It’s not what you think! Today on the GWN blog we’ve got agent and author Lois Winston talking about the importance of the first page of your manuscript.
No, this is not about the world’s oldest profession. It’s about the first page of your manuscript. Do you know how few seconds an author has to hook an agent, an editor, or a reader? Precious few. Attention spans just aren’t what they used to be. If you don’t hook a reader (and by readers, I mean agents, editors, and the reading public) with the first page of your book, chances are, she won’t read the second page.
Too many writers make the mistake of opening their books with long passages of description and back-story. So not a good idea! Especially when you open with a description of the weather. There’s a reason Snoopy kept getting all those rejection letters whenever he submitted his novel that opened with, “It was a dark and stormy night…”
It’s also the reason that a well known annual writing contest for the worst opening lines is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the actual author of that famous line. It appeared in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Ever read the complete opening sentence? Most people haven’t. Here it is:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Pretty bad, right? The sad truth is that too many authors open their books in a similar manner. That’s why I’m a firm believer in hooking a reader with the very first line of my books. I want my readers to be intrigued enough by that first line to continue reading.
A book’s hook doesn’t have to be defined by the first sentence, but that first sentence should make the reader want to read the next. And the next. Those first sentences should form a paragraph that makes the reader want to read the next paragraph. And the next. And the next—until the reader has read a complete page that makes her want to turn the page and read the next page. And finally, those first pages should create a first scene that has sufficiently hooked the reader so she can’t put down the book. She has to keep reading to find out what happens next.
The opening of a book should suck the reader into the world the author has created. Back-story can come later, trickling in to tease the reader to continue reading more, not as information dumps that pull the reader from the story. A good opening will include only the barest minimum of back-story that is essential for that moment.
As for description, it should be woven into the narrative and dialogue. Nothing bores more than long paragraphs describing everything from the length of the protagonist’s hair to the color of her toenail polish. It, too, pulls the reader from the story. And pulling the reader from the story is a bad idea. It adversely affects the pacing of the book, and good pacing is something that is important to a well-written novel.
“If that damn woman doesn’t shut up, I’m going to strangle her.”
That’s the first line of Revenge of the Crafty Corpse, the third book in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series. Reading that sentence, the reader knows something is about to happen. Hopefully, she’ll keep reading to find out just what that something is, why it happens, what sort of impact it has on my protagonist, and how it drives the plot of the book.
Do you open your books with dialogue and/or active narrative that hooks the reader right from that first sentence and makes her want to keep reading? If you don’t, you’re most likely committing one of the top ten reasons your novel will be rejected by agents and editors. If you’d like to find out what the other nine reasons are and how you can avoid committing them, check out Top Ten Reasons Your Novel is Rejected http://www.loiswinston.com/bookstop10.html, available as an ebook from all the usual sources.
I wrote this book after too many years of having to write rejection letters to authors. I hate writing rejection letters. All agents do. Many authors think agents and editors take perverse pleasure in rejecting them. Nothing could be further from the truth. We don’t make money rejecting novels; we make money by discovering and selling them. Every time we begin reading a manuscript, we’re hoping to find something fabulous. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen often enough.
BIO: Lois Winston is both an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency and the author of the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Other books in the series include Death By Killer Mop Doll, Revenge of the Crafty Corpse, and the ebook novelette Crewel Intentions. Lois is also published in romance, romantic suspense, women’s fiction, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Visit Lois at http://www.loiswinston.com, visit Emma at http://www.emmacarlyle.com, and visit Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog: http://www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com. You can also follow Lois on Twitter @anasleuth.
Cindy here again!
Excellent post, Lois. I also try to make that first sentence a great hook.