Over the weekend, I was a speaker at the Missouri Writers Guild conference (a terrific group of people and an impeccably run event). One of my sessions focused on evaluating the first page of your novel or memoir manuscript.
Here are 3 of the best exercises or tasks you might undertake when thinking about your first page and how you can improve it before sending it to agents or editors.
- What is the absolute latest moment in the manuscript you can begin your story, and still not leave out anything that’s critical to the story problem? Most manuscripts I read should really start somewhere between page 5 and page 30. Be ruthless in evaluating your opening—have you dawdled in revealing the story problem? It ought to be seeded on page 1.
- What details do NOT relate to the story problem or the protagonist? We rarely need the complete biography of your main character on the first page. Let those details emerge as the story unfolds. Don’t share the everyday, mundane details we could guess. Share the most unique, special, distinctive details—the ones that really matter to the story and character from the start. The No. 1 mistake for first pages is overwriting—or working too hard at “painting a picture.” If you load up on every single detail, how am I supposed to know which ones are important? Be selective. Be artful.
- Have you shown or described something that really ought to be quickly summarized (or “told”)? Sometimes writers go into flowery description about something that should be flat-out stated. Admittedly, this is an issue that will remain relevant on every single page of your book. Joyce Carol Oates once said, “Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses—one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.” When it comes to impatient editors and agents, favor brevity and artful omission in your opening pages.
Bonus tip: Highlight every adjective, adverb, and modifying phrase. Do you need them all? Start pruning!
If you enjoyed this advice, you can check out my basic slide presentation on evaluating your first page. (If the slideshow doesn’t appear below, click here.)
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.