Among the lessons gleaned from the Big Sur Writing Workshop, my biggest “aha” moment came on the topic of first pages. Prior to this weekend, I didn’t understand the “formula” for these critical beginnings. But in my very first critique session, I realized (oh, horrors) that my opening didn’t work. It was obvious when I read my novel’s first pages aloud. I could feel my face getting hot. I was going too slow, too long, lost in the minutia of creating my story world. Oops! My critique group nailed it, and I knew it too. I would have to rewrite the opening chapter. I share my lessons now in hopes of sparing you my embarrassment.
Point 1: You have to hook the reader on the first page! Just like with a short story that gets off the ground in the first couple of paragraphs, a novel also must have an initial hook. That hook doesn’t have to be action. It could be an engaging voice. But you have to have it there on the FIRST page.
Point 2: You have to get into the action within the first FIVE pages. For many agents and editors, those five pages are the first – and perhaps the only – glimpse they’ll get of your novel. This doesn’t mean simply starting the action. It means that something has to happen by the end of page five, something that will make them want to turn the page to see what happens next. This is especially true for middle grade and young adult fiction, and maybe even for adult fiction these days. You get five pages.
From now on, here’s what I’m going to do. Print out the first five pages of my manuscript. Not the entire chapter with its exciting cliffhanger ending, but just the first five pages. Then I will read them out loud, checking for the above.