Part of the How They Do It Series
I'm delighted to have one of my favorite bloggers, Ava Jae, visit the lecture hall this week. Aside from her usual great advice and perspectives on writing, she holds a monthly giveaway for a first page critique (similar to my Real Life Diagnostics without the question), and today she'll share some insights and tips gleaned from her Fixing the First Page series.
Ava is a YA and NA writer, an Assistant Editor at Entangled Publishing, and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. Her YA Sci-Fi debut, BEYOND THE RED, is releasing March 2016 from Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing about kissing, superpowers, explosions, and aliens, you can find her with her nose buried in a book, nerding out over the latest X-Men news, or hanging out on her social media sites.
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Take it away Ava...
Oftentimes, first pages are referred to as the most important 250 words of a manuscript—something that I tend to agree with. First pages hold a lot of responsibility—they need to hook the reader in, whether that reader is an agent, an editor, or someone holding your book, debating whether or not to buy. And while the first page may just be 250 words, those words are used, consciously or not, to judge the rest of your book.
Is this first page intriguing? Is the voice engaging? Do I like the writing style? Do I want to keep reading? These are all questions that readers ask as they sample that first page, so it’s your job as a writer to write an opening that doesn’t disappoint.
As someone who runs a monthly first page critique and also does assistant editing work for a publishing company, I critically read a lot of first pages. And over time, I’ve noticed a lot of common issues that are pretty widespread throughout the samples I’ve come across. Some of these include:
Starting in the wrong place.
This is probably my #1 critique with openings, and 9/10 times it’s because the story is starting too soon. A book should open shortly before the inciting incident, which is the event that kicks off the protagonist’s journey. Oftentimes, however, I find that many writers start their books well before the inciting incident—for example, they take readers through the protagonist’s whole uneventful day before getting to the event that changes everything. Instead, it’s much more effective to start just before the event, so that the pacing doesn’t lag right in your opening pages.
By “writing issues” I mean sentence-level stuff. Wordiness. Filter phrases. Show vs. tell. Lack of grounding details. The good news is these are pretty easy to weed out once you realize they need fixing—the bad news is the sentence-level issues present on the first page are generally a good indication of wide-spread manuscript issues. If there are a lot of filter phrases (“I see,” “I think,” “I wonder,” “I smell,” “I feel,” etc.) on the first page for example, I know to expect to see plenty peppered throughout the manuscript.
This is an issue I see most often when reading YA and NA (especially the former). Both YA and NA have very particular voice types—they need to sound like they were narrated by protagonists of the correct age group (so roughly 15/16-18 for YA and 18-mid twenties for NA). More times than not when there are voice issues, it’s because the voice sounds too old (again, especially with YA). This is tougher to fix, because voice is conveyed through every word—so, for example, just a couple words peppered throughout the first page that a teen wouldn’t regularly use can throw the whole voice off.
On the flip side, I also frequently see voices in YA that sound like an adult attempting to sound like a teen. Major tip-offs include exaggerated teen angst, relying on clichés, and using outdated slang.
In the end, the best way to get a feel for YA voices is to read a lot of YA. I highly recommend I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, and Half Bad by Sally Green for great voices, specifically.
Backstory is tricky, and as a general rule, shouldn’t be on your first page. While it’s important to have some contextual information sprinkled in so readers aren’t totally lost, the first page is not the place to dump a bunch of information about the character’s backstory or circumstances leading up to the opening. Doing so brings the pacing to a grinding halt and can frequently be overwhelming to readers who haven’t had a chance to ease into your story yet.
So before you prepare your manuscript for submission, I encourage you to take a good look at your opening (or have critique partners do so) and see if you can spot any of these issues. Because while one of these issues alone may not automatically disqualify a submission, the best submissions are ones without any problems to distract from the story.
About Beyond the Red
Alien queen Kora has a problem as vast as the endless crimson deserts. She’s the first female ruler of her territory in generations, but her people are rioting and call for her violent younger twin brother to take the throne. Despite assassination attempts, a mounting uprising of nomadic human rebels, and pressure to find a mate to help her rule, she’s determined to protect her people from her brother’s would-be tyrannical rule.
Eros is a rebel soldier hated by aliens and human alike for being a half-blood. Yet that doesn’t top him from defending his people, at least until Kora’s soldiers raze his camp and take him captive. He’s given an ultimatum: be an enslaved bodyguard to Kora, or be executed for his true identity—a secret kept even from him.
When Kora and Eros are framed for the attempted assassination of her betrothed, they flee. Their only chance of survival is to turn themselves in to the high court, where revealing Eros’s secret could mean a swift public execution. But when they uncover a violent plot to end the human insurgency, they must find a way to work together to prevent genocide.