The Ever-Important First Five Pages

So I was writing over at Popculture Divas last week (new URL, by the way: thepopculturedivas.com). I wrote about favorite first lines of novels, which is a topic I covered here, too, but it’s a topic I never tire of. (If you never tire of it either, please go over to Popculture Divas and leave me a comment!)

Anyway, it’s particularly on my mind lately because I’m studying my own first lines of the manuscripts I’ve written — studying first five pages, really.

The first five pages are of huge importance to a novel. Noah Lukeman even wrote about this in a how-to book called The First Five Pages, which I read (although I found it almost too basic. I guess I wanted something more).

The reason the first five pages are of such importance to writers is two-fold: for one, they’re important to your reader. Publishers say that readers often open a book in a book store, scan the first page or two, then make their buying decision. With Amazon, readers do the same thing with a click of a button, scanning the first few pages, then deciding if they like the style enough to read the whole thing.

But the first five pages are also of enormous importance when a writer is trying to sell a manuscript. Often, it’s all you get to show a prospective agent or editor — you’ve got to really make your mark there, or you’ll get no further. (Sometimes you don’t even get this much — you only get a query letter, which is about a paragraph.)

I’d often thought — when I’d heard tales of this quick-fire decision on the part of agents — that the claim was exaggerated. I’d thought, surely, agents give you more chance than five pages, don’t they?

But then I participated in a bit of a contest judging, and saw hundreds and hundreds of entries go by (much like an average day must feel to an agent), and honestly, I was starting to get it — When you see THAT much material on a daily basis, you really DO make a snap judgment in the first five pages. For me, the snap was based less on plot and more on writing style and rhythm. If the writer had a lyrical way with words, I was kind of hooked, regardless of what he or she was talking about. But plot did play into my first-page assessments as well — I wanted the conflict to seem obvious almost right away. Although I wanted to be grounded in the protagonists’ “regular life” (the usual function of the first five pages), I also wanted very clear hints at what the conflict was going to be, and I was surprised at how impatient I grew after reading about 30 of these in a row.

So now I’m thinking again about my own manuscripts. The Simone/Adam book starts out kind of slow (and many people told me I should have started in his point of view rather than hers). And the new Fin/Giselle book starts out rather mellow also, although that at least matches the heroine’s personality before she gets hit by her first drama. But I’m still rethinking it. …

(Grrr. I think I could keep editing these forever.)

How about you? Can you think of books you’ve read that started out with a bang and made you love them? Do you read the first few pages before making a buying decision?

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