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Perfecting Your First Five Pages

I was recently asked to participate in a poll about the first five pages of the manuscript. The author is doing a workshop on the subject and is asking a number of different agent perspectives.

I’d be very curious to hear how mine stack up to others, especially since my first thought was, “oh, oh.”

Let me first explain that I don’t think there’s anyone at BookEnds who asks to see the first five pages with a query. I know that other agents make that request. We usually base our decisions on the query first and then we want to see more material, because I think we’ve learned over the years that a great first five pages can mean absolutely nothing if everything else isn’t there.

One of the questions I was asked was what am I tired of seeing in those first five pages. For me, nothing really popped to mind. I guess because there might be some ideas I’m tired of seeing, but I don’t usually see a common thread in the execution. At least not that common. That being said, I do think there are some mistakes that are frequently made in the first few pages of any manuscript and those I am tired of seeing.

The first mistake is based on the common belief that authors need to start a book with action. While that’s not entirely wrong, the interpretation of action often is. Starting your book in the middle of a fight scene is certainly starting with action, but not the introduction you want. We need things to be happening, yes, but we also need perspective on who the characters are and why the action is happening. There has to be a balance in how the action is portrayed.

The second problem I see is when an author uses too much introspection as a way to introduce the book and characters. One way this is often done is in a driving scene. The heroine drives into town and we see her thinking about what has brought her here or, perhaps, listen in on a phone call with a friend. Boring. While there’s action (she’s driving and usually there’s a car problem of some sort) the introspection kills that.

The thing about these questions that brought me to my “oh no” moment is that there is so much more than just the first five pages. When I read these questions my first thought was that authors spend so much time polishing, fixing and perfecting those first five pages in the hopes of grabbing the interest of an agent or editor, but forget about the rest of the book.The first five pages can be almost anything you want, but if page six doesn’t carry though with the promise none of it will matter.

We often call that “workshopped to death” when the first five pages, but usually three chapters, just shines. We fall in love immediately and can’t put the book down. Until we get a few pages or chapters past that point and realize that everything has fallen apart.

My suggestion is not to look at your first five pages as one thing, but look at it as you should, the beginning of your book. Whatever you do with those pages, whatever magic you put into them, whatever scene you start with, all of that has to carry through in pages six through 356.

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8 comments

  1. Love this post. Great perspective. Thanks for sharing. I hadn’t heard the term “workshopped to death.” How funny. I can see how that happens as it’s hard to get feedback on chapters further in, especially with contests. That has to come from critique partners/beta readers usually.

  2. Interesting perspective. I am querying now and get asked for first 5-10 pages a lot. But sometimes just the letter. I am glad to see that some agents don’t put all the weight into them. There is so much more to a book. It all needs to be great, and I don’t see how you can determine that without reading farther.

  3. Oh oh, I did something right, I’ve been looking at some of the RWA contests and they all ask for the first X amount of words or pages.
    I cut and pasted a slightly larger chuck into a new document and polished it to death.
    Then the first thing I did was delete the original and copy and paste my polished version back into my main MS. Now I’m working on polishing the next section in the same way, but without all the copy and pasting.

    It’s a bit slow going, I think that’s mainly due to my inexperience, so hopefully future manuscripts will go quicker.

  4. I ask for the first 3-5 pages with a query. I agree wholeheartedly with Jessica (as anyone would) about starting with introspection: it’s very blah. While I joke about setting someone’s hair on fire on page one, I really do look for something that’s got verve to it. How that verve happens doesn’t matter as long as it’s there.

  5. Here’s my take-away from this: Many writers polish and buff their queries until they shine–but the first pages fall flat. So, they work on those first pages until the gleam is almost palpable–but then the light dims before chapter’s end. So, they work on the first three chapters until they sparkle like unicorn dander–but it all turns to ordinary dandruff in chapter four.

    Obviously the key is to work on the entire package, making every page as good as or better than the previous. From beginning to end, the work should be that of a master craftsman, not a student who pulled an all-nighter just to get the thing done.

  6. Excellent advice. Thanks! I remember when I was looking for representation for my first novel, an agent asked for the first three chapters. I (being quite naive) put out my lower lip and said something like, “How about the first six chapters… Chapter Six is when things really get going.” Without missing a beat, he said, “If the story gets going in Chapter six, then delete chapters one through five.” It hurt at the time, but it was some of the best advice I ever got. The first chapters must be great, but they also need to start the story and represent the style of writing readers are going to find in every single chapter thereafter.

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