First Three Pages

Last Saturday I attended my local Romance Writers of America Chapter’s meeting. This month’s MMRWA program focused on the first three pages of members’ WIPs (works in progress). I’m not exactly sure how many members submitted their first three pages, but there were at least a dozen read during the program ranging from YA to zombie stories, with inspirational romance, romantic suspense, and historical romance in between. The authors of the openings were not identified. Two chapter members ran the program and took turns reading the entries aloud to the rest of us. Each reading was followed by a few minutes of comments. Sometimes those comments weren’t more than a “Wow;” other times suggestions were made on how the opening might be improved.

All of us in attendance were impressed by the variety and quality of the writing. Some of the openings had a lot of dialogue, others almost none. The best ones, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others, were the ones that included the five senses and worked the backstory in a bit at a time.

I think the program was a great way to SHOW the writers in attendance the value of starting a story en Media Res (in the middle of the action). The few openings that had a lot of backstory and very little conflict or action stood out in a negative way. Although we were told a lot about a character and what that character needed or wanted, TELLING us those things wasn’t as revealing as when a writer had a character doing something or interacting and talking with others.

One thing all of us in attendance took away from that program was an understanding of how different we are as writers. Each of those openings had a different tempo and feel, a different voice. Two were laugh out loud funny, at least in part. Some were dramatic, one was scary, some were fast paced, and others were leisurely and comfortable.

We are often told that by the first few pages agents and editors know if they want to read on. The same is true with readers. In book stores and on-line, potential book buyers will open a book to the first few pages and will read a bit. If the writing and the story idea catch that reader’s attention, there’s a chance for a sale. If not, the book is returned to the shelf and the book buyer moves on to something else. I know, by the end of Saturday’s meeting, there were two stories I wanted to hear more of. I have no idea who wrote those opening pages, but they piqued my interest.

My take away from that program: I want someone to read my opening aloud to me, someone who hasn’t seen it before. I want to listen to how it sounds when they read it. Do they have trouble with sentences? Do words stop them? Does the tempo sound right for the story? Am I trying to include too much backstory or have I gotten right into the story?

My suggestion: If you belong to a writers group, this might be a program to try.

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8 Responses to First Three Pages

  1. Melissa Keir says:

    I like that event. I also liked it for the understanding of tempo and stumbling over words. I read books aloud to students all the time and can tell that the quality books have been fine tuned so that words aren’t a stumbling block….unless that’s the authors’ intent!

    • Maris Soule says:

      With one critique group I belonged to the author reads the pages she brought. Simply reading aloud helps, but I have noticed when someone else reads those same pages, they may read them in a different way, and that’s important to note.

  2. I hadn’t thought about getting someone else to read my first few pages aloud. That’s very good advice and I plan to give it a try.

  3. I like the idea of having some else read the work aloud. It gives the writer new insights. As a solitary writer, I would value this.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I just did this today, had another writer read part of a wip. One sentence that I thought was fine sounded awkward when she read it. It is difficult, Jacqueline, when you don’t have another writer (or person you trust) around to read a scene aloud. Great when you do.

  4. Paula says:

    I’m curious about whether the readers at this event had the first three pages of those works ahead of time to read so they knew what they were reading or if they read “cold.” Do you know?

    There probably isn’t any magic number for how many pages we should determine a reader’s interest, but it has to be soon, as far as I’m concerned. This advice you’ve given about three pages reminds me of NY literary agent and author Noah Lukeman’s book, “The First Five Pages.” I learned a lot from his advice.
    Thanks again for sharing your experience.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Paula, I believe the pages were emailed ahead of time to the committee, but I’m not sure they had time to read through all of the submissions ahead of time. As for the number of pages, I know from judging contests that I have an initial impression by the end of the first page. By the third or fifth page, that impression is either confirmed or the writer has included something to make me want to read on.