Participating in a workshop? Lurking in the background? Working on your own manuscript or thinking about working on one? Knowing how to evaluate the opening like a reader is critical. Those pages have to accomplish a lot.
As you read, whether its a workshop entry, your own work, a critique partner's manuscript, or a published novel, ask yourself:
- Is there a clear and unique story world and setting?
- What do you see about the characters?
- Are they new characters? Or have we seen characters too similar to this in other books?
- Are the voices of the characters distinct?
- Is the author's voice/writing competent? Compelling? Unique?
- What kind of expectations are we setting up about where the story is going based on these pages?
- What kind of a story is it going to be?
- Is there enough detail? Too much?
- How's the balance of narrative, action, and dialogue?
- Is there so much action/tension in the opening that we can't possibly sustain it through the rest of the book without exhausting the reader?
- Have we put in enough to make the reader root for the main character?
- Is the reader feeling with the main character?
- What is the tone? Theme? Opening image? How do these relate to the rest of the book?
- Would you keep reading? Would ordinary readers keep reading?
- Would ordinary readers off the street buy THIS book?
- What is in these first five pages that will SELL this book?
Think of the first five pages as the set up for a first date. The pitch or cover blurb may be what your friend tells you when she tries to set you up, but how the guy looks and greets you when you first open the door is going to determine the tone of the whole date. If you're wearing a little black dress and your favorite Manolo's for a nice dinner out, and he shows up in camo pants and a tank top to take you bungee jumping, your reaction to the switch is going to become a really important factor in the success of the date. And guess what? There aren't all that many people who would handle that switch well enough that there would be a second date.
The Right Expectations
We can write the best book on the planet, but if it doesn't set up the RIGHT expectations for the reader, we are setting ourselves up to fail with many potential readers. For me, I think, this is one of the hardest lessons. We know what comes next in our books. We love our characters and our plots, and we have reasons why we do things. We can always explain. But here's the thing. However far we think we have taken the characters away from the ordinary, however emotional or tense or action packed we have made our opening, however much we have put into our first five pages, if we don't set up the right expectations and lead inevitably into the next five pages and into the rest of the book, at some point we are going to get in trouble.
The Bread Crumb Trail to Getting Read
If the reader gets to page five and doesn't understand something that is going to be revealed on page six--and doesn't CARE enough to go on to page six, then we haven't done our jobs.
It doesn't stop there, of course. The first five pages lead to the next five, and the first ten lead to the first twenty-five, and the first twenty-five lead to the first fifty. It's no surprise, really, that these are usually the increments in which agents make requests, and it's amazing what a great agent or editor can spot that we writers miss. (Seriously!)
Our responsibility to satisfy our readers never stops. But it all starts with the first five pages.