Are your first 10 pages ready for an agent or other reader? Here are 10 Tips from Christine DeSmet
I help a lot of writers fix their opening pages. I witness many writers revise and then go on to feeling great about their progress, or they secure agent representation, do well in a contest, or publish and get reviewed well.
These pointers for the first 10 pages might help you move forward faster, too.
- Avoid opening with clichés such as a weather report, a character waking in the morning, dialogue from an unknown character, or a flowery description. Avoid having characters fall asleep or black out at the ends of scenes. (Yes, famous writers do this stuff. Yes, there are exceptions. And yup, you can do this in the middle of your book, but please don’t do it in the opening 10 or even first 50 pages. Just don’t, okay?)
- Start with TENSION or a PROBLEM at any level that helps us recognize we’re in for a ride. On Line 1. That means Line 1!
- Protagonists should worry. What are they worried about from Line 1 onward? Put worry into their thoughts, dialogue, actions and reactions.
- Good 3-part scene design saves a writer’s butt every time; it raises your novel/screenplay to the next level in an instant. Start a character in the middle of trouble with a scene GOAL, then have them immediately face obstacles and conflict, and then leave us with some form of cliffhanger (surprise or shock or new decision). Keep the character on track. No meandering.
- If often helps a new writer to have the character EXPRESS the scene goal in either his/her thoughts or in dialogue on page 1, such as: He needed to get…what? And by when? Or what consequences might happen?
- Create real action. New writers too often allow characters to descend into tiny body actions: coughing, breathing/breath references, sighing, nodding, turning, sipping, sitting/standing up and down. —Ach! Stop that lame stuff! Find real action. (You may need to learn more about their plot, hobbies, skills.)
- Stop the constant smiles, smiling, half-smiling, chuckling, laughing, and giggling of dialogue. Stories are about trouble. Work toward a special moment pages later when that smile will startle or reward both the character and the reader.
- Go over your punctuation. Punctuation help is a very good reason to get a critique from a pro. Editors and agents expect correct punctuation. They will forgive a couple of small mistakes, but not several within those 10 pages.
- Vagueness is not artful. Is the action clear? Is the information clear? Do we know where we are? Should we get the characters full name sooner? Age sooner? It’s okay to tuck in a phrase or even a sentence that explains the Who, What, When, Where, Why & How of things. Readers don’t find that clunky. If readers aren’t grounded, they can’t engage in your story.
- Get rid of clutter. That includes “telling” words such as “noticed, heard, saw, glanced, watched, looked, turned, walked slowly.” Get rid of unnecessary adverbs. Do a search for “ly”; what do you find? Also get rid of the substitutes for “said” at least 90 percent of the time. Stop the dialogue with a period. Use action before or after the dialogue to signal who’s talking. Keep the action and dialogue belonging to the same character in their own paragraph.
I hope those tips help speed you onward to good results in the coming months!
Christine DeSmet is a short story writer, novel series author, screenwriter, teacher, and writing coach at UW-Madison Continuing Studies. She recently met with writers in advanced critique meetings at the annual Writers’ Institute held in Madison, Wis. Christine will be leading a new advanced critique lab in Fall 2016. She is the director of the June 13-17 Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop & Retreat. Christine can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.