A Killer Beginning

Pearl DSC_0015

by Carmen Ferreiro Esteban

A killer beginning doesn’t guarantee publication but may be your only chance to catch the editor’s attention.

With publishers receiving thousands of manuscripts/queries every month, it is a mathematical impossibility that they read them all. If you are lucky, an overworked editor will pick yours and read your first line. In those precious seconds the future of that novel you worked so hard to create hang in the balance. It is that first line that will determine whether he/she will read more or discard your submission to the reject pile together with your dreams.

The importance of the first page is no secret. First Page readings are a part of most Writers conferences and workshops. In them, editors/publishers read different first pages and explain why or why not they would keep reading.

Over the years, I have collected a list of things editors look for on a first page. Among them: memorable, relatable characters, engaging story telling, and a good sense of place. Editors, tell us, want to be tickled, surprised, transported to another place and time. They want to know by the end of the first page to whom, when, where and why this is happening and they want to care enough about your characters that they cannot stop reading.

Also, I almost forgot, they want the piece to have a voice, that elusive element “they recognize when they see it.”

Not bad, for a mere 250 words.

Never to be discouraged, last year I decided to create a perfect first page following all the advice above and send the resulting creation to a local workshop. It worked. They chose my piece and, apart from some minor tinkering the three editors like it well enough.

But my triumph was short lived. My first page was perfect, thank you very much, but I had no idea where to go from there.

So this year I decided to go the traditional way and write the story first. I sent my first page to the same workshop. This time they didn’t choose it. I didn’t mind. Not too much, anyway. I know I am on the right track. The story is strong in my mind, the characters are speaking to me, and the setting is gorgeous. I have even found my voice.

So, for now, I’ll stick to the writing and worry about creating that perfect beginning when I’m done.

In the meantime, I leave you with several killing beginnings taken from published books I and other readers have added to a thread I started some months ago at Goodreads. You can check them at:

http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/67351-once-upon-a-time

You are welcome to add yours there or here as comments.

And don’t forget to keep writing.

6 Comments

  1. chrysasmith said,

    June 10, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Love it. I suppose it’s from you Carmen—
    I think I love it because it’s not only true, but the most recent issue of THE NEW YORKER magazine is filled with cartoons relating to publishing, authorship and other musings of the world of the written word—cartoons that I will duplicate and share.

    • June 10, 2009 at 7:54 pm

      Oops! I forgot to sign.
      Thanks Chrysa. Yes, it is Carmen.
      Could you tell us more about The New Yorker’s issue on publishing on your blog and give us a link?
      I would love to read it.

  2. June 11, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Good advice, Carmen. Also, a little intimidating. Sometimes I think I try too hard with my first page, tinkering and tinkering with it, trying to make it perfect. Then, when I go back to my original version, it seems fresher and more interesting. But that’s part of the fun of writing – that search for the exact words to make your vision come alive. And I think fun is maybe the most important part. If the writer doesn’t enjoy himself, the reader certainly won’t.

  3. Carole Longo Harris said,

    June 22, 2009 at 12:23 am

    Surprise! My friend Flo recommended the site. It is great. I am a short story writer and can’t get through the torture of creating a query letter.In the meantime I will take the advice to “keep writing.” As for speaking out I would be preaching to the choir with my family and most friends. I loved the short one liners by the Great Communicator (Reagan). He said, “Mr Gorbachek, tear down that wall! Also, “It is interesting that all the pro abortion activists in the audience have already been born.”
    Best Regards, Nona Bella, Beautiful Grandmother.

    • June 22, 2009 at 12:33 am

      Carole,

      I love how Nona Bella sounds aloud. It is beautiful. Of course that is what it means, but it does sing when you say it.

      I was wondering whether to write my next blog about Middles or about Queries and you made the decision for me. Queries it is. As soon as I finish my translation (my deadline is Wednesday) I will post a blog on queries just for you.


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