I write stuff for kids...and muse on writing, children's books, and the publishing industry in general

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Top Tip - The First 250 Words of Your Manuscript


Enough said, I think.

But seriously, it pays to place a lot of importance on how you write the first page of your book. Obviously, the rest of the manuscript has to hold up as well. But...if you don't capture the agent's/editor's attention right at the start, the rest of the manuscript may not even get read.

Consider your opening scene. Is it gripping? Compelling? Does something happen? Does the first 250 words give a good idea of the voice of your main character?

Will a casual browser in a book store want to turn the page? Even better, will the first page make the casual browser want to keep reading right to the end of the chapter? That's one of the best ways to encourage them to buy your book right off the shelves.

I'm a part of a fabulous critique group, iVoice, where we work together to discuss plot and general writing issues, give and receive critiques on various portions of our manuscripts, and improve our writing skills. One of the particular things we focus on when critiquing manuscripts is the first 250 words.

Here's a useful exercise for you:
  1. open a new word document;
  2. copy the first 250 words (no more, no less) of your manuscript into the new document and save;
  3. let the passage sit unopened for a few days, a week if possible;
  4. open the document and read the passage in complete isolation from the rest of your manuscript. Pretend you're reading it for the first time in a bookstore while you tap your foot and wait for your partner to stop maxing out the credit card;
  5. does the passage grab your interest? Be honest. Be objective. Would you turn the page?
  6. consider the contents of your opening passage. Is the main character (MC) mentioned? Do we hear the MC's voice? Does something happen, or are we just reading about the MC thinking, reading, musing, sitting on the toilet, looking out a window, or any other passive (and possibly boring) action? Is the scene set-up so long that the reader still won't know what is happening by the end of the first page?
  7. now for the big question - have you inadvertently opened with a cliche? There's some great websites out there on first chapter and opening scene cliches (too many to mention), and I would suggest you Google and have a good read of them. Unfortunately, many agents will assume that if your opening scene/page is cliche-ridden (for want of a better phrase), the rest of your manuscript may be built on cliches as well. Why give them a reason to reject your work before they even turn the manuscript page;
  8. once you're completely happy with your opening page, give it to others to read as well;
  9. listen to their comments. Apply;
  10. do a happy dance, then repeat steps 1-10 all over again!
Author Jody Hedlund blogs about potential first chapter problems, and makes some fantastic suggestions about things to avoid. It's definitely worth a read, and I may even do a Top Tip post on the first chapter at a later date. Keep in mind that many of Jody's suggestions will apply to the first 250 words as well.

I can't wait to read your first 250 words! Will I want to keep on reading???


Tessa Quin said...

Fantastic advice, Rach!

I'm considering changing the beginning to BoB yet again. I'm reading Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. Half way through the second chapter, I had to put the book down and write. I was so inspired. I hope the rest of the book will be as inspiring.

The first version of the first draft was seriously awkward. The second version was also awkward. The third a little bit less awkward, but things were still forced (WriteOnCon version), and the latest version is less awkward, but not entirely without it. Maybe I can have another stab at this and see if I can loose the awkwardness completely. I know my characters so well by now. Maybe I'll even have Eva stand up to Meg in the first chapter!

Rachael Harrie said...

Can't wait to see what you do with your chapter, Tessa. Would love to see a conflict scene! I haven't read Stein on Writing but it sounds fascinating - might see if I can chase up a copy :)

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