3 Tips From a First Pages Reading Session

Wednesday, May 10, 2017
On Friday night, I took part in a First Pages Read at the Missouri Writers' Guild Conference. What this means is that a moderator read aloud a brave audience member's first page of a manuscript, and my fellow panel members and I rose our hand at the moment we would stop reading (if it was a submission). On this panel sat agents, editors, and authors; and once three of us put a hand up, the moderator stopped reading and asked us why we would have rejected the manuscript.

This is a powerful conference session, even if it is not your work that is being read. You can learn from the very gatekeepers who must accept your work to be published WHY they would turn something down.

Here are 3 points that panel members said more than once about various manuscripts:

1. Watch out for back story on page one or even chapter one. Panel members agreed time and again that if at all possible, keep back story out of the beginning of your book. You need to move the story forward, and it needs to have conflict and the problem right there on page one. Save the important back story until a few pages into the book or chapter two.

2. The protagonist needs to be identifiable on page one of the manuscript. One of the stories took place on a football field. The action was well written, but there were a lot of characters named. It was hard to pinpoint which character we were going to be cheering for throughout the story; and because of that, many of us started to gloss over while reading the play by play. The point was made by one of the literary agents that the hero or heroine needs to shine on page one--they need to be in the spotlight, so we know whose story this is.  

3. Make sure to show the reader what is happening through action instead of telling the reader. Many of us make the same mistakes at the beginning of a manuscript, and one of the biggest is trying to fit too much information in the first page to make sure the reader understands what is happening. This results in a lot of "telling". When possible, you need to have action at the beginning of the story. How can you let the reader know what a great ski instructor your main character is? Show her winning an award or skiing down a mountain with students or receiving a job promotion. Think of an event or a scene where you can show what you need to begin the story and introduce readers to the protagonist and problem.

The first page of your manuscript is all you have to catch an agent's or editor's attention. But it is also all you have to catch a reader's attention. So it's worth writing and re-writing to get it right with these tips above!

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, teacher, and mom living in St. Louis, MO. For more information about her books, please check out her website, where she also blogs about being a single mom and writer. You can also check out her novel writing course here in the WOW! classroom. 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--Thanks for this reminder. My current WIP's beginning is weak--I've known that since I started writing it--but it was the first way I thought of to get into the story. Beginning with conflict should have been obvious but wasn't... until I read your post.

Thank you.

Margo Dill said...

Glad to hear! I love those first page reads. It was helpful for me to take part this year and also to hear what other professionals think too.

Beth said...

Great advice! I was brave enough to submit to one of these panels on year, and the advice and feedback they provided was very valuable!

Angela Mackintosh said...

That sounds like a fun and powerful session, Margo! Those are all great points, and I think #1 is very common. I like adding action in the beginning, but it's not easy to start writing that way, so I usually write and then cut the whole beginning. :)

MonetteChilson said...

I loved hearing about this approach, Margo. It was very insightful to hear about the common blunders that caused gatekeepers to stop reading. Thank you for sharing!

Margo Dill said...

I'm glad you guys found this useful. I think it takes VERY BRAVE writers to do this. It is anonymous, which is helpful, but still. There were several really good manuscripts and some that even though we stopped reading, we liked--if they just revise. Very powerful.

Ang--I think A LOT of people do that. It is a good method to get a good beginning.

Nila said...

I love this exercise because it helps so many writers understand their story from a reader's point of view. I hope to go the MWG Conference next year and maybe I'll be brave enough to submit!

Margo Dill said...

Nila, I hope you go too! It really was great. It will be in Columbia, MO--not sure of the dates yet.

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