First page: An Editor Discusses Why It is Important

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First Page: So much from so few words

At the AR-SCBWI fall retreat this weekend, Alexandra Penfold, Associate Editor of S&S took us through a discussion of first pages of our novel mss. She commented on the pages, then opened the discussion for other comments or questions. Here are some observations on the discussions (Note: these should in no way be construed as Penfold’s opinions, but only my observations of the discussions):

  • So much from so few words. The first pages of a novel do encapsulate so much of the story and are extremely important to establish setting, character, pace, audience, tone, voice and more.
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/criggchef/2665328223/

    First Pages Give Editors & Agents
    a Door Knob to Turn
    (Photo from
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/criggchef/2665328223/)

  • Audience. Sometimes, the discussion centered on the intended audience. This means we didn’t even discuss much about the actual writing except what it evoked in terms of audience. Age level (picture book, early reader, early chapter, tween, middle grade, YA or teen) and trade v. education market were the main focuses. From just a few sentences, it was possible to get a handle on the authors intentions for these two crucial things.
  • Too little information-Confusion. Some pages left the readers confused. Where are we and what is going on? Usually, the author was trying to create a sense of mystery, but in the process held back too much information. Orson Scott Card has said that the only thing you hold back is what happens next.
  • Too much information-Overwhelmed with information dump. On the other end of the spectrum is the possibility of too much back story, description, flashbacks, information. We only need enough to understand the scene-in-progress.
  • No opening scene. Some mss opened with description, interior thoughts of characters, etc. There was no opening scene. These tended to lose the reader’s attention.
  • Good balance. Some mss were well-balanced, starting with an active protagonist involved in a scene with an immediate, concrete goal. It was balanced with action, thought, a touch of motivation, a touch of description. The tone and voice were interesting and we all wanted to turn the page to see what happened next.

Strong openings don’t necessarily mean your novel will sell; it’s easier to write a couple pages well than to sustain a story over a couple hundred pages. Still, a strong opening will likely get an editor or agent to request the full mss; it’s a door knob for them to grab; it’s the starting place for your career.

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