Whenever I critique or edit a manuscript I find that the first chapter, and the first page especially, is invariably the weakest. It is as if the writer is suffering from stage fright: their words come out in a ghastly croak, sounding quite unlike their real voice.
First page writing is often self-conscious, as if the writer knows they need to act like an author but isn’t entirely sure how. It can be stilted, too flowery, or trying to cut a dash and failing.
I wasn’t surprised that Harry Bingham, author of How to Write, said that he had cut the first 60 pages from the draft of his first novel.
Unfortunately, while the first page won’t necessarily reflect the quality of the rest of the MS, which can change immeasurably for the better once the author has got into their easy stride, it is the one that will be judged. The agent, the publisher, the reviewer, and the reader will pick the book up, and if that first page doesn’t grip them they will put it aside.
So let’s look at some helpful tips:
– It’s a good idea to introduce your lead character on page one, and engage our interest in him or her
– In young adult adventure novels, gripping action kicks in at the start. A murder? Hey, why not!
– A whole chunk of description is a no-no. Give us dialogue, give us action, but don’t waste your energy on exposition or backstory. Engage our interest in the lead character.
– Try bringing the inciting incident forward (or losing an unnecessary chunk before it). Catch us quick, before we lose interest and start playing Angry Birds
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy