What do people on the business end of writing look for on page one of a manuscript?
This was the subject of the Friday night event that kicked off Write On The River’s 2017 conference. Held yearly in May in Wenatchee, Washington, the weekend conference’s opening event takes advantage of great views from the ninth-floor banquet room in the downtown Coast Wenatchee Center Hotel looking east across the wide Columbia to the quilted hills beyond. Given the long, cold, wet and snowy winter, the river flowed high on its banks, a metaphor, perhaps, for the expectations that buzzed among the crowd here for the event.
DongWon Song, an agent who lives in Portland but who works for the NY-based Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, sat in one wingback chair before the window. Among other genres, DongWon represents sci-fi and fantasy. Sitting in the other wingback chair, a stand with a lamp between us, I represented the literary fiction/writing instructor side of things. Thirteen opening pages, submitted anonymously, were handed to each of us in a stack. Among the forty or so gathered were the writers who’d submitted these pages.
The agent started. He read a page aloud. He commented. I commented on the same page. What struck me from the first entry was how similar our reactions were. We didn’t employ the same names for things necessarily, but when asked for explanations, with examples, it became apparent that we were really talking about the same thing. Some stories were titillating, some heart-wrenching, some dug into traumatizing events. Some were full of feeling, some dry. What seemed to be true of all was that they exhibited insufficient structural set-up no matter how engaging the material. Push came to shove, it really came down to this: regardless of what the story was about, no one on the business end of things was going to read past page one unless three things were present. Here is the short list of what we agreed was indispensable:
There has to be an inciting incident or its proxy (a set-up event) either on the page or alluded to on the first page. That was key. Without it, the page tends to lose tension rapidly.
There has to be a recognizable voice telling the story, a voice that instills confidence in the story teller and that injects attitude based on desire.
There has to be a clear sense of what is at stake. In other words, the reader should be able to gather why the event matters. What’s at stake breaks down this way: the reader should be able to perceive what desire is set in motion toward what goal, and why it will matter to the character to achieve that goal.
These were our top three, must-have features. It was common to find maybe one of these present, maybe two.
You’ll note nothing has been said about story content. Here is where my tastes and those of the agent would have differed. Story subject, ultimately the primary consideration, really doesn’t matter, though, we decided, if these three elements are not sufficiently present because the story wouldn’t get read past page one anyway.
Below is a list of things to avoid on page one. This list is borrowed from material handed out at a romance writers conference, but is generally applicable.
First Page Pitfalls: Notes from a Genre conference
- Starting with backstory
- Info dumping
- Boring first line
- Starting in a different tone from the rest of the book
- An info dumpy prologue
- Starting in the wrong place
- Not all incidents are the inciting incident for the story
- Introducing too many characters
- Too many tedious details
- Too many unfamiliar terms/jargon