Why the first page of a manuscript is so important

Woman writing on paper

Unsurprisingly, first impressions are important when convincing publishers to take a chance on a manuscript. But there’s a fine art to a good opening, and even the best story can be let down by a bad first page.

Anna Valdinger, our Commercial Fiction Publisher, reads a lot of submission letters. So she knows a thing or two about what makes a manuscript stand out. We asked her to share a few top tips for writers to consider when submitting their work for The Banjo Prize.

We all know that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And while we have so many different things – family, friends, Netflix, podcasts, hobbies, the list goes on – competing for our limited leisure time, the first page of a book has a lot of work to do.

How often have you picked up a book in a shop, looked at the cover and perhaps the blurb on the back, then flicked through the first couple of pages and thought, ‘Nah’? Or, conversely, found yourself suddenly on page 40 wondering where the last half hour went? That’s the book you’re going to buy and keep reading on the bus home.

No matter the genre, the first paragraph or two have to grab the potential reader’s attention. But particularly for commercial fiction, where readers are looking for both escape and entertainment, it’s crucial to show that the book has something to offer right away. For crime and thrillers, an intriguing mystery set up from the get-go. For anything from family drama to chick-lit, that sense of a character you want to spend time with. Whatever it is, you need to get the action or the hook working for you fast.

I have read a lot of submission letters that promise, ‘it gets really good on page 73’. If that’s the case, start on page 73! I don’t want to spend 30 pages waffling about getting a character’s back story before the real plot starts. Working in exposition is a fine art and can be tricky to manage, but beware of info dumps or implausible dialogue (e.g. ‘Well of course, you, my sister, who I haven’t talked to for three years since our mother died in a car accident on a rainy night …’).

It’s often the case that a writer needs to work their way into a story before they know where they’re going. And that is absolutely fine while you’re working on a draft. But when it comes to editing your manuscript, you need a ruthless streak. If you’ve got a lovely phrase or scene but it’s not going to grab the reader right away, move it or lose it.

We live in impatient times. But there is such a thrill when a new story grabs you and demands that you keep reading. When you’re presented with characters you have to get to know better, and questions that must be answered. Immersing oneself in a good book is like nothing else – but if you don’t get the beginning right, your readers may never discover the joys of your story.

If you’re feeling inspired to submit that manuscript you’ve been working on forever, you’re in luck! The Banjo Prize is accepting submissions until Friday 24 May 2019. To find out more about the prize, and to enter, click here.

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Posted on April 9, 2019 by

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"Why the first page of a manuscript is so important"4 thoughts on
  • Jim Bates says:

    Very interesting!! I will definitely keep this information in mind starting right NOW for all my stories, past, present and future. Thank you.

  • Lea Sweatman says:

    Re-wrote the first page twenty-six times, wrote all of section one, ten thousand words. Re-wrote the first page a few dozen times over, wrote the next section. got to the half way point in my novel, went back to page one. I could have completed my word count by now, if all those first pages counted. This article is very timely for someone trying to write a story for the Banjo Comp. hope you are still running it next year, by then I may have a first page to put with the complected novel but i guess i am not the only one with this dilemma.

  • Thank you. This is honest and to the point.

  • Alice says:

    This necessary grabbing is understandable as applied to agents and publishers reviewing piles and piles of submissions. As a reader, I look at the blurb and cover, and sometimes at reviews, but honestly, the first page doesn’t make or break it for me. Waffle about backstory and character description on the first few pages does turn me off, and I certainly do notice when an opening is done very well, but if the concept/story is something I’m interested in, I will give the book a chance beyond the first few pages. We do live in impatient times, but we can try to practice a little bit of patience and put in a little bit of work to get to something good. I love good endings in a book more than good beginnings. Here’s another perspective: I’m a copy-editor in my day job, and it’s a commonly held perception among editors that writers (I’m not just talking about fiction or even just books) usually spend the most time on the start and the writing can get much worse later on. For this reason, when quoting on an editing assignment, I really don’t want to get Chapter 1 as my representative sample.

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