First Pages Panel: 2011

Originally Published: April 2011

by Emily Goodman

Kate Sullivan, associate editor at Little, Brown, and Noa Wheeler, associate editor at Henry Holt, critiqued randomly chosen first pages of works in progress submitted by audience members March 8 at the Tuesday Professional Lecture Series.

The advice that came up most often: Establish character and setting before starting the main plot, and Show, don’t tell. “Let us get to know the characters, so we care about them, before something happens to them,” said Sullivan.

Wheeler illustrated this idea with The Hunger Games, where “most of the first chapter is spent introducing the main character and her friends and family. The big event which starts the plot only comes at the end of the first chapter, and by then we care what happens because we’ve gotten to know the people affected.

“This concept is particularly important when a book has violent subject matter. “Is ‘They shot my parents’ on page one too much for a 10-year-old reader?” Wheeler asked about one first page. “It would help a lot if readers could get to know the character first, before plunging into this situation. They build their defenses as they get inserted into the character’s head.”

As for ‘Show, don’t tell’, Sullivan said, “On your first page especially, make sure to show! Don’t tell us your character’s about to mess up. It will be much more effective to show us that in a scene.” Wheeler said, “Work descriptions into the action, rather than just stating them.”

Other advice for writers:

  • -Use active verbs and keen, concrete descriptions to create an attention-grabbing first line. -Don’t make the title tell too much or pigeonhole the book.
  • -Establishing voice helps establish character, which helps set the scene for the book.
  • -Dialogue should illustrate character, not just advance the plot. Readers should be able to recognize who’s speaking from any random line.
  • -Make sure what’s in your head gets into the reader’s. The page is the only medium for transferring information.
  • -The level of language must match the age of the main character and the maturity of the content.
  • -Don’t give too much information up front. Scatter information like crumbs.
  • -Avoid big blocks of text, which are daunting to read. And any sentence which can’t be read aloud in a single breath is too long.
  • -Teens like first-person narration because they’re interested in a character’s emotions. But beware of relying too much on the narrator’s thoughts to tell the story, instead of action and dialogue.
  • -Jumping around in time on the first page is very disorienting.
  • -Many, many first pages begin with a character waking up and remembering a dream. Overdone!

Emily Goodman’s picture book Plant Secrets is the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Agriculture Book of the Year for 2009. Follow Emily on Facebook!


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