by G. Myrthil
SCBWI Metro’s On-the-Road series returned to the First Baptist Church of White Plains, NY on Saturday, May 13, for a positive and informative First Pages workshop. Saba Sulaiman, literary agent at Talcott Notch Literary, and Kate Prosswimmer, associate editor at Sourcebooks, teamed up to critique a dozen or so first pages, ranging from picture books to YA, chosen at random from audience members’ submissions. Saba and Kate were lucky—all the first pages were really strong. Yet they still had helpful feedback and advice to share.
For picture books, Kate noted that editors look for ideas that kids will love, but that parents will love too. They also look for strong illustration potential, where they can imagine what the illustrations might be just by reading the text. Picture book writers should make sure to vary the setting and action in the story enough so there won’t be too many spreads illustrating the exact same scene.
For middle grade and young adult novels, Saba and Kate suggested that writers avoid clichéd openings where the main character looks in the mirror or says “My name is X.” Protagonists shouldn’t describe themselves too much early on. Saba also warned against using too many “I” sentences (e.g., “I did this”), which she calls “I consciousness.” It’s better to vary sentence construction.
Other things to avoid, they suggested, are putting too many descriptions early on in the book and showing emotion through body parts (e.g., “my stomach clenched”), especially on the first page. It’s important to give a sense of the main character before any major action starts. It’s okay if conflict doesn’t appear on the very first page, but hinting at the conflict draws readers in and makes them ask questions.
It’s helpful to give characters universal feelings and characteristics so readers can relate to them. But don’t info-dump! Dole out information about character and backstory slowly. Finally, both Kate and Saba agreed that it’s better not to modify characters’ dialogue by describing how they are speaking. Let the words they’re saying do the work.
Kate and Saba are looking for books that are both familiar and fresh. It’s tough to find that balance, but if the quality of these first pages was any indication, the writers who shared their work are on the right track!
Myrthil is a middle grade and young adult writer who lives in Connecticut. She has an MFA in Writing for Children from The New School. You can visit her at http://www.gmyrthilbooks.com, or follow her on Twitter or Instagram (@gmyrthilbooks).