The first ten pages

Female writer drinking cup of coffee top view of female hands holding cup of coffee above pencils and paper on work desk retro toned image.

Yesterday I had coffee with my immensely good-natured friend, the writer Renee Mihulka, to discuss the first ten pages of our middle grade fiction books. We are both attending the KIDLIT festival in May at the Victorian state library, and have elected to submit the first ten pages of our books to a publisher for some feedback. We’ll receive written feedback in a fifteen minute session. Gold!

So, naturally, our ten pages have to be the most sparkling, eloquent, page-turning, engaging, meaningful, action-packed pages of our manuscript. And as publishers, editors and agents usually request the first section of a manuscript, it makes sense to work on our first ten pages. But do you know what the first ten pages of a book must do? Let me tell you – you will never think lightly of a first chapter again!

The beginning of a book must:

  • introduce the likeable yet vulnerable yet courageous protagonist whose need for the love of her life/a community to belong to/a meaningful life/a reunion with his estranged father must be subtly communicated
  • briefly ground the story in a setting yet not bore the reader with long nineteenth-century-like scenic descriptions
  • set up the opposing force or antagonist – the boss’ wife or the destructive avalanche or the jealous sister or the dragon in the cave
  • start in the middle of the action – no lengthy explanations of the history of the protagonist’s family, please
  • have a killer opening sentence to hook readers – It was the best of times, it was the worst of times from Charles Dickens. Or perhaps – Ava fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world (‘The beast’s garden’ by Kate Forsyth. Or how about – I don’t know how I died (‘In the quiet’ by Eliza Henry Jones. Or – On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross (‘The light between oceans’ by M. L. Stedman).

Hooked by Les Edgerton and Writing the heart of your story by C.S. Lakin contain lots of relevant, helpful information to help writers begin well.

Renee and I dissected each other’s work, cutting the dross, ticking our checklists, questioning every word and whether it had earned its place in the first ten pages. Renee pointed out that I like to say the same thing, in the same paragraph, in three slightly different ways. (But I have to make sure my readers really understand my point! I mean, they have to understand it! Let me check they’ve really understood it!) I tried to argue my way into keeping one fragment of a sentence because I wrote it with Mr 13 in mind. But my readers won’t care about Mr 13, and the fragment wasn’t consistent with how my protagonist speaks. Deleted – you were right, Renee.

I have been flicking through my books, both adult and children’s, rereading the first chapter. I loved The light between oceans, The beast’s garden,Ā When you reach me by Rebecca Stead. It’s hard to stop immersing myself in the story and be analytical instead, but when I realise I’ve escaped into a story, that’s when I know I need to analyse it because it’s that good.

Which books have you read which had you hooked at the first chapter? I’d be grateful for some more books to add to my research pile.

12 comments

  1. What a huge brief. I am a reader not an author so I immerse myself in the book without thinking why I am engaged. Next book I will critically examine first ten pages.

    Good luck to you and Renee.

    Terri.

  2. Great to have a second pair of eyes. Also the ability to take the advice given. After all it’s your creation and you do want to hold onto those words. Good luck girls.

  3. Two great first sentences from books I read last year – ‘My heart fell out on a spring morning – the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west.’ from The Paper House by Anna Sparho Ryan, and from Magda szubanski’ autobiography, ‘If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.’

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