Saturday, December 21, 2013

Those First Five Pages

Of course, I need to remember my basic grammar and word structure and proof the hell out of it whenever I send in a submission. But read the submission guidelines first. Have you ever seen “the first five pages” requested?  It’s common for an editor or agent to request a query or synopsis and a few sample pages pasted into the email box. It could be five pages (common) or ten, or in some cases, the first three chapters but that’s not often. There are a few reasons for this.

One reason is because it is very handy and quick to deal with—no attachments—no virus risks. Another reason is that an editor or agent will want to sample the writing style, look for proper sentence structure, paragraphing, pace, cohesion and basic adherence to grammar, novel text format and spelling. It doesn’t take dozens of pages to evaluate the caliber of the writing. Incoherent or sloppy writing can be gauged within a first paragraph, prompting an immediate rejection. There is another element—the hook. The hook or draw of the first pages are very important; I would say nearly crucial. Everything else can be in order, but if the reader is bored the prognosis for continuing the read will not be good.

What are some of the rejection phrases that might be doled out for a tepid start—a sluggish, uninteresting beginning? Keep in mind that a guideline request for sample pages (not chapters) are a tip-off that the editor/agent can make a very quick evaluation and spot a good opener.

“This didn’t draw me in like I expected.” (This is the all-time winner)

“I didn’t connect with the main character.” (Very common)

“Not quite unique or different enough.” (Words to that effect)

“The plot is not driving forward—too static.” (he/she is telling you to get on with it)

“Your story starts here.” (This points out useless information or a plot/incident lag)

My first pages to the reader are a promise that I intend to deliver something extraordinary--they are my best foot forward to entice, mystify, attract and deliver. My concept is right up front, either hinted at or delivered in all its glory with the character/s actively involved with a problem or confrontation that raises a question or instills some type of awe. I'm going to pose questions--I'm not going to answer them.

I'm not one for heavy scene setup, weather, internal monologue or any type of extended narrative that gently slides the reader into the storyline. I'm going to dump you there--that's where the reader belongs--immersed from the get.

The trick and magic of storytelling is to keep that inertia until the last page, but to me, it sure begins with the craftsmanship of the very first words--they set the tone and pace for all that follows.
As a writer, I'm out to get you. If I let you pause or relax, I've failed. I haven't got that much time to rev the engine because you'll be asking "when are we leaving?" I've already dropped the clutch and hit the gas.


Sorry for symbolism and esoteric delivery, but there is a certain amount of magic in the first pages that's hard to explain. You know it when you see/read it. I have a few examples that I’ve tried and they have pulled more reads than my other openings. They would both be considered action openers—the second one much more than the first example. But let me say this, it does not have to be an action opener because sometimes this can be too obvious and overdone. In literary fiction, beautiful phrases and imagery can do the trick. As can dialogue, if showing high stakes and presenting a problem.  I do think my second example is overdone since it never lets up one beat and carries that steam to the end of the chapter. The first example presents a very curious problem, beginning with the first sentences and then dumps the reader into the dilemma.

(First page—The Girl They Sold to the Moon)

            Tilly Breedlove never thought she would end up in an institution like this and hear her father utter such dreadful, embarrassing words across a counter top.

            “I’m Reginald Breedlove, and I have an appointment for the last stage of the program.  I’m here to pawn my daughter.”

            I’m here to pawn my daughter.  Tilly knew they had another word for it, because she and her girlfriends used to laugh at the K-Span commercial spots on late night Holoview.  She wasn’t laughing now.  She’d never seen so many kids gathered in one spot, except at a school assembly.  The first floor of the auditorium-sized building had at least twenty standing lines and a waiting area filled to capacity.  Sure, there were sniffles and tearful goodbyes, with an occasional knock-down-drag-out, but the worst scenes were reserved for the six to twelve-year-old kids, the next wing over.  Those kids were on the Daffodil Plan, commonly called, Daffy’s, and their screams pierced through the air conditioning vents.

(First page—The War Gate)

Through a mist of nausea, Avalon felt the bed roiling under her. Loud, harsh voices crashed in her mind, screaming out warnings. She tried to push up from the bed, but her arms refused to obey. Her legs were like lead. When she opened her eyes for a moment, she could see white beams flitting about. She heard the words, “Secure the scene.”

The hair on the back of her neck rose. Scene. What scene? What in the hell was going on? Who was that talking? She tried to speak, but her tongue seemed glued to her mouth.

“That’s her all right,” said a deep male voice.

“Avalon Labrador,” said a louder male voice. “Are you Avalon Labrador?”

She looked to the side of the bed, commanding her eyes to focus. A large shadow loomed, showing a man of massive girth.

“I’m—I’m Avalon,” she said. Her head ached with fierce intensity. More words.

“Don’t touch the knife—leave it for homicide. Somebody catch the light switch. Keep the hallway open for the crime scene people.”

 What type of opening you have in your first five pages is up to you. However, don’t stop with your best five pages; carry that intensity through. You’ll have room for breathers/breaks soon enough and you can balance these with action and narrative scenes. That’s where your inner monologue or dialogue can come in.

I don’t know whether any of you remember or have used the “flashback.” I know that it was popular twenty years ago and remnants of it might still be around. It’s simply the task of switching out a slow first chapter with a more intriguing or action-oriented scene in a latter chapter, or substituting the first with the second or third chapter. It’s kind of an emergency device where you don’t want to lose the first chapter, but it’s not doing its job up front. I remember reading Poul Anderson’s Virgin Planet and immediately recognizing a chapter switch between the first and second. This might interrupt the timeline a little or leave out some pertinent information, but it gets the job done, albeit in kind of a clunky or desperate manner. Linear writing, as in A to B to C to D and so on can be chopped up into min-flashbacks or abrupt transitions, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really know what you’re doing.