Why Editors Focus on Page One

Page One

Today’s guest post is excerpted from Start Your Novel by author and teacher Darcy Pattison (@FictionNotes).


Editors can tell within a couple pages if a manuscript will be acceptable to them. How? What makes this decision so clear to an editor and so muddy to an author?

The first pages of a novel encapsulate much of the story and are extremely important in establishing setting, character, pace, audience, tone, and voice. First pages give readers a door knob to turn, an opening to the whole story. Editors are sophisticated, critical readers, and they immediately pick up on missteps such as the following.

1. Too little information.

Some pages leave the reader and editor alike confused. Where are we and what is going on? Perhaps the author tried to create a sense of mystery, but in the process held back too much information. Or the story has a naive narrator, but that point-of-view leaves the editor with too little information. This type of misstep means the editor puts down the book because they just don’t understand what is happening, or the importance of what is happening.

2. Too much information.

At the other end of the spectrum is too much backstory, description, flashbacks, or facts. An information dump may slow the pace and include too much, well, boring stuff. An editor only needs enough detail or background to understand the scene in progress. Editors can edit out the information dump, but they know that inappropriate exposition in the first pages will likely carry over into the rest of the book.

3. No opening scene.

Some manuscripts open with description, interior thoughts of characters, or first-person musings that continue for the entire first chapter. The opening scene is missing. These manuscripts tend to lose an editor’s attention because nothing is happening.

Striking the right balance

Successful manuscripts are well-balanced, starting with an active protagonist involved in a scene with an immediate, concrete goal. They are balanced with action, thought, a touch of motivation, a touch of description. The tone and voice are interesting, and make readers turn the page to see what happens next.

Here’s an opening from the memoir Breaking Night by Liz Murray 

I have just one picture left of my mother. It’s 4 x 7, black-and-white, and creased in different places. In it, she is seated slightly hunched, elbows touching knees, arms carrying the weight of her back. I know very little about her life when it was taken; my only clue is written in orange marker on the back. It reads: Me in front of Mike’s on 6th St. 1971. Counting backward, I know that she was seventeen when it was taken, a year older than I am now. I know that Sixth Street is in Greenwich Village, though I have no idea who Mike is.

What do you know about the story from just this much text?

Place: New York City
Time: 1986
Tone/Mood: Reflective, remembering, possibly nostalgic
First-person POV narrator: 16-years-old, assumed to be female
Content of text: It’s about a black and white picture of the narrator’s mother.
Mystery: Who is Mike? Why is there only one picture of her mother left?
Audience: Young Adult/Teen to Adults

Is there any place where the reader is confused? No, it’s clear.

Is there an information dump? There is a lot of information here, but it doesn’t feel like a dump—yet—because we are also getting a feel for the character of the story. That gives the author some leeway to put in lots of information, while still keeping everything balanced.

The final question is subjective: would you read on?

Even when you’ve done everything right, an editor may pass on a story because they just don’t like it. I once had an editor pass on a story about dogs because she’s a cat person, not a dog person. There’s nothing you can do about that except write the best you can.


Start Your Novel by Darcy PattisonIf you found this post helpful, be sure to check out Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison. Click here to download a free chapter on your Kindle.

Posted in Getting Published and tagged , , , .

Darcy Pattison

Translated into nine languages, Darcy has written about writing for many industry periodicals, including Writer’s Digest and the Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market. Darcy served as Arkansas Regional Advisor for the SCBWI from 1991-96. In 1999, Darcy created the Novel Revision Retreat, which she teaches nationwide. Darcy is a member of the Author’s Guild. Awards include: Irma S. and James H. Black Picture Book Award Honor Book; twice her books have been named the National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Trade Books of the Year, and she’s the 2007 recipient of the Arkansas Governor’s Art Award for Individual Artist for her contributions to children’s literature. Darcy blogs about writing at darcypattison.com. Find her books at MimsHouse.com

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22 Comments on "Why Editors Focus on Page One"

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A_Writer_of_History

Crisp, clear advice .. if only it were that easy to execute! TX Darcy.

Shutta Crum

Thanks, Darcy! I’m passing this link forward–good example, short and instructive.
S.

Dina Santorelli

Excellent post.

Ann Graham Price

“I once had an editor pass on a story about dogs because she’s a cat person, not a dog person. There’s nothing you can do about that except write the best you can.”

Yes, that. And keep sending it out until you reach an editor who’s a dog person.

As always, a helpful read.

Patricia A. McGoldrick
Patricia A. McGoldrick

Like these tips!

Lexa Cain

I certainly agree with all the advice here. But the example paragraph demonstrates lack of scene. It’s all inner thoughts; there’s no setting/location and no action. It doesn’t hook me, though I guess it might be acceptable for Contemp or Coming-of-Age.

SR Cloud
I gotta say, this is all a bit formulaic and depressing. And, yes, I’m sure you do know exactly what you’re talking about and editors really are a writer’s best friend. And I know I also make almost irrevocable judgments on the first page of an unknown author’s novel. We probably all do that. But where is the artistry in prose if we allow a formula to prescribe the beginning of something as potentially wondrous as the opening of a fine novel? Where is the playfulness, the originality, the frisson of the unexpected? Plenty of critically acclaimed literary works begin… Read more »
Tracy

My husband and I recently listened on audiobook to two master novels we thought we knew by heart — The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms — and we were both shocked at how unlike the rest of the book and unlike the above recommendations both openings were. Go back and re-read them. Gatsby in particular = absolute snooze-fest first chapter by “modern” standards. The first Hemingway chapter has no humans in it, just scenery and a vague battle for an entire year.

DLK
Recently tried to encourage new writers. I said editors tastes vary and their reading a manuscript or asking to see a sample of their work will depend on sending the inquiry or work to the right editor at the right time. Example, an editor sat on my inquiry for one year waiting for the opportunity to present my idea at a meeting and my first book was published in 2002. Each time I try to encourage a writer along comes some self appointed expert “editor” with a lonely 99 cent kindle book to their name, multiple blogging URLS beneath their… Read more »
SR Cloud

What’s good about the Writers Digest – interested?

DLK

I like the diversity of editors, agents and writer’s they interview about the writing aublishing process. They have a website online to look over. I realize people write in different genres – as a Fiction writer I like WD. My suggestion to a writer is to go into a Barnes & Noble and browse through the magazine section and look at each Writers magazine to find their best bit. They have some strictly for poetry, for example.

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