First Page Tips from the Pros

Last week, I outlined the notes on VOICE from the speakers at the SCBWI Florida summer conference. The other thing they spoke a lot about was...

FIRST PAGES

They spent a lot of time on first page critiques, reading each page aloud and commenting on what intrigued them, what needed work, which areas were confusing, and lines or phrases that appealed to them. Because the dreaded first page deprives all of us of sleep from time to time, here, in no particular order, are the tidbits I gleaned:

  • Nothing should be explained. Think of your characters as puppets whose strings you're pulling. Erase the strings so the reader can't see them.
  • Make sure that your characters are reacting to the scene/events, as opposed to the events being reported by you, the author
  • As interesting as settings are, people aren't drawn to them. They're drawn to characters. So don't let the setting overpower them or the overall story
  • If you've got a great line or phrase somewhere on the first page, juggle the content so that line comes last on the page.
  • Description: if the reader will assume it, don't describe it. This typically applies to hair color, furniture arrangement, etc. If you have to describe physical appearances, make them short and sweet--5 or six words, half a sentence.
  • In historical fiction/dystopian/fantasy: authors feel the need to anchor the reader in the unfamiliar world, but remember that descriptions on the first page have to be prioritized. Every detail on the first page should also tell about the character. Quality of writing is important, but so is quality of information.
  • Any physical activity that your character does, go and do yourself. Ride a helicopter, shoot a slingshot, walk in stilettos. Make sure your writing is authentic.
  • Physically walk through your scene. If it comes off clumsy in your living room, it will be even clumsier on the page.
  • Keep in mind the page visual. White space is inviting, long narrative blocks are daunting. Vary your sentence structure with this in mind.
I'm always fascinated to hear knowledgeable people read and discuss first pages because they're able to pick out what's wrong right off. Most of us still on the journey to publication (and a lot who've already reached that goal) still have the blinders on and can't always see what's wrong, so I find this information helpful. Maybe with these tips, we'll all be one or two steps closer to getting that all-important first page right!

60 comments:

Ava Jae said...

Great tips! Thanks so much for sharing this with us, it's very useful information. I'm going to have to try those out. :)

Laura Pauling said...

We'd all be published authors if we had objectivity with our writing! Though I don't mind an opening with telling if it's done really well! I care about voice and the character. Of course if it's written well those two aspects shine through.

Shakespeare said...

Great timing! I just read the book THE FIRST FIVE PAGES... and it covers all sorts of things that can get your excerpt shoved in the trash bin.

Hopefully I can use this info to make my books worth reading.

Darian Wilk said...

Great tips, thanks for sharing! It's always nice to hear what the pros have to say so we can apply it to our own work, and like you said, hopefully get us that much closer to publication. Thanks again!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great tips - thanks for sharing. You're so right - it's hard for us to see what could be improved in our own stuff! :)

Nina Powers said...

Excellent tips! Thank you so much:)
Nina

Mac said...

These should be summarized on a yellow sticky pasted near every writer's monitor. I have to work on that. Look for it on my blog ;O)

Angela Ackerman said...

These are great, and so many of these I wouldn't have thought of. Woot, sounds like a really great conference--thanks for sharing the gold nuggets with us!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

mooderino said...

Fantastic post, very interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing, Becca.

mood
Moody Writing
@mooderino

BECKY said...

Fascinating! I hadn't heard most of these tips.

April said...

Those are some great tips, and ones I haven't heard before. The only thing I have a problem is DOING whatever it is your character is doing. That's not always possible. But I understand why the tip is there. I'm going to have to go back and look at my first pages now. :)

Kristen Tipman said...

These are great tips! I’m definitely going to use this post to review the first page of my WIP. Thanks for sharing. : )

Janet, said...

Good tips, thanks for sharing. Sometimes it is hard to see what is staring us in the face.

MG Higgins said...

Great advice. Especially like the puppet idea and getting rid of the strings. Thank you for sharing.

Mac said...

As threatened--queued up my sticky note for tomorrow morning. Hope you like my summary; linked back to you...since you were the inspiration ;O)

Julie Musil said...

Thanks so much for this advice. It amazes me how experts in the business know from the first page if something is good or not. I wish I could see that in my own writing!

Angie Cothran said...

Great tips. Thanks for sharing.

Matthew MacNish said...

Excellent advice. Thanks, Becca!

Catherine A. Winn said...

I'm so glad you shared this with us. I love the one about Description and really need to internalize it. "If the reader will assume it, don't describe it."

Lisa Gail Green said...

Great tips! Thanks for sharing. The first page is so tricky and there are so many opinions out there it can get a bit overwhelming. This was clear and concise.

Becca Puglisi said...

Thanks, Mac! I'll check it out tomorrow.

Shakespeare, I love THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. It's on my bookshelf as we speak.

And thank you for following, Sorlin! I hope your hiatus was good for the creative juices.

Clarissa Draper said...

Great tips. I'm going to tweet this!

Aimee Renee said...

Amazing tips! Thanks so much. The first page--along with the first chapter--is one of the biggest issues I fret over with my WIP.

nutschell said...

Awesome tips! Perfect for someone like me who's about to jump into her first draft!
I definitely try to do all that my character's doing. It's good research and a great excuse to try something new. ALthough I do try to avoid anything that involves skydiving or jumping off a moving train.
nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

JEM said...

Love this, thanks for sharing! The balance between scene/character descriptions and story is delicate, and I'm not always sure I'm hitting it. This is helpful, though, to know that I don't have to describe everything on the very first page.

Carrie Butler said...

Aha! Great things to reflect on as I revisit my first page for the umpteenth time. Thanks for the tips! :)

Sarah Pearson said...

I never ever get tired of hearing tips on improving my writing. Thank you :)

Jeff King said...

Great tips... I am working on this right now!!

catwoods said...

I love first pages. Sometimes that's my favorite part of a conference.

I'm always amazed to hear some pages I'd toss that agents and editors love, and vice versa.

It's a crazy world, this publishing stuff!

Thanks for the great rundown!

Michelle said...

yes very helpful.. just as reading aloud is helpful.. I can see walking through the scene would be too.
thank you

Caledonia Lass said...

Hmm... I can just imagine myself acting out in my living room the first scene where my character gets stabbed and falls overboard....
This should be fun!
Great post, very helpful. :D

Rosalind Adam said...

Brilliant advice. I've come visiting via Bish's blog so I'm new to this place.

http://rosalindadam.blogspot.com

Stacy said...

Great tips. My critique partner has opened my eyes on walking through the scene and making sure I don't have body parts gone wild, lol.

And thanks for the reminder that characters are more important than setting. It's so easy to want to lay out exactly where they are and forget about who the characters are supposed to be.

Becca Puglisi said...

Welcome, Rosalind! And thanks, Bish, for pointing her our way :)

jmcmurray said...

Excellent post. This is the kind of information that more people need to learn. Thank you very much.

S Wesley Steam said...

As so many others have already stated, this is a great gold kernel of wisdom! You have my utmost appreciation for sharing this with us all.

I especially need to take the "assume, don't describe" aspect to heart.

Cindy Thrasher said...

Reading tips like these make me want to write a book. The more I hints I read about it, the less mysterious, and the more possible, it gets...thanks for sharing this.

tracikenworth said...

Great advice!! I've picked up on a few things I need to adjust in my beginning. Here's hoping it pays off!!

Videkov said...

Great advice. You and Angela always put great nuggets of wisdom out there for us to consume. Thanks again for this website.

SP Sipal said...

Great points! I know an other who literally gagged herself with duct tape so that she would know how her character felt. :-)

Lydia Sharp said...

Excellent advice!

Martha Ramirez said...

Great post! Thank you for sharing.

Heather Marsten said...

Thanks for those first page hints. What I wonder though, is with the focus on first pages, if later pages suffer?

I have a question for you. With sample chapters, when requested, if your book has three separate parts, is it feasible to send one chapter from each part or do they want the first few?

Thanks,
Heather

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I LOVE this! Thanks so much for sharing, Becca. :-)

Becca Puglisi said...

Heather, I think the first goal is to get that first page as good as it can possibly be because when you send a submission to an agent or editor, they may not get past that first page if it's not good enough. But I've heard editors say that they can tell when an author has spent a disproportionate amount of time polishing the first page because the writing on the pages that follow don't measure up. So to answer your question, if we can make the first page THAT fabulous, I think we should strive for the same level of fabulous on the other pages, too.

And for your second question, it's been my experience that you should always send the first 3 (or however many) chapters in the order they appear in your novel.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing these tips. They are all great. I'll be starting a new first page soon and will keep them in mind.

Damyanti said...

I'm going to print this out.. Thanks for sharing.

Heather Marsten said...

Becca, thanks for your answer. I guess you are right about the first three chapters, but with a memoir written in first person, I'd love the agent to see a more adult Heather, my first few chapters are ages 7 and up.

Heather

Ishta Mercurio said...

"Every detail on the first page should also tell about the character."

Great advice! I'm going to print that and put it up right next to my computer screen.

Kelly Hashway said...

I particularly like the advice about not letting the setting overtake the character in the first page. I really don't like setting description upfront. I'd rather get to know the characters.

Jessica Nelson said...

Those are great tips! Thanks Angela.

Paul Greci said...

Great first page tips. Thanks!! I am a big fan of acting things out to see how they feel and doing the hands-on research when I can.

Tiffany A White said...

Becca and Angela, you guys never let me down with your writing tips!

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

First pages are tough, but these are great tips, Becca. Thank you so much.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great tips! Thanks for always putting up great posts. :)

Leslie Rose said...

This post is golden. It's a treasure map for a good first page. Thank you, thank you. Going to bookmark.

A.G. Wright said...

Great post! Enticing first pages are crucial. It's what keeps our readers turning the pages.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Love this post! Thanks!

Scifi Worlds said...

Great tips! Thanks!

Elaine AM Smith said...

This is a brief but comprehensive list. Thanks for posting them. I've them pinned up in my writing space already ;)

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