Agency Lessons: Crafting the perfect first page

 Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

We (writers, agents, readers, book people, etc.) make no efforts to hide the importance of the first few pages of a novel. It's one of those topics that is discussed constantly. What's the best way to start the story? Where do I start the story? Is this dream sequence a bad idea?

And yet, when asked, what makes a good first page, most of us stumble around a bit in the answer. Because how could we possibly tell you how to write a great first page.

But one of the advantages of reading so many first pages from my query box is that I have a pretty good idea of what should and should not be in those opening pages. So here's a look at what I think about when I scroll down past the query and jump into the story.

Issues you want to avoid:
  • Excessive Typos: We can all overlook the missed comma and rogue typo. But if I count multiple errors in those first pages, I'm going to assume the other pages are just as bad. And no matter how good the book is, I don't have the time or skill set to be a proofreader.
  • Passive Voice: Not sure what that is? Here's an awful example. She had wanted to tell him, but hadn't managed to find the right time. Passive phrases use ten words when three would do and tend to dance around the action. No dancing.
  • Distancing phrases: He heard the sound of a gun shot. She smelled the rich, savory duck from the main hall. He thought about going, but changed his mind. She wished there was something more to be done. Bad, all bad. Don't tell us he heard the gun shot. Tell us a gun shot rang out in the dark alley.
  • Excess: This can include description, dialogue tags, character movement, back story, etc. All this excess leads to a wordy manuscript. If your ms has a high word count, excess suggests that you need more editing. In a low word count ms, excess is a sign of a weak plot.
  • Cliches: There are some opening situations that will almost guarantee and immediate rejection. Waking up, looking in the mirror to give a character description, first day of school, work, etc. Driving in the car. Arriving at a new home. Describing the weather. Yes, there are some novels who use these that do really well (I'm looking at you, Hunger Games). You are not Suzanne Collins (unless you are, and then, HI!), so find another way to start your novel.
Ways to make those pages shine:
  • Good world building: Build the world without showing the instruction manual. Let the reader live there with your character and use context clues to improve understanding.
  • Situational twist: Open with your character doing something that is outside the norm for most readers. Milking a cow, rebuilding a car engine, competing in a yodeling contest. You get the idea. And if you must start with something expected, make it different. Breakfast with your character...and their twelve siblings. 
  • Goal!: Give your character a micro goal for the opening scene. I'm not talking a save the world, objective of the novel goal. Just something to keep us wondering. The goal gives us a reason to turn the page and helps us connect with your reader.
  • A hint of normal: Too many authors try to throw us into the conflict right from the start. The problem with this is that I don't care if your MC gets eaten by a bear yet, because I don't know him and don't have an emotional attachment. Let us see a hint of your characters normal world before you turn it everything on its head.
  • Nail the voice. This is so crucial in YA and MG, but is important for every book. Your character needs to sound appropriate for their age and the age of your reader. The best ways to learn this are to read a lot in the appropriate age group and spend time listening to your target audience.
This list is far from comprehensive, but hopefully it gives you a good idea of how to craft your next opening page.

So what about you? What drives you crazy in an opening page and what makes you want to clear your schedule for the next six hours?