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First Pages

August 17th, 2018

Before I approached agents, I worked on my first page until my eyes were bleeding; until the mere sight of it made me want to puke. I read hundreds of first pages and analysed them, trying to work out what made them good or bad – what made me either desperate to turn the page or happy to put the book aside. I must have re-written the first page of my book about a hundred times, and yet still when I read it now, I think it could be better.

So I thought readers might be interested in a distillation of my conclusions about what makes a good first page. I’ve also discussed these with my brilliant agent, Diana Beaumont, and she agrees. Get these things right and an agent will probably at least make it to page 2 of your manuscript!

First Page Checklist

No red flags – spelling or grammatical errors, cliches, too many adjectives and adverbs, unattributed dialogue.

A solid, consistent, clear Point of View. This is one of the most common reasons for manuscripts being rejected. First person or close third is popular in commercial fiction. So you only write things that the POV character would think, and don’t talk about the colour of their eyes! In literary fiction you can get away with clever stuff, but why make life hard for yourself with your first novel?

A relatable individual that the reader can latch on to. Something about the narrator must make them intriguing. Their perspective, turn of phrase, ideas about the world… Something to take it out of the ordinary.

A sense that we are at a pivotal moment for the character. Don’t start your book too soon in the story. Make sure something interesting is happening. On the first page, the character hanging off a cliff isn’t necessarily interesting (although it might be if well done), because we don’t necessarily care about them yet – you don’t always need to start with action, but you need some kind of conflict, mystery or intrigue.

An idea of where we are in space and time. But ideally conveyed in a way which develops character and/or plot. And not too much of it!

Clear writing. It’s okay for your character to be confused, but your reader absolutely mustn’t be confused about what you are trying to say.

Only a few characters (usually one or two) with clearly distinguishable names.

Something that challenges the character, giving them a problem. (You’ve started at a pivotal moment, haven’t you?)

A reason to read on. This is usually a question the reader wants answered. We’re programmed to want answers to questions. (This question should not be ‘WTF is going on?’)

No backstory. Save it for later.

Every word must count.

 

Roz Watkins is the author of the DI Meg Dalton series, which is set in the Peak District where Roz lives with her partner and a menagerie of demanding animals. Her debut novel, The Devil’s Dice, was published in March 2018. It was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger award, and was recently The Times crime book of the month. Roz was previously a patent attorney, but this has absolutely nothing to do with a dead one appearing in her book!

 

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