – barring a tiny percentage of novels that are classified as ‘experimental’, all works of fiction are about characters in conflict. Even the literary ones.

      In fact, if you look at your own example (The Glass Palace) a little more carefully, you will see that it is, in fact, about characters in conflict. The conflict may not be physical or immediately identifiable, but it is there.

      The Fountainhead, which you call a philosophical book, is also Howard Roark in conflict throughout. It begins with ‘Howard Roark laughed’, and it takes us along the journey of how Roark wins his battle against ‘the world’. There may be many philosophical interludes, but the main story is about Howard Roark.

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  3. I must write down these points somewhere, for all the times I will take a go at writing fiction!

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  4. Ok, all points noted!! I usually never window shop when it comes to books (it’s usually through word-of-mouth or through my own research) but yes, if I was to judge a book just by looking at it for the first time, I guess the starting few lines would tell me all I needed to know!

    But I guess as you said, we’re more relaxed towards established authors when they do not follow these rules. I loved The Casual Vacancy even though I don’t really think any real tension was created in the opening paragraphs.

    One more thing, do you think that it’s really required to have every chapter end in a surprise? Or a revelation?

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    • It’s not that surprising if every chapter ends in a surprise, no? 🙂 I think like everything in life, even surprise has to be dealt in moderation. With some scenes you want to finish on a low, whereas with others you want to finish with a hook, or a reveal. It all depends on the kind of novel you’re writing, and dare I say, your mood when you’re writing it.

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