No matter how much I want you to believe in yourself, I won’t even try to spin this to make you feel better. You have to get those first few pages right. Whether your book is in an agent’s slush pile or on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, you’ve only got a few seconds to reel in your reader. (Check out my post on How to Think Like a Publishing Gatekeeper to see why they bail so quickly on most manuscripts.)
You know this, though. That’s why you’ve read all the advice the internet can cough up and you’ve reworked your first few pages to incorporate every tip you’ve ever gotten. Ironically, that’s part of the problem. You’re trying to juggle a dozen things at once – an unforgettable first line, a fresh voice, an original theme, complex characters, mood and tone and conflict and a sense of mystery, and so on and so forth. In so doing, there’s a good chance you’ve inadvertently lost the most important element of all – clarity.
Even small moments of ambiguity can disorient your reader, obviously a huge turn-off to gatekeepers. They’re used to seeing manuscripts fall apart before their eyes, so they’re highly attuned to red flags that predict a weak book. The shitty thing is that these red flags are invisible to you. First, you know the story and it would be nearly impossible for you to get disoriented. Second, you probably don’t read bajillions of unpublished manuscripts for a living, so you don’t know what little mis-steps imply a problematic book. Between teaching creative writing masters students and working privately with clients, I do. I see the same small mistakes over and over and over.
Here’s what’s surprising – almost no one is messing up the big stuff. Maybe I’ve just been lucky to have so many talented students and clients, but I rarely see boring openings, or poorly written openings. Instead, I see confusing openings. Even when the books are good, these openings earn their authors the old, "thanks, but no thanks."
I see the same three mistakes derail manuscript after manuscript:
1. UNCERTAIN POV: When you know whose point-of-view the book or chapter is in, it’s so easy to throw in an inadvertent cue that you’re about to shift perspectives. If your first sentence is "Suzie slams down her pencil and stands up," it's natural to assume I'm following Suzie's perspective. If it later becomes clear that Carla is the POV character and she's merely observing Suzie, I'm going to have to start over from the beginning. Similarly, if the first couple of paragraphs are in Carla's POV but then you start the next one with Suzie's name, I might think you're hopping into Suzie's head. Since I read a lot of unpublished manuscripts, I'm going to fear that you'll start hopping into various heads all over the place, never allowing me to get a grip on the story. Further into the book, when POV is firmly established, an errant word or line wouldn’t matter, but at the beginning, it can suggest that you don’t have a handle on perspective and that you won’t be able to pull-off a publishable book.
2. IMPRECISE SETTING: There’s often something small but significant missing from the initial setting that sends me in the wrong direction. Maybe I'm imagining your characters in a kitchen when they're really in a busy restaurant. Or it seems like they're in a car when they're in a boat or a bedroom when they're in a hospital. I get lost, then I realize I got something wrong, so I go back and reread. Guess who wouldn’t reread? An agent or an editor. You’re making them work too damn hard, and no one wants to do that for another 300 pages.
3. UNCLEAR ACTION: To ground me in your book, I need to know precisely what is going on right now in this scene. If two people are talking, what are they trying to get out of the conversation? If your scene is set at an airport, what is your protagonist doing – is he working there, sneaking something through security, heading off for a much-needed vacation? You’d be surprised how easy it is to leave that unclear. And when the what is unclear, it makes it difficult for me to connect with your book. (This is very closely linked with why but as long as we have enough to follow what’s happening, you can more slowly leak out the precise meaning behind it.)
Dial in the clarity on each of those basic elements – who, where, what is happening – and your manuscript will stand a much better chance.
I know all of this sounds simplistic, and you probably don’t think you’re making these mistakes. You probably are. Most of us are. I say us because I’ve screwed these up too, as I show you in my free workbook, which you can download below.
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