Literary agent Noah Lukeman wrote a book more than a decade ago called THE FIRST FIVE PAGES about the importance of openings. I’ve heard many editors and agents state that they know whether they’re going to reject something within the first five to ten pages–even one posted on a blog somewhere that in three pages she knew. In one of his books on writing, Sol Stein said he walked into a bookstore and watched browsers. Most who picked a book up off the shelf would read the inside flap/back cover copy, then turn to the first page. If they turned the page, they were more apt to buy the book. If they didn’t turn the page, they were more apt to put the book back on the shelf.
One page to hook the reader.
Before I started writing, I always finished books I started, even if they weren’t very good. I was practically compelled to do so–as if it would be sacrilegious to not finish the book. Now? Unless it’s an author I trust who has never let me down in the past, if I don’t like the story after a chapter or three, I don’t finish it. Life is too short to read books that don’t grab me. Apparently, I’m one of the more generous readers.
Some readers complain that in the effort to start in action, they’re thrown into a story completely lost. Other readers don’t like a long set-up. But what is a long set up for one reader is short for another.
Editors buy books, generally, because they love the author’s voice, they care about at least one character, and they have a sense of where the book fits. One editor told me there are two things that need to be in a manuscript before she would even considering buying it–character and pacing. And she knows if they are there before she’s done with the first chapter.
Agents and editors won’t read past the first few pages if they know they won’t buy, and readers won’t, either. Teasers–the sample chapters you can read online or download to e-readers–are more important for many readers than most of us realize, especially now when it is so easy to download a chapter, and then buy it if you like it–or not.
Some writers lament that “if only” the editor would read more, they’d understand the importance of starting the book in the slower spot, or in that character’s POV, or with five pages of description. But if readers who buy the book aren’t going to give them past the first page or two, why should the editor hope that there’s something more enticing later? I’d suspect if the voice is so strong and compelling that the editor will give it a longer read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they bought it, that the editor wouldn’t ask for a more compelling opening.
All this hit home to me (again) when I received the Romantic Suspense entries for RWA’s Golden Heart contest. I decided to read the first five pages of each story as if I were an editor acquiring the book, or an agent who wanted to sell it. While I read the entire entry and give it a fair score, because that’s my responsibility to the contest and entrants, after five pages, only one grabbed me enough that I wanted to read more. I marked where the author “lost me” — it was by the second page. Each one was for a different reason–poor writing, stereotypical character/opening, and one that–surprisingly–started with a great hook, but it was poorly executed. It dragged out something that didn’t need to be dragged out, so it felt forced and contrite.
If I were an editor, four of those would have been sent rejections already. The fifth, the one that grabbed me and I wanted to read past page five, I can picture an editor taking it home, hoping it fulfills her wishes.
Just like any reader.
I thought about this even more this past week as I was writing the third Lucy Kincaid book. I knew there was a problem with the beginning, but I didn’t know what, so I just continued writing, figuring I’d fix it later or my editor would figure it out. But that was me being lazy. At one point, it hit me, and I went back and rewrote the opening two chapters. I ended up in the same place so I could save the next three or four chapters (just some minor editing) but the first two chapters are completely different. Different POV, different set-up, but the same story. I’m much happier, and have written more in the last two days than I had in the last week–because subconsciously, I knew there was something wrong with the first five pages.
It’s scary being a writer today knowing that readers judge books on the opening page or two. But I don’t really blame them. We’re all busy. We have families and jobs and responsibilities, and when we read we want a book we know we’ll like. Maybe now, more than ever, because we don’t want to spend money on something that doesn’t entertain us, nor do we want to waste time. I’m guilty of the same thing. After putting myself in an editor’s shoes, I realize how easy it is to reject — but not as easy as it is for a reader.