06 March 2011

First Pages

I'm doing a workshop in May in which I'll critique first pages of novels (well, 2 pages) and dispensing publishing advice (that one cracks me up). I am fairly capable at critting and judging a work by the first page or two though, from my time here reading slush and also playing The Game, plus just reading 5 years worth of critiques for my partners, too.

I've been asked what I can find out about a story from the first page. For the purposes of our game here I call that 250 words (granted, longer than a first page but generally about how long I can be guaranteed to read before giving up). I actually expect a LOT out of that first page.

I expect these items, in order of importance though not necessarily appearance:

  • Who is my hero/ine?  For short stories, I really want to know who I'm banking on. Think of it this way: I'm new to your world and I need a guide to show me around. I'm not much for a prologue featuring the antagonist in short fiction, though of course it can work. (Generally I prefer single POVs in short fiction, and no prologues or epilogues.) No need to be coy, Roy, use actual names for your characters. And I daresay you won't see a story in Electric Spec that starts with the word "It." (Now of course someone will run out and find one that did!) A safe bet is to get your character doing something in the first lines, or at least the first paragraph. Not a rule by any means, but a reliable technique. Bonus points for showing me it's a protag I will care about or am happy to depend on, either cuz s/he's sympathetic, empathetic, or too cool for school.

  • Where am I? I don't need a travelogue, but gimme a hint. 
Am I in  a fantasy world? (LOTR)
One like the Renaissance? (THE SPIRIT LENS)
Dystopic Jersey Shore? (I think there's a show or something.) 
Alternate historical Alaska? (THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION) 
Space? Maybe a long, long time ago? (Duh)

We're doing speculative fiction here, folks. Take me where I've never been before.
  • Is there a problem here, officer?  C'mon, at least a hint at a story problem and conflict. What's this guy or girl or multi-gendered alien up against?

And, yeah. That's really about it. See? Put like that, it really doesn't seem like too much to ask from 250 words.


lesleylsmith said...

I'm curious, Editor Betsy, do you think literature has changed over the years in reaction to the internet? Is it more important now to tell the reader everything in the first page than it used to be?

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I think so. I think most readers no longer read complete news stories or even blog posts unless they're super interested. Letting the reader know if it's something they're interested in does them a favor.

But I'm not trying to be supercilious about it, either. These are guidelines for me, as an editor and often as a reader and a writer, but I don't pretend that every single reader requires these things. That said, it certainly doesn't HURT a story to have them in there.