Deb: Your Book’s First Pages – Why They Matter, and a Critique Opportunity

One reason first pages matter: the “look inside” feature
No matter how you publish, first pages are
crucial. From reading the first five to ten pages (sometimes even your first
page or two), your readers—including agents and editors, if you’re going that
route—are going to decide whether your book is worth their time, money, and
attention. Online book vendors know this; that’s why they offer the “look
inside” feature on a book’s “buy” page. 
You may think all this attention on beginnings is
unfair. You’ve got a great narrative (either fiction or nonfiction). Lots of
twists and turns. Unique characters. Readers can’t tell all that from the first
few pages. 
Sorry. They can, and they do. 
From time to time, I’m asked to jury a writing
contest or award. The first round of eliminations is actually easier than you
might think; from the first page or two, it’s generally clear whether the
author is capable and whether the selection is captivating enough to warrant a
closer look. 
While recognizing the importance of first pages
is a crucial step towards making sure yours are a worthy representation of your
book, it’s also paradoxically true that authors sometimes try so hard to impress
in a book’s early pages that their efforts end up attention of all the wrong
kinds. In attempting to make sure your first pages “grab the reader,” it’s easy
to overdo, putting the reader off instead of drawing her in. 
In What
Every Author Should Know
, I’ve written about five common flaws of first
pages: clichés, bad pacing, insufficient grounding, flat characters, and shoddy
dialogue. But of course it’s not enough to avoid the mistakes. You want your
first pages to shine with an organic sort of magic, creating a magnetic pull
from which the reader is helpless to escape. 
Study the first five pages of a book you love.
Make notes on how the author draws you into the book­—the set-ups, the turns of
phrase, the nuanced characters, the tension points that hint at the stakes.
Then do the same with the first five pages of your own manuscript.
Sometimes it’s tough to see your own flaws. Or
you see them, but you’ve worked the material over so many times that you’re not
sure how to improve. That’s when a good critique can be helpful. 
In conjunction with my upcoming 49 Writers Ready to
Publish workshop
, I’ll be doing a limited number of first pages critiques.
Registrants who opt for the critique will receive instructions for submitting
their first five pages in advance of the workshop. On each manuscript and also
in a brief editorial letter, I’ll point out what’s working well, and I’ll offer
suggestions for improving the parts that need work. During the lunch break and
after the workshop is over, I’ll meet one-on-one with participants to discuss these
If you’re not able to attend the Ready to Publish
on Feb. 7 in Anchorage
but you’d still like a first pages critique from an experienced author and
editor, check with me at debvanasse (at) and, time permitting, we’ll
see what can be arranged.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the
independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb
 has authored fifteen
books. Her most recent are What
Every Author Should Know
, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and
promotion, and Cold
, a novel that
“captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as
the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist.
Deb lives and works as freelance
editor and coach on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the
Matanuska Glacier. A version of this post also ran at
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