Wednesday, October 24, 2012

JRWC12 Tidbit #2 - That Crucial First Page

All writers are taught that the first page is crucial to hooking the agent, the editor, and the reader. Getting that opening scene right takes serious crafting.

It is a much loved and equally terrifying tradition at the James River Writers Writing Conferences to offer intrepid writers the opportunity to have their first page randomly selected, read aloud, and critiqued in a Plenary Session.

Preparing for First Pages
The 2012 First Pages session this year featured a panel of Liz Bicknell (editorial director, Candlewick Press), Ayesha Pande (Ayesha Pende Literary agency), and Alec Shane (agent, Writers House), moderated by JRW's own David L. RobbinsThis year's first pages were gleaned from a wide range of genres - general fiction to YA and everything in between.

The JRW First Pages panels have been known to be instructive and sometimes, brutally honest, so submitting is not for the faint-hearted. Nothing less than the writer's absolute BEST EFFORT should be  offered. Anything less will be spotted right off the bat and the experience about as pleasant as being struck by that bat. However, the advice is given to help improve the work and not to "make friends," so be warned.

This year's panel was no less instructive than prior years and perhaps a little harsher than some, but far from the harshest to grace the stage.

Here are some of my notes in the hopes that you'll find some of them as insightful and helpful as I did:

  • First page has to set place, person or plot - as many as possible if not all
  • "Disputation is key"
  • Grammatical errors are unacceptable - these pages are your key to the kingdom and lack of attention to detail here speak poorly of your skill
  • Pacing should be immediately evident and appropriate to your genre
  • The much lauded "hook" MUST be presented immediately or the agent/editor will become the one that got away
  • Voice - give the agent/editor the full impact of your character's unique voice as well as your own
  • Don't introduce too many characters in that first scene overwhelming the agent/editor/reader
While none of these points are news to a serious writer of any level, seeing them actively illustrated is priceless. Rules handed out in a vacuum are sometimes poorly implemented, however, being offered concrete examples never fails to nail them down.

This is the purpose of the First Pages session - to educate, to illustrate, and to assist. For the fortunate souls whose pages were read and critiqued, the lesson may not have been painless, but there's no way they could be discounted as anything less than golden.

My thanks to the panel who offered their best advice and comments.

My congratulations to the folks whose pages were read - go forth, revise, and conquer!


  1. My God! The time you spend on a first page! I actually think it's kind of impossible to get most of that on the first page, but I definitely think you need to get most of it in your first chapter. I think the important thing about your first page is to ground your reader in your world and keep them interested enough to turn the page. LOL
    Great post, Denise.

    1. Hi Tracey! Good point, but hopefully bits and pieces of all of the above are conveyed. It takes skillful writing, but it can be done.