Ali McCart: Fantastic First Impressions for Fiction

In my family, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation of going
into a bookstore “real quick,” only to disappear so long that a family member
has to come in after to me. When I was younger, I was usually found sitting cross-legged
on the floor in the horror section, having found a new all-consuming book and
already on page twenty-five or thirty because I just couldn’t stop reading for
long enough to buy the book and walk back out to the car. These days, my
boyfriend usually finds me leaning against the bookshelves in the literature or
memoir sections. He normally shows up around page ten—I think my parents might
have warned him.
A magical first page can make the world around us dissolve
completely away. They drop us into a scene, introduce us to important
characters and the setting, and intrigue us enough to want to keep reading.
Perhaps most importantly, they use fresh language—but just a hint! A good first
page reveals a scenario we can relate with in some way but helps us to look at
it from a different angle, whether it’s through a description of someone’s
smoky cloud of hair or the detail that the narrator is not just standing on a
mountain ridge but actually stands taller than the trees. All the while, the
first page—like the rest of the manuscript—should be easy to read and, above
all, authentic.
Since my childhood, I’ve been lost in many, many first pages
and not just in the bookstore anymore. I’ve been an acquisitions editor at two
publishing companies, the publisher of Ink-Filled
literary journal, the director of Sledgehammer Writing Contest (, and
a judge for multiple other writing contests.
Of course, I’ve had some unfortunate experiences of reading
first pages that I couldn’t put down soon enough. But the ones I remember most
are the ones that wrapped me up in their magic so thoroughly that I missed my
lightrail stop and had to get on the return train to backtrack. I’m happy to
say that since I moved to Alaska two years ago, I haven’t yet forgotten to get
off the plane at the appropriate stop along the milk run, but I’ve come close!
One of the elements I love most about my life as a freelance
editor now is that I get to help authors polish their first pages and the
materials necessary to place them in front of agents and publishers who will
appreciate them.
In my fiction intensive workshop in Juneau on March 3, we’ll examine
what makes first pages magical and how we can incorporate that into our own
writing. Then we’ll apply these same principles to the task of crafting query
letters, synopses, and pitches. We’ll have time for in-class writing and
critiquing, so bring your materials as well as a laptop or paper and pen. But
most importantly, bring your imagination and openness to get lost in the magic
of the written word!
McCart is the founder and executive director of Indigo, an Oregon-based firm of
editors, designers, and publication consultants. For the past ten years, she’s
been reviewing query letters, judging writing contests, and editing manuscripts
for publishers and independent authors across the country. She writes and edits
from her home in Metlakatla, Alaska, occasionally taking breaks to hike,
photograph, and fish.

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