Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Common First Page Issues

By Ava Jae, @Ava_Jae

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: 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.

Writing issues.

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.

Voice issues.

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 clich├ęs, 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.

Balanced backstory.

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.


  1. thank you for this invaluable information....and for reminding me about what my first page should be. i have rewritten that first page, and particularly that first paragraph, so many times. i hope i have it where it needs to be, but i'm not confident about it. maybe i have to "kill the darlings" as stephen king said. sigh. jenni at angelheartcottage@comcast.net

    1. First pages can be really tough to get right. I don't know if you have any critique partners, but if you do, they can be essential to figuring out where to start and how well the writing is working (or not).

      Good luck!

  2. Great stuff, as always. Thanks for the tips!

  3. This is an interesting article, Ava. I've never heard of NA before. I protagonist is 26 at the beginning of the story. Is this NA. Also, what does NA stand for.

    As far as putting in backstory, I had learned in a free workshop that it should be put into a story on a need-to-know basis. What's your feelings on this?

    1. NA is new adult, and yeah it covers college age and early twenties, I think ...

    2. As Jee Ann Marie said, NA is New Adult. It's a category (like Young Adult, Middle Grade, etc.). Generally, NA covers college-age characters, so roughly 18-mid twenties. 26 sounds like it might be a little on the older side, possibly Adult, but it depends on the novel. If you're interested, I wrote a post on the difference between YA and NA here: http://avajae.blogspot.com/2014/03/young-adult-vs-new-adult.html

      As far as backstory goes, I agree it's definitely a need-to-know basis. Put in the backstory readers need to know to understand the story (and do it gradually, throughout the manuscript rather than all at once), but don't give any more than they need. It can be a tricky balance, but critique partners definitely help figure out where the line is.

      I hope this helps!

  4. Really interesting stuff, thanks for sharing.

  5. Hi Ava. Is it possible to have your "backstory" infused with enough tension and conflict that it becomes worthwhile? I have 150 pages that happens before the inciting event but I wonder if it is novel worthy and not an info dump. Is that possible or am I dreaming (I can take it.).

    Thanks for the article and advice.

    1. Stepping in for Ava here...

      My gut instinct is that if it takes 150 pages to get to the inciting event, you have too much backstory (or your inciting event isn't what you think it is, and the story actually starts much earlier on).

      You *can* have compelling backstory, but if it's taking that much space it sounds like it does sound like it's its own novel.

    2. Wow! I feel bad for not seeing these last couple comments earlier. So sorry!

      I totally agree with Janice, though. If it takes 150 pages to get to what you think is your inciting incident, it sounds like it's already taken a story of its own (in which case, that later incident probably isn't the inciting incident...or its the inciting incident of another story?).

      But generally inciting incidents need to be at the very beginning. After all, they're the incident that should be kicking off the rest of your story.

      I hope that helps! Good luck with your writing!

  6. Just starting to edit my novel for children and came across your blog. Filter phrase issue is really helpful as I am just about to start first round of editing.
    People like me cannot thank you enough for your time and advice.

    1. Most welcome, glad you find the site useful :) That's why I do it.