First Pages: My Search for the Un-put-downable Start of a Story

I’m revising manuscript number five of my not-yet-illustrious writing career. The story is complete, has been read one critique partner and revised, and is ready to go to beta readers. This story has heists, fight scenes and even kissing (new for me since my prior stories were middle grade), and I’m very excited about it. I dream of agents begging me for this manuscript…if they get past the first five pages.

Sigh.

The story’s good, but the start…meh.

With past manuscripts, I’ve polished my first pages. Changed my start from the bus on the way to summer camp (which apparently rates as low as waking up in bed for interest level), to something more active. But I wasn’t looking for small improvements here. I’d really like manuscript five to be “the one,” so I pulled out all the stops on rethinking my first pages. I don’t want okay first pages. I’d settle for good, but not before trying for great.

Can I get to great?

Not sure. I hope so. (The gremlins are whispering probably not even as I write this). But I thought I’d share what I learned by trying.

What had me worried about my opening pages? Critique partners said they were “really close” but not quite there. I tried:

  • starting just before my main character’s life changed (two different ways),
  • just after her life changed,
  • a flash forward to near the climax for the “How did I get here?” effect,
  • a flashback to the incident that set the chain of events in motion,
  • the first confrontation with the bully, and
  • the first confrontation with the other main character/love interest.

I was pretty desperate for a set of first pages that would draw cries of “YES! THIS!” from critique partners and propel the reader into the manuscript. But kept getting the same very kind, sympathetic response. “Really close.”

What did I do wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that some of my starts were destined to fail.

  • “No action,” said the critique partners.
  • “Scene 1 is too disconnected to scene 2.”
  • “What does this scene have to do with the story you pitched in your query?”

I felt in my gut that there was a set of great first pages for this story out there somewhere. There was this one scene, the scene the 2nd or 3rd in the manuscript depending on which first chapter option I was trying at the time, that worked. Critique partners said, “Things really started happening here.” I knew if I could just introduce the main character enough to set up this scene, that I could pull the reader in. But what words would do that, without getting my query slotted into the form reject pile before an agent ever got to that great scene?

I complained to the Pennies, because that’s why you have a writing group, so someone can pat you on the shoulder when you need it, and I found out something interesting. Julie Artz, whose lovely, heartfelt middle grade story I’d read months before, said she’d been through five versions of her first chapter. In fact, each of the first four chapters of her story had at one point been her first chapter. What? I felt like slightly less of a loser for sweating version after version of my first pages after that. Tara Lundmark, who I met at WriteOnCon when looking for more feedback on my pages, said she’d written ten different first pages for one of her stories. Armed with this knowledge, I dropped the angst and decided to just give in to as many rewrites as it took to get it right.

At this point, I’ve written 8 different versions of the start of my story, as well as polishing several versions, including the one currently titled “Chapter 1” in Scrivener. This is what I learned through the process of trying to make the start of my story un-put-downable.

 1. Don’t Fall in Love with One Set of First Pages.

I was stuck on Version 1 of my first pages for hours even after being told by trusted CP’s they weren’t right. I was stuck on Verion 2 for weeks. I loved the setting and how those pages developed my character. Allowing myself to get stuck on that idea blocked other ideas for how to start the story from flowing. Once I decided to not settle for meh, the ideas flooded in, as demonstrated by the fact that I ended up with 8 different starts. And, really, what’s the harm of trying something different? I wasn’t going to delete those words I loved, just tuck them out of the way. I could always go back to them if my new start wasn’t better.

2. Look to Master Books for Ideas.

Okay, admit it, you laughed at that flashback start. Everyone knows not to start with flashbacks. Except when they work. I was pulling ideas from master books. Both Harry Potter and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo start years earlier in their main characters’ lives. The idea for trying a flash forward came from Twilight and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Flashbacks and flash forwards can be done well, just not by me, at least not for this manuscript. But turning to master texts for ideas is great prep for brainstorming the start of your story.

3. Get Fresh Eyes.

I am blessed with wonderful critique partners who love me even when my words aren’t working. My closest critique partners had been hacking at this story idea with me from the idea stage, seven months before I hit my first pages wall. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t the only one too close to the story to see the pages clearly, they were too. That was stressful! Who do you turn to when that happens?

I found a couple great options: Adventures in YA Publishing holds a monthly first five pages workshop that is fabulous. (We also host our 4 on 400 contest monthly, but I can’t sub to that one!) WriteOnCon hosts an online writing conference with forums for posting your work and exchanging critiques with other writers. If all else fails, you can find a new critique partner. Someone I met on the WriteOnCon Forums asked if I wanted to exchange chapters, and since we’d already critiqued each others’ first five page and her comments were helpful, it was an easy decision. Just what I needed! A new reader who knew nothing about my story and had no worries about disappointing me.

4. Remember that Your First Pages Aren’t Your Only Pages.

I was jealous of Gita Trelease’s gorgeous first pages. They’d been right from soooo early in her revision process. Then, I was reminded that she was sweating her climax. The grass may look greener over by your critique partner’s writing desk, but there are weeds in everyone’s lawn.

Also, eventually you need to let those first pages rest so you can fix up the all the other pages in your manuscript. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there for you to take another look at later.

So, after writing 8 versions of my first pages, workshopping at Adventures in YA Publishing and WriteOnCon, and polishing the final pick, are my first pages unputdownable? Sigh. No. But they’re pretty good. Good enough that I’m going to take my own advice and move onto revising the rest of the story.

Maybe version 9 of my first pages will come to me while I revise.

Or maybe I’ll figure out how to polish this version until it’s unputdownable.

DON’T STOP HERE! If you made it through this post, I bet you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’ve written some first pages and have something to say on this topic. HOW MANY VERSIONS OF FIRST PAGES DID YOU WRITE FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS? WHAT HELPED YOU FIND THE RIGHT START FOR YOUR STORY? I’m no expert! Let’s learn together. Leave comments below!

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

16 thoughts on “First Pages: My Search for the Un-put-downable Start of a Story

  1. I love your post, Rebeca. It reminds me that I’m not the only one spending an insane amount of time rewriting my first 50 pages. If you have a lot of world building and many layers to your story, you’re going to sweat these first pages. But it’s worth it. And one day, you’ll find a formula that works for you. Never give up. Thank you for remind me not to give up.

    1. Hey Sussu! You’re right, world building definitely makes the first pages even more challenging. I’m working with a contemporary setting, so while I have sci fi components, I was able to push them back a few chapters. Adding that in right away only makes those pages harder to write because you have to slip facts in while your characters is doing something interesting enough to hold your readers attention!

      Also, I wonder if there is a formula…it’s nice to think that there is. It would certainly make the start of my next story easier! But there are so many different ways to start a story. I think it may be part of the art of writing that the combination of character development, setting, action, dialogue and world building that creates the spark to pull the reader in might be different for story. *sigh*

      Thanks for the support on my first pages and best of luck with yours too!

  2. Your post really resonates with me. I keep having the same problem. I don’t yet have five full manuscripts but am working on book 2 which may be suffering from the same issue as book 1. I love my first book but the agents never request more pages. Thanks for letting me feel I am not alone. Best of luck with your current book. Hopefully once you get an agent they will read all your old books and help you with those first five pages to they can sell too. (At least that is what I tell myself.)

    1. Thanks for commenting, Christine!

      I think there are a lot of us struggling with our first pages! Actually, I think part of my problem with my earlier manuscripts was that I didn’t struggle enough with them. I knew first pages were important, but didn’t have the sense that I could start the same story in so many different ways and that it could have such a big impact on getting a reader to keep reading. I sent queries to too many agents before making changes. I figured that agents didn’t like my main character or didn’t connect the plot (which could be true as well! Unfortunately, it’s hard to know for sure until you get detailed feedback.) With this story, I’ll probably send out two rounds of queries at most before making more changes if I don’t request.

      Stick with it, though, I’ve gotten more requests with each successive manuscript. I hope you get an agent before you get to #5!

      <3

  3. Good post. Nice to see someone else also has trouble with first pages. I have rewritten first pages a lot. When I wrote my first MG, my writing group said the best beginning was at the start of chapter 3 (at least I think that is where they said. It has been quite a few years), and they were right. So, I sighed and rewrote. But I am still trying to improve on those first few pages. I think if you really love your story, you need to keep working on it until you get it right. Keep at it, you will get it right.

  4. I can also relate! I’m on the 6th version of my story’s opening. I think my first two pages are where I struggle. I have a mix of dialogue, scenery, and action now, but still I don’t know. I will have a few new eyes look at it for me though! I have read the first pages and chapters of so many stories to study their structure, but can’t seem to get mine to that level. 🙂 Thank you for sharing this post!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Christina! It sounds like you are doing all the right things…trying different versions, using a mix of dialogue setting and action, looking for examples in published books you love! New eye might be the thing that helps you find the answer.

      Best of luck!
      <3

  5. Ugh. I’ve been there and stopped counting. I’m ready to sub (at least I thought I was before I read this!) and who knows if my first page works? A SCBWI “first pages” panel liked it–but at this point, I have NO IDEA!

    Sorry for venting. Your points are all well taken.

    1. If a SCBWI first pages panel liked it, that’s a really good sign! Those are fresh eyes, and knowledgeable. Good for you!

      No problem venting! I’ve been there! Recently! Since you’ve gotten good feedback, you may well be ready. If you’re not sure, maybe just send out a batch of ten queries and see how it does. You probably know, but a decent request rate is only around 10%, so you need to send out a handful to get a good read. There can be plenty of reasons other than your words an agent doesn’t request. They have a client working on something similar, it’s not there thing, the barista at Starbucks messed up their Chai latte on the way to the office…

      Best of luck with querying!

  6. Nice post Rebecca! I have the same thing with my new WIP and I was thinking of trying Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. Best wishes for your revision!
    Laurel

  7. Hey Laurel, and thanks! I haven’t read Noah Lukeman’s book on first pages. Can anyone else comment on it?

    Gita recommended THE MAGIC WORDS by Cheryl Klein, which is not focused on first pages, but had a few very helpful pages about them. I also drew on Story Structure by Larry Brooks and Story Genius by Lisa Cron. But I wasn’t trying to follow the formula from a craft book because there are so many, right? I think at some point “the rules” can make you crazy and you have to let go of them and just write until you get it right.

    Or maybe I’m wrong and would have gotten to the right pages faster with a different source! You never know! 🙂

    Best of luck with your first pages!

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