Bloody Good Writing Volume 1
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.
All sound advice for me. Also just in general, I agree about prologues. I think they are supposed to capture the reader but they often fail to do so. 75% of the time I read a prologue I feel like I am beginning the story confused as there is usually no context to it. I got a couple questions. I suppose I will shoot them to Matt too, but I am interested on your take of graphic violence or sexual content. Does it hurt or help in selling a story?
Also in your opinion is it easier to sell stories in particular subgenres of horror right now? Why?
Love this column.
Great questions, I think I will address the sex & violence in an upcoming post (’cause I need to think about it).
As for subgenres being easier to sell, I assume you mean to traditional/legacy publishers rather than self-pub. In that case, I’d say avoid zombies, fairies, angels, and vampires. Maybe werewolves, too.
But having said that, the real answer in my opinion is No — it’s not easier in a certain subgenre, because A) it’s never easy! and B) whatever market is hot right now got started 2 years ago. Anything you submit now won’t hit shelves for two or more years, so you’ve missed the trend or anything “easier” to break in.
In my experience, the ONLY thing that sells to editors is a great story. I know that’s kind of a sucky answer, but I promise everyone at HNR that I’ll avoid sugarcoating, and that’s the reality. A really super awesome jawdropping holy crap vampire novel *might* have a tougher time due to market saturation, that is true; but if it really is that good, it will usually find a home.
I do think that some topics are evergreen – vampires, werewolves, and zombies are here to stay, whether they are underground or above, and the next WORLD WAR Z might be on the horizon. (Maybe you wrote it!) I’d say to focus hard on craft, and let your skill and talent win the contract.
I hope that helps!
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moving chapter 7 to chapter 1 is interesting? Would you suggest leaving forgoing the original chapter 1 or just bumping it down in order, so what was chapter 1 is now chapter 2 and so forth.
Howdy, Thomas! Let me clarify that the move of 7 to 1 was particular to that novel, so it’ll be different for everyone.
If I understand your question correctly, I would say that most often – if the book is not really grabbing the reader – then it should be cut entirely and the novel should start at Chapter 2. But that’s not math — that’s just sort of theoretical. It may be in some novels, chapter 1 – 10 can be dropped.
The point is to start on or near the point in time where the protagonist is faced with her first challenge.
Hope that helps!
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Ironic that I would read this here right now. This past week has been spent doing a proofreading job, and I also suggested switching chapters, as they were all character development chapters that would intertwine later, and it just so happened the first chapter dealt with the dullest character. Great book, but poor order. Hopefully they’ll take my suggestion and save the dull character for a later chapter.
I’m taking notes like crazy. I’ve been working on a Wendigo piece (research has been a nightmare), and I just can’t bring myself to feel comfortable about the first chapter or so. If I can’t work things out as I’d like, I may very well end up pulling a little switcharoo if it repairs the issues. That’s one of the most interesting pieces of advice I’ve ever read.
Reblogged this on Phil Slattery's Art of Horror and commented:
Good article on a few of the basics. Check it out.