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Monday, March 3, 2014

Lessons from the Editor's Desk - First Pages

Let’s start this lesson with full disclosure. In addition to being an author, I am a part-time, often-volunteer editor for a small publishing company. That being said, for the past three years I have been representing WhiteFire Publishing at conferences and reviewing submissions for them. Probably the best perk I’ve gleaned from this experience is a huge improvement in my own writing, and especially in knowing how to make my own submissions sparkle for bigger publishers. So I’m going to do a series sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned. Today let’s start with those all-important first pages.

The sad truth is that for the majority of the manuscripts I read, I never get past the first page. Keep in mind that WhiteFire accepts unagented submissions, so I imagine that statistic is different for bigger publishers. You might wonder how in the world I can tell a manuscript won’t cut it by the first page alone, but a first page can tell you a lot. It can tell you whether or not a writer has done their job to learn the craft, it can tell you if they’re lazy, and it can tell you if they possess any talent.

 Here are a few of the red flags that will stop me reading right on the first page.
1     1)  Stilted Language
2     2) Phony dialogue
3     3) Lack of understanding of point of view
4     4) Telling not showing
5     5) Confusing sentences
       6)  Bad grammar
7     7)  Excessive typos
There you go people, that little list alone saves me reading farther on over 50% of submissions. If I see any of those problems on the all-important first page, I know that matters can only go downhill from there. As a publishing company, we simply don’t have the time or energy to put into fixing any of these issues, no matter how brilliant your idea might be.

Now don’t get me wrong, I realize not everyone excels at opening scenes. I understand the paranoia of crafting the perfect hook. I know that some people aren’t good at nailing down exactly where a book should start. But if you haven’t mastered the basic writing craft yet, as attested by the red flags above, those other issues are immaterial. If the writing is good, but the opening is weak, I might read on. Occasionally if someone is “telling” a story with a really nice style, I will skip ahead a few pages to see if they shift into “showing.” And I’m not going to turn down a manuscript over a typo or a misplaced comma, but if I see a handful of those sorts of mistakes on the very first page, that’s just lazy, so forget it. 

I used to overuse the "not a fit for our company" phrase in my rejection letters, which really meant, "your writing is too awful to be a fit for our company," but I don't do that anymore. For books that I don't make it past the first page, I figure a simple "no thank you" will have to suffice. When I say a book is not a fit, it means we don't publish that type of book. And when I offer suggestions for improvement, that's a good thing. It means the project has potential.

If you pass the all-important first pages test, and I actually get through a good scene or chapter of your book, I will then put it on my kindle and read it like a reader, not an editor. At that point, I’m mostly looking to see if I enjoy the book and if it holds my interest. If I actually read through to the end, I might ask for some changes, but I will likely be sending the book forward to my senior editor. In my next lesson we’ll look at some of the reasons I might stop reading a novel by an otherwise competent author.

As a reader, what do you look for on the first page of a novel to decide whether or not you will read on?

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