Now I’ve done “first page” sessions before with varying degress of success. In case you are unfamiliar with how this works, there is usually somebody reading first pages of manuscripts which authors have bravely dropped in boxes at the beginning of the conference. Categories are picture book, middle grade or young adult and pages are formatted in accordance with SCBWI standards (ie. start the title half way down and the text at 3/4 with approximately 11 lines on the page.)
The reason for the popularity of “first page” sessions is probably obvious: the almighty real estate of those 11 lines may or may not keep the agent/editor/reader reading. When I say “I’ve done” these sessions, I mean I’ve moderated them. I believe this is the fourth time. It’s usually not a volunteer task people jump at for several reasons. First, you need to stand up and read “cold” text you are not familiar with that can go in a variety of directions you may not be prepared for, from sexually explicit in the case of older YA to outright bloody carnage, also YA. Secondly, there are inevitably upset writers who thought they were ready to have their masterpiece publicly criticized and then realize at line 6 that indeed they were not. (Trust me, been there.) Third, there are always the writers at the end who “forgot” the pages would not be returned (why are pages not returned? because they are in a big messy, confused pile that nobody can decipher), but become very adamant about having their pages back. The worst part is that all manuscripts do not get evaluated simply due to the lack of time and, although they are chosen at random, authors are often disappointed that their pages are not read. And each time I’ve done this, each of these dynamics has happened.
So why do we endure this “first pages” ritual? The primary reason is that if you get very experienced readers that each give their own unique veiw point, you can get fantastic insight into upgrading your first-page real estate. Everybody present gets a better sense of how to finesse this skill. This was the case in Rocklin, California at the SCBWI Spring Spirit Conference this April. The YA/MG first page session was 1 hour and 15 minutes with Lin Oliver, author and SCBWI co-founder,and Andrea Tompa, 8-year veteran acquiring editor at Candlewick. Between the two, they managed to be both kind and give valuable feedback to authors seeking to understand what’s needed on those all-important lines. Between reading those excerpts and staring at piles (note the confused look in the photo), I jotted down these tips they gave I thought were key.
1. Don’t be coy. Be direct. Your reader will get impatient with things like weather, hearing recipes, etc.
2. Make sure you don’t tie into famous first lines. (Admittedly, you may never have seen the line…this translates as READ EVERYTHING, then write uniquely!)
3. Don’t overwrite with too much description. Lin Oliver: “Be inside your character. Channel them–this is what you should be doing.”
4. If the reader feels their heart rate increasing, this is good… BUT…
5. …Intense scenes on the first page can be too much. You need it to not feel gratuitous, like it’s there for the sole purpose to hook.
6. Don’t open with a cliche scene.
7. These questions should be answered immediately: Where are you? What’s going on? For what purpose?
8. Limit description on first page.
9. Come in at the right place in the scene. Make SURE you’re at the right place. (I have struggled with this point on my first manuscript for years, whereas others are crystal clear!)
10. Don’t mutter long dialogue.
11. Match your opening to your book’s style. Slow starts are created by lots of description, passive voice, description of landscape. If your books moves at a quicker pace, use less less description, active voice and a punchy sentence structure. Either way, don’t bait and switch. Keep consistent from word one.
12. Convey: what is character feeling?
13. Avoid too much screaming! in! the! first! line!
Here’re some starters from the mouths of these two experienced children’s publishing professionals. Take what works for you. And each time you sit through a “first page” session remember: you might just find that one nugget will make all the difference in welcoming readers into your story. Go forth, brave writers, and create the best eleven ever written.