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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!*