The statistic that less than 5% of those works presented to agents and editors are accepted has long been a mystery to me. Yesterday, I participated in a workshop, “First Page.” I now understand why so many manuscripts are rejected and why they are rejected so quickly. Among the eleven participants, all of us invested a lot of verbal geography in description and omitted the required tension and unanswered questions. Some, and this is not unusual, made grammar or sentence structure errors.
Editors and agents are impatient, tired and a wee bit jaded. They know if those errors are present in the first page and if the first page is not compelling. There is no reason to continue. Crafting a compelling first page, according to writing coach and editor, Ray Rhamey, author of Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells, is composed of six must have components.
Tension. So many of us jump right to place and scene we omit action or dilemma that will keep the reader turning pages. I can spot this error in any document but my own.
Story Questions. What’s next? What is going to happen? Why? In one critique, someone said of my first page, “I know what is going to happen and I don’t care.” Not kind, but he pointed out my vector was obvious and I had not captured the reader’s emotions or curiosity. That’s hard to fix, but it is critical. I know few books that do this better, in every single paragraph, than Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Open to any page at random, read a paragraph and notice how he forces you to read the next one. That’s the goal.
Voice. Who is talking and what do they see, hear and feel? This component owns the point of view and determines language, attitude and often, the action. I erred in my piece by describing Ben needing to relieve himself when in fact, because the book is from his point of view, I should have said he needed to pee or take a piss. I learned this in an instant from Carol O,, a fellow writer who did a quick line edit of my piece.
Clarity. Is there continuity? Does the story make sense? My own mistake was mentioning Ben fell to his knees on American soil when he was still on the gangplank. That first action would make any agent or editor toss the manuscript. This happens if there are grammar or wordsmithing mistakes just as fast.
Character. Who is this book about? And why do I care. What did the character do to attract and keep my attention? I struggle bitterly with this because Ben is often a violent and nasty guy. For the first page, I must help the reader see why he is angry so they root for him and cheer him on when he maims a rapist or acts in other unacceptable ways. And, dear reader, he does. Constantly. He does all the right things, the wrong way and I must captivate the reader before I let him loose.
Scene. So much of the story is wrapped by location it becomes another character in the book. Ben leaves Poland because of ill-treatment from his step father, but his journey to America is made hazardous because of Pogroms and roving bands of Cossacks on the hunt for Jews to brutalize. This same story could not evolve if the location and era are not clearly spelled out. And I feel the reader must be reminded periodically of the time frame to prevent them from superimposing their present-day sensibilities to events more logical historically.
To me, one of the purist forms of respect is when a fellow author takes the time to critique my work. Carol has a strong mentor who has helped her rid her manuscript of adverbs and use adjectives sparingly. She pointed out many in my work and though I don’t get it, I recognize it is part of the ‘prescription’ for today’s novel. I now crave a ‘spell check’ for parts of speech!
But her biggest gift to me, and all this transpired in less than 15 minutes, was pointing out sections where I had written too well. That perfect prose was inappropriate if my ‘observer’ was Ben. I have to work to get my arms around this and work even harder to stop writing him as an articulate, educated author and own up to his language as the Jew Mechanic that he is.
In all, I am still recovering from the ego blows to my writing. Most of the critique and advice was spot on. I lumber towards embracing the concepts and implementing the principles. Bye for now, off to rewrite.