The First Page
There’s a terrific book that I often recommend to young writers—The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Mr. Lukeman is a long-time agent, editor, and publisher. The thrust of his counsel is this:
Most agents and editors make up their minds about submissions within the first five pages. If they spot a single amateur mistake (excess adjectives, “your” instead of “you’re,” “it’s” instead of “its”), your manuscript goes straight into the trash.
Grind on those first five pages, says Mr. Lukeman. Make certain they are flawless.
I agree completely of course. But I would go further. The make-or-break page, to my mind, is Page One. Even more critical: Paragraph One.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …
The first paragraph, the first sentence is do-or-die. It has to be more than just free of error. It has to kick ass.
All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Those two opening sentences are from A Tale of Two Cities and Anna Karenina. I’ve abbreviated them to show that they still work, even when they’re cut off. A great opening can hook a reader in as few as three words.
Call me Ishmael.
Nor does a riveting opening have to be particularly literary, or display masterful erudition, or inform the reader that the hero of the tale has just woken up to discover that he has been turned overnight into a cockroach.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all that before they had me, and all the David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
I think of Page One as a battlefield or a stage for seduction. The contest is between the writer and the reader. The reader comes to our first page, our first paragraph with two conflicting bents of mind. On the one hand, she wants nothing more than to be swept away. She wants to fall in love with our narrative. We’re Mr. Tambourine Man; she wants to be taken for a trip upon our magic swirling ship.
That’s Bent #1 in the reader’s mind. The second bent is pure suspicion. “Who is this writer anyway? Why should I trust him? How do I know he’s any good?” Even readers who have read other books we’ve written and loved them … even those true-blue fans are skeptical. “Yeah, he did it before, but how do I know this latest one doesn’t fall flat on its face?”
We have to win that battle, you and I, and we have to win it fast. We have to complete this seduction by Paragraph One, and certainly no later that Paragraph Two. Attention spans are short these days and getting shorter. Before that first Kindle page has flipped over, we better have either established our bona fides with the reader or charmed her or hypnotized her or got her curiosity going.
Here’s one trick. Start at the very beginning of your book and read down till you get to a sentence, or a run of sentences, that possess genuine magic. Then look back at the sentences that precede them. Can these sentences be cut? Cut them!
The legend is that Maxwell Perkins convinced Ernest Hemingway to get rid of the first two chapters of The Sun Also Rises. Not sentences or paragraphs. Chapters. He cut them till he got to this, at the start of what was originally Chapter Three.
Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed with that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing; in fact he disliked it. But he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing that he could knock down anyone who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym.
Never take the reader’s attention for granted. We have to earn it, you and I, and that ain’t easy. Is there a secret? None that I’ve found. We’ve got to keep striving for that magic, wherever and however we can find it.
What we want is for the reader to stop resisting, to set aside her skepticism and to embrace the tale we are about to tell her. We want her onboard willingly and with all her heart. She must trust us. She must believe us. She must surrender to us.
If you can do that in the first paragraph or the first page, there’s a good chance she’ll hang on for the whole E-ticket ride.