GrubWrites

Key Elements of a Novel's Critical First Pages

By Katrin Schumann

It’s that time of year again—the trees are greening, blossoms flutter across ice-buckled roads, and The Muse and the Marketplace is over.

Last year, I wrote this advice after the conference. This year, I’m sharing highlights from a panel that reliably produces gems of wisdom: Literary Idol, Fiction. On the panel were agents Miriam Altshuler, Shaun Dolan, Sorche Fairbank and Kathleen Nishimoto. Participants submit the first page of a manuscript, and about eight are chosen at random and read aloud.

While that single page is being read, ie. less than 250 words, the agents raise a hand as soon as they would stop reading the submission. When two agents out of the four have raised a hand, the pitch is over. In the rare instance that no agent raises a hand, that means there were no red flags and all the agents would have kept reading. 

The purpose of the exercise is in part to emphasize how critical that first page is in terms of capturing the reader’s attention. Primarily, however, it’s a useful way to highlight the errors being made over and over again in submissions.

It may seem brutal and arbitrary, but it’s actually not that different from what happens in the real world when agents or editors open emails. Sometimes, they click delete after skimming just a couple of paragraphs. You’ve only got one chance to make a first impression. 

Here are the highlights from that session:

  • The very best beginnings reflect, in some way, the theme of the entire novel/ story.
  • Readers are looking for way-finding signals within the first page or two. Where are we headed? Who is coming with us? What is going on? Be clear or the reader can quickly become lost and disconnected.
  • There needs to be a balance of external and internal. Too external (ie. there’s action but no sense of emotional context) and the reader won't feel pulled in. Too internal (ie. the character is musing, remembering, anticipating) and the reader can quickly get bored or confused.
  • Starting in the moment, in scene, is usually more effective than an “in-the-head” approach. Think: How would a movie version of my story begin?
  • When describing a character, think about what that description tells us about the character’s personality. Hair and eye color usually reveal nothing about who a person is.
  • When there’s too much description or repetition early on, this is usually an indication that the writer doesn’t understand pacing. Agents then assume that pacing is likely to be a problem throughout the book.
  • Avoid gimmicks, clichés and circumstances that are familiar. (Sounds obvious, but among the eight polished submissions read during this session, at least three of them were guilty of this.)
  • In your query, when you label your book according to genre (ie. psychological thriller/ literary fiction etc) you are setting up an expectation in the reader that must be met instantly or there’ll be a disconnect. If you don’t know the genre, better to just say you’ve written a novel.
  • Trust your reader a bit more. Don’t over explain early on. Clues in your work are like stepping stones: too close together and the reader will trip up, too far apart and the rhythm is wrong and the reader will get lost. 

Important to remember, too, is that agents are not automatons--they bring their own preferences and pet peeves to the process. On at least two occasions, agents on the panel had opposite reactions to a piece of writing. This is a great reminder that the process is highly subjective. Finding an agent is similar to the dating process: sometimes you just don't hit it off, and that doesn't mean there's not someone out there for you.

My favorite quote of the event came from Sorche Fairbank, who said: “Editing is like Jenga: See what you can take out and still leave the structure standing.” And my favorite editing tip was from Miriam Altshuler, who advised writers to print out their manuscripts in a different typeface while editing to trick themselves into reading it with fresh eyes.

What are some of the gems you unearthed at the conference?

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About the Author

Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.

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