Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why First Pages Matter, and a Critique Opportunity

One reason first pages matter: the "look inside" feature

No matter how you publish, first pages are crucial. From reading the first five to ten pages (sometimes even your first page or two), your readers—including agents and editors, if you’re going that route—are going to decide whether your book is worth their time, money, and attention. Online book vendors know this; that’s why they offer the “look inside” feature on a book’s “buy” page. 
You may think all this attention on beginnings is unfair. You’ve got a great narrative (either fiction or nonfiction). Lots of twists and turns. Unique characters. Readers can’t tell all that from the first few pages. 
Sorry. They can, and they do. 
From time to time, I’m asked to jury a writing contest or award. The first round of eliminations is actually easier than you might think; from the first page or two, it’s generally clear whether the author is capable and whether the selection is captivating enough to warrant a closer look. 
While recognizing the importance of first pages is a crucial step towards making sure yours are a worthy representation of your book, it’s also paradoxically true that authors sometimes try so hard to impress in a book’s early pages that their efforts end up attention of all the wrong kinds. In attempting to make sure your first pages “grab the reader,” it’s easy to overdo, putting the reader off instead of drawing her in. 
In What Every Author Should Know, I’ve written about five common flaws of first pages: clichés, bad pacing, insufficient grounding, flat characters, and shoddy dialogue. But of course it’s not enough to avoid the mistakes. You want your first pages to shine with an organic sort of magic, creating a magnetic pull from which the reader is helpless to escape. 
Study the first five pages of a book you love. Make notes on how the author draws you into the book­—the set-ups, the turns of phrase, the nuanced characters, the tension points that hint at the stakes. Then do the same with the first five pages of your own manuscript.
Sometimes it’s tough to see your own flaws. Or you see them, but you’ve worked the material over so many times that you’re not sure how to improve. That’s when a good critique can be helpful. 
In conjunction with my upcoming 49 Writers Ready to Publish workshop, I’ll be doing a limited number of first pages critiques. Registrants who opt for the critique will receive instructions for submitting their first five pages in advance of the workshop. On each manuscript and also in a brief editorial letter, I’ll point out what’s working well, and I’ll offer suggestions for improving the parts that need work. During the lunch break and after the workshop is over, I’ll meet one-on-one with participants to discuss these critiques. 
If you’re not able to attend the Ready to Publish workshop on Feb. 7 in Anchorage but you’d still like a first pages critique from an experienced author and editor, check with me at debvanasse (at) gmail.com and, time permitting, we’ll see what can be arranged.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored fifteen books. Her most recent are What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works as freelance editor and coach on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. A version of this post also ran at www.selfmadewriter.blogspot.com.