3 Things (Possibly) Wrong With Your First Page
By Tom Leveen
You only get one chance to make a first impression, right? Nowhere is that more accurate than the first page of your novel, whether you are submitting it to literary agents, traditional editors, or uploading it yourself across all e-platforms.
How does your first page stack up? Cross-reference it against this checklist and find out!
1. Shoulda started with chapter 2.
Just before submitting my first novel, Party, to editors, my agent made one last editorial suggestion: Move chapter 7 to chapter 1. Ridiculous! Absurd! I very nearly refused.
Then I gave it a shot, just to satisfy my own curiosity. And wouldn’t you know…it made the entire novel sing like never before. We sold it a couple weeks later to Random House. I am 100% convinced that had we not made that change, the novel would never have sold.
In story after story that I read in classes and conferences, the action almost always seems to start later in the novel. That’s normal; starting a book is no easy thing, and it often takes us a bit to get warmed up. So try reading your novel starting at chapter 2 (maybe even later). Did you really, truly miss anything from chapter 1? If it’s just a line or two that’s essential to the forward motion of the story, cut and paste it in somewhere later and simply hack off the preceding chapter. Your readers will be glad you did.
2. Too much, too soon.
Never tell the audience anything they don’t need to know before they need to know it.
First chapters can be fertile ground for info dumping. Avoid the temptation. If it’s not absolutely essential to know the history of the Dragonborn Sword of Darkness weilded by your protagonist, such background can wait till after you’ve hooked the reader with a gripping opening.
“What about prologues?” you ask.
Certain genres are more forgiving of the prologue—fantasy, in particular, and some sf—so trust your gut, not mine. Having said that, the trap of the prologue is that it often feels like an easy way to open with some explosive action—often as a flashback or even a flash-forward—but in many cases, you risk losing character identification. Part of the purpose of chapter 1 is to get your reader to start to fall in love with your protagonist, and many prologues are either not about the protagonist, or they are info dumps that can slow down your pacing. Use them with caution.
Yep, I said it. Don’t roll your eyes quite yet.
I said it because it bears repeating: Those first few pages must be pristine. Nothing, but nothing, will shut down an editor or agent like seeing a misspelling. It indicates laziness and a lack of attention to detail, two things editors, agents, and readers don’t have time to teach you. (Nor should they.) An argument might be made that readers of e-books are more forgiving, but that’s certainly no excuse for sloppiness.
For your entire manuscript, you should always:
a) proofread it yourself;
b) print it out to proofread, and
c) have one, two, or more people (who can spot an error) proofread it also.
I can’t emphasize the “print it out” part enough. Our eyes catch things on paper that they do not catch on screen. Always do a hardcopy proof before submitting.
Now go forth and re-read page one. Polish it up, make it shine. It’s your new clothes for the interview—don’t disappoint the bosses. They’re the ones who buy your novels.
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Have a writing or publishing question? Email Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to follow horrornovelreviews.com to get your answer in an upcoming craft article.
Tom Leveen is the author of the horror novel Sick (published by Abrams/Amulet), and several other young adult novels. He is a frequent panelist and speaker at conventions and conferences, as well as being a freelance writing instructor for universities, high schools, and writing groups. Visit him at facebook.com/AuthorTomLeveen and tomleveen.com.