Arguably, the most important part of your manuscript is the very first page—perhaps even the very first sentence. It’s the first thing that an editorial intern or literary agent will read, and its quality determines whether or not they will scroll to the next page. If your first page disappoints, the chances of your manuscript gaining representation fall drastically.
It might seem too fast. You might be thinking, Wait! The first chapter is fantastic! They’ll at least read the full chapter, won’t they?
Sadly, neither I nor anyone else can guarantee that.
It Happens Quickly
We’re back to the idea that agents are very busy people. They are always balancing a variety of projects and authors at any given time, and acquiring new authors has to be a sure bet for many of them. A weak first page indicates an unpolished manuscript.
Some agents or interns might take longer than the first page to decide whether or not to pass on a manuscript from the slush pile, but many will know by the end of the first chapter. Since they don’t have a lot of time to waste on manuscripts that will take a lot of work to polish, they also can’t take a lot of time deciding if something is up to par.
Next week’s post will talk more about your manuscript’s first reader (meaning, the first reader from a literary agency) and how he or she may approach the pages you send.
How to Keep Them Reading
It’s self-explanatory to say that the best way to keep your first reader reading is to write a good manuscript. There’s more to it than that, though. A manuscript might grab an intern or agent’s attention for different reasons. Here are some of the most common hooks:
If your first page and first chapter show an intriguing world that the reader can connect with, he or she is more likely to keep reading. If you have written a fantasy or science-fiction manuscript, your first few pages must capture the essence of your world. Off the bat, readers should recognize the elements of the world you’ve created. This doesn’t mean that you should front-load exposition, however. It means that your writing reveals your manuscript’s universe in a captivating and intriguing way.
If you’ve written a realistic manuscript set in the world we live in, you aren’t off the hook. Your first page and chapter should build the world that your characters inhabit in the same ways as a fantasy/sci-fi novel would. You have things “easier” in some ways, insofar as your reader knows the planet Earth, but your pages must show the particular setting of your manuscript in a way that clarifies the worldview that your characters will operate from within.
A well-written, relateable character can be the difference between reading from beginning to end and quitting after a chapter or two. Characters with interesting backstories, motives, and goals pull readers through the manuscript. If your first page shows a character who readers will want to follow on a journey, you’re in good shape.
This isn’t to say that every reader will relate to every character. It’s a matter of fact that some characters are written for audiences that a first reader may not be a part of. However, objective first readers will recognize that fact and see the quality in a quality character.
Finally, a unique plot is a great way to get a reader to read on. The first page may not reveal the long-running plot of the manuscript, but if your query letter has done its job, an intern or agent will be inspired to see how things play out.
Beginning in a fresh way, rather than employing clichés and overused starting devices, will help hold your first reader’s attention as he or she delves into the manuscript.
These are just a few ways to hook your first reader’s attention. There are many more. Unfortunately—or perhaps, fortunately—your first reader’s impression of your manuscript all depends on who that first reader is. Next week’s post will discuss this in further detail.
As always, I hope you found value in this post. If you have questions or comments, feel free to comment below or send me a tweet.
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