Many agents and editors receive so many manuscripts that they reject most without reading all of the first page. We have to grab them fast.
Three small publishers—Linda Fisher of Mozark Press, Lou Turner of High Hill Press, and Yolanda Ciolli of AKA-Publishing—offered off-the-cuff evaluations of eleven anonymous first pages at the 2012 conference of the Columbia Chapter of the Missouri Writers’ Guild. Although they expressed personal preferences, they agreed on the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscripts.
Here’s how we conducted our one-hour First Page session. Interested conference participants emailed their submissions to me, each double-spaced page labeled fiction or nonfiction and adult or YA. I gave copies to the publishers shortly before the session. I read a first page aloud until all three indicated they would read no farther. (I seldom finished the page.) Then the publishers explained why they would stop reading. The writers could not ask questions or comment.
The publishers’ and my own observations indicated four common problems.
- A lack of context in the opening paragraphs. Writers failed to establish the time, place, setting, tone, or point of view. Readers didn’t know where the action was and where the story was going.
- A slow beginning. Writers lost the readers’ interest by giving too many details, too much description, too much backstory, or too many characters. The opening paragraphs lacked action or a hook.
- Unclear or mixed point of view. Writers headhopped or mixed omniscient and first or third person.
- Mechanical errors. The publishers quickly rejected manuscripts with typos, punctuation errors (most involving dialogue), and jarring or unclear syntax.
On the plus side, all of the first pages showed potential. The most pronounced strengths were distinct voices, vivid images, and arresting dialogue.