I just returned from Write to Publish 2012, an event put on by Portland State University’s (PSU) Ooligan Press program. It was great (as arbitrary and rudimentary an adjective as that is). I met lots of cool authors and gathered their autographs, asked a few obnoxious questions and generally made a nuisance of myself. A good time all around. I spent far more money than I should have buying books by authors who spoke at the panels.
After listening to many a discussion about editors wading through the “slush” pile of unsolicited submissions, mainly involving Logan’s Run author Bill Nolan and his take-no-prisoners approach to acquisitions, I decided that the first page of a manuscript is, in reality, the absolute most important page of the whole piece of work. We may not want to admit it to ourselves, but that first bit of flash and bang is essential to selling a manuscript to an agent or acquisitions editor.
The question you want to ask yourself about the first page is: “Will the reader keep reading?”
Give readers reasons to keep reading. Create mystery, leave the reader asking questions, hint to the carrot at the end of your string.
At the conference I got an idea for a new book to follow my (hopefully) imminent completion of The Aeronauts. I like writing new concept/story ideas as pitches, as if I were trying to sell it to an agent. It helps drill down to the essence of the story/concept and, if I really like the idea after the initial treatment, I’ll sometimes go and sketch out the first scene or start drafting an outline.
Here’s one I scribbled down yesterday after a short post-conference decompression. My goal was to write a first half-page that would catch an agent or editor’s attention, and practice the get-to-the-point writing that our thrill-driven culture is looking for.
Pant, pant, pant. She can’t tell if the sound is human or animal, but it doesn’t matter. She ducks under a free-floating flower basket, earning an indignant gasp from the pansies. But she doesn’t have time to apologize to flowers.
Pant, pant, swallow. One of those times she wishes she couldn’t hear every little thing. She imagines the drool rolling down the creature’s throat, coating it. What is that thing?
She skips down a short flight of ivory stairs and tumbles to the right, into a hallway. She knows these halls, these staircases and courtyards and balconies. This is her home. What is this monster doing in her home?
At the end of the hall stands a closed door. She prays for it to be unlocked, and when she pulls the handle, it springs open. She remembers that she isn’t free yet, that this is just another cleared obstacle. The pounding of heavy feet coming down the stairs reminds her of what’s at stake and she lunges into the dark.
Blue baubles illuminate overhead, floating close to the ceiling, the tiny flames inside them watching curiously as she darts past.
“Turn off,” she hisses at them. Petulantly the flames go out, and the hall falls into darkness. But the light already gave her away. Pant, pant, pant. The footfalls are closer.
She knows this hall by heart. She jogs with a hand against the wall, looking for the door she knows is there. Her fingers brush over a handle. She siezes it and pulls, and the door creaks open.
The panting has stopped. The creature knows she hasn’t got anywhere to run from here. It’s waiting, watching, preserving its strength. She slides in the door.
No lights come on in here. She presses the door closed, and walks to the rug she knows is lying in the center of the room, one edge covered by a low table. When she explored here as a little girl, she was usually carrying a sprite on her shoulder to light the way.
She finds the edge of the table in the dark. She raises a hand and flicks her fingers, and the table skitters away. When the rug is free, she flips up the edge and runs her hand over the stone beneath.
There it is. A handle. She tugs it and a hatch in the floor pops open. She can’t cover her tracks, she realizes, and stares down into the darkness waiting below.
Pant, pant. The creature is at the door. She hears claws tearing at the wood.
She closes her eyes, squeezes her nostrils between her thumb and forefinger, and jumps into the trap door.