Novel Writing Tips: The First Page

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Last year I was the recipient of the Vicki Hudson Emerging Writing Prize. Part of the prize was a scholarship to the San Francisco Writers Conference. During the conference (more about that here), I attended something called a First-Page-A-Thon (translation: a panel of literary agents reads the first page of your novel out loud and if they don’t like it, they throw rocks at you until you promise to send them nary a query letter regarding said manuscript). And honey chile, let me tell you: that was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life.

Picture it: February, 2013. An unsuspecting Quanie sits in a conference room at the Mark Hopkins hotel, next to her friend, Lindsay, shaking in her boots (and she doesn’t even wear boots). One of the agents, after laughing diabolically, picks from the pile and begins to read the first submission.

*Insert beads of sweat on Quanie’s forehead*

So I’m sitting there, biting my poor nails to the nubs until finally, I recognize the first line from my work in progress. Lindsay jabbed me and whispered, “That one’s yours!” I ducked in my seat, wishing that I’d taken my invisibility cloak.

This is how it went: during the reading of your manuscript, any agent could raise their hand at the point on the page that they would stop reading had they received your manuscript via regular query. If two agents raised their hand, the agent stopped reading your page and all the agents gave feedback about why they would have rejected the submission.

It was probably one of the most eye-opening experiences for me as a writer. You would not believe how many times agents don’t get past the first paragraph, and in one instance, the first line.

Here’s my takeaway from that experience:

1. This may seem like common writer knowledge, but don’t start your story with a character waking up from a dream. Why not? Because it’s been done to death.

2. Don’t start the story with someone answering the phone. I think one of the reasons the agents listed this as a pet peeve is because they see it so often and they’d like to see a character doing something more interesting when they’re introduced. Quite a few of the manuscripts began with characters answering the phone and you know what happened? The agents stopped reading. Yeah, I know: ouch.

3. One agent said the phrase “my heart pounded” is an instant turn off for her. She said as soon as she sees it, she stops reading because it’s so unoriginal.

4. We need to know who the main character is right away, so putting too many characters on the first page might not be the best idea. You might be able to keep your characters straight in your head, but readers picking up your book for the first time need to be eased into the story. It might be a good idea to show your main character, in action, preferably doing something interesting (and hopefully, not waking from a dream or answering the phone!) and then, as we get to know him/her, introduce us to other characters.

5. Too much description is a no-no (this was the problem with my first page). I had everything going on except Mardi Gras, honey. Ain’t nobody got time for that! So what did I do? I took the constructive criticism, reevaluated the first page of my novel, and realized that (gulp) the story didn’t start until chapter 3. Yes: chapter 3. I cut the first two chapters and haven’t looked back since.

My two cents? If you can break the rules successfully, then everyone will bow to your greatness. And if you don’t? Then, well…people will refer you right back to the rules.

What about others? What are some strategies that you employ when writing your first page? And as readers, what are some of your first page pet peeves?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

*Sidenote: Last Tuesday my husband and I welcomed our little girl into the world! As you can imagine, this is quite an exciting and busy time for us as first-time parents. I will try my best to return blog visits, but please bear with me!*


41 thoughts on “Novel Writing Tips: The First Page

  1. Ok, first – HUGE CONGRATULATIONS!!! That’s probably the least side-like side-note I’ve ever read. Do not worry about visiting! Go enjoy being a mom! Go be with your beautiful girl!!!

    Really, truly. That’s wonderful news, and I can bet no one here will care a whit if you’re not visiting us as often for a little while 🙂

    Now, onto the writing 🙂 I went to a similar workshop at a conference in Boston, and was struck by many of the same things. My own page wasn’t in the pile (I didn’t even know I could submit it til after the deadline passed – OOPS), but I learned plenty, anyway. I ended up keeping the first chapter, which was almost more like a prologue, and cutting the next two. So, I basically did the same thing you did. I wonder if we all need two chapters to get warmed up, LOL?
    Liz Blocker (@lizblocker) recently posted..What Blog Am I, Really?My Profile

  2. Wow, congratulations on the baby, Quanie!!! I’m glad you told us about the telephone pet peeve because one of my WIPs did start with that in its early draft. I’m cutting it out for sure now. Also, I find the first page really difficult to write. In fact, I finished revising my Little Orchid novel and everything was in place (as my editor agreed) but had to re-write the first page because I worried it didn’t quite start off right. I think Joyce Carol Oates said this before, that the first chapter could only be written after the whole story has been told. (Yeah, I think it was JCO …)

    Enjoy the time with the baby, and take plenty of rest whenever you guys can!
    Claudine @ CarryUsOff Books recently posted..StarsMy Profile

  3. Oog. Dealing with agents is nerve-wracking enough, but a whole group of them? Reading and rejecting your stuff in public? O_O I’d be checking a mirror every few minutes to watch my hair slowly turn white. Yeesh! I’m glad that you got good advice out of it, and I know what you mean about chopping off early chapters because the story hasn’t started yet. So at least it wasn’t such a horror with nothing good coming from it. Heh.

    Besides, I think we’ve all done the “start with character waking up from a dream” thing at least once…

    And congratulations to you and your husband on your new child. ^_^
    Mason T. Matchak recently posted..Been There, Done That.My Profile

    • Hi Mason, I know! I think we’ve all probably started a story with a character waking up. I mean, that’s when your day starts, right? And what could be more interested than showing a character getting up, turning off their alarm clock, and yawning? LOL! And thanks for the congrats:)
      Quanie recently posted..Novel Writing Tips: The First PageMy Profile

  4. They do this at our local SCBWI conference, but it’s only one agent or editor, not a team of them!!! I think a team could be very enlightening, though, because it could show how two different people would react completely differently to the same first page. Congrats on winning the scholarship to the conference. That’s awesome!
    Stephanie Faris recently posted..Q&A with Chrys Fey, 30 SecondsMy Profile

  5. I would be positively terrified to be at that conference and have the first page of one of my manuscripts read. I feel two agents would raise their hands immediately. Gosh, I’m quaking in my boots and I’m sitting at my desk. In the safety of my home. And I’m not wearing boots either!

    “My heart pounded” is one of the cliches I always check my manuscripts for after learning a year ago that it was a no-no.
    Chrys Fey recently posted..Writing About: The MobMy Profile

  6. Ah, you make it so easy to ‘want to’ follow where you’re going… the best way to keep readers reading from start to finish. I had to laugh though… trying to recall how some of my stories started;
    One started with the dun…dun…dun new job. (pretty good I think). Another in the hospital… & My first began in the doctor’s office after this wild night out on the town…
    It’s funny because I never heard of these rules, and apparently none start with the phone or dream.
    RYCJ recently posted..Surprising Tidbits I’ve Learned About Writing…and ReadingMy Profile

    • I think that’s why some people break these “rules”: because they’ve never heard of them! But I have to say that I’m probably a lot more forgiving than most literary agents because if I like a book’s cover and blurb, I’ll probably read past the first page–even if the author starts the story with some of the first page “no-no’s.”
      Quanie recently posted..Novel Writing Tips: The First PageMy Profile

  7. Oh my goodness! Quanie, you have a new baby girl? How did I miss that in your posting. I am so happy for you. Congratulations and best wishes to you and your family!!! Little girls are so precious. 🙂

  8. Quanie, this is a well written overview of the process and the lessons learned. Thanks for reminding us of what-not-to-put on the first page. Congrats on your baby girl. Enjoy her through the inevitable exhaustion that comes with the absolute joys of motherhood. I’ve done both the first page exercise and the baby… (I have now 2 books published and 3 daughters and 2 sons.) Best of everything as you go forward with family and writing.
    Mahrie G. Reid recently posted..Do you know who you are as a writer?My Profile

  9. Hey Quanie,
    I remember sitting listening to those agents. They were brutal! I was too far down in the deck, but was guilty of the description thingee, so it didn’t really matter that they missed me. My pet peeve (been guilty of this too) DRIVING IN THE CAR. Forgive me if I’m repeating someone else’ pet peeve, but that one is so done, it’s burning. And if I recall, there was really only one first-page that no agent raised their hand. I’m new at this. Got no strategy. But I can tell you this, it was shocking to see how fast you can end up in the trash, sometimes it was the first few words. Thanks, you gave us a great post and reminder about first pages.
    Burnita recently posted..TORTURE!My Profile

    • You know what? I think you’re right about there being only one where no agent raised their hand. If I remember, they asked her if the project was done and if she was at the querying stage (good for her!). But for most of us it was brutal and just like you say: it was shocking to see how quickly they made up their minds! And driving in the car? I’m not sure I’ve seen that one (but I’ve read so many books that it’s likely I’ve just forgotten).
      Quanie recently posted..Novel Writing Tips: The First PageMy Profile

  10. First off, CONGRATULATIONS on the birth of your daughter!!!! Woo-hooo, a new chapter in your life begins and I hope it is as spectacular as your wildest imaginings. And I know those can be pretty wild. 🙂

    This post just confirms that I need to make it my mission to go to a writer’s conference in 2015. To have the nerve wracking opportunity to hear how agents really do things is invaluable. It’s a hard knock life for writers. Now, I’m off to re-read the first page of my manuscript for the gazillionth time…
    Faith Simone recently posted..Confessions of Faith: Why Me?My Profile

  11. Congratulations on the birth of your daughter! And here you are writing an amazing blog post after, I imagine, a lot of sleep deprivation!
    Thank you again for your inspiring blog. I have been agonizing over my first chapter, and I think I am just going to move on and get the story going since it looks like wise advice to find where the story begins and cut out the unnecessary!
    Great adventure at the conference, and I enjoyed your telling of it!

    • Hi Peggy,

      Thanks so much for the congrats! Fortunately, my husband and I have lots of help so we’re able to get a decent amount of sleep (thank God!). First chapters are tricky but we have to get them right since they’re the launching pad for the novel. I think finding where the story begins and cutting what’s unnecessary is definitely the way to go. Best of luck to you!
      Quanie recently posted..Novel Writing Tips: The First PageMy Profile

  12. Great advice, Quanie! At least you were able to take the criticism constructively and not be offended by it. As authors, we learn so much about our writing by receiving critique from others… good and bad.
    I love the first page of a manuscript. It is, really, the only opportunity for you to suck the reader in right away. Once they are gravitated by the beginning, I think it helps keep them interested in learning more about the main characters.
    As for me, I went back and changed my first page several times for my suspense novel. I wanted to keep at it until I envisioned myself sitting right there, next to my protagonist, and coping with his potential loss. I opened right away with the problem and used some descriptive language to set up his surroundings.
    Critique is a must. I still have yet to see what my beta readers will feel about my first page but as of right now, whenever I read it, I feel like I am right there in that room with my character.
    Gina Stoneheart recently posted..30 Seconds by Chrys Fey Blog TourMy Profile

    • First pages are so tricky! And you know what usually happens to me? I’ll put the characters on the page and then say to myself, “Wait; that’s not right!” Then, I’ll change it and realize that my original opening was the best choice for the story. So for me, it definitely involves a ton of second guessing! And you’re right about needing feedback from readers. It can be tough, but so necessary!
      Quanie recently posted..Novel Writing Tips: The First PageMy Profile

  13. This is a great post, Quanie. I have discovered that usually I can afford to do away with the first chapter. Sometimes it takes me a long time to get to the point. I tend to think in terms of setting up the scene (like a playwright). My first book got a number of “after I got into it, it became interesting” comments and I’ve been shaving off the beginning of my novels ever since :-).
    Ava Bleu recently posted..Guest Author Dayo BensonMy Profile

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