Back when I was a literary agent, I did something that many writers found extremely odd.
When I liked someone’s query letter, I asked them to send me the first thirty pages via email. If I liked those thirty pages, I would ask to see the whole manuscript.
Why didn’t I just ask for the whole manuscript and only read the first thirty pages if that’s all I cared about?
For two reasons:
- To set expectations with the author on what I really was committing to reading.
- To drive home the point that you need to hook an agent in the first thirty pages.
The latter point, of course, is because there is an extremely important constituency who also cares about whether an opening is any good: those pesky, fickle beasts also known as “your potential readers.”
Go to a bookstore sometime and watch people shopping for books. What are they often doing? Looking at the jacket copy (much like an agent looking at a query letter) and maybe cracking open the book to see if they like the opening. (We won’t talk about the demented people who start reading in the middle or end).
And this goes for e-books too. People will often download a preview before they commit to buying the whole book.
What belongs in your first thirty pages
I’m not the first to tell you this advice, and I won’t be the last. And because so many people tell authors this, sometimes I worry authors have a tendency to over-learn this advice.
So take heed:
- You don’t need to cram your whole plot into your opening page or even the first thirty pages
- You don’t need to pack your first thirty pages with action past the bursting point
- You don’t to have your absolute best moment in the novel in those first thirty pages.
You should absolutely have some great stuff that happens later in the novel. And your novel’s climax needs to be great too. So don’t think of your novel as a fantastic thirty pages followed by a bunch of filler.
What you do need to do with your first thirty pages:
- Ease the reader into the world of the novel
- Make the reader start to care about your protagonist
- Give the reader a sense of the overall plot.
THAT’S IT! That’s not so hard, is it?
Well, it is hard, of course.
You probably need to take another look at your opening
Often writers start novels without a clear sense of where things are going, and the plot only really gets going around pages 50-75. If that’s the case, you might have some work to do to go back and revise, condense the opening, and consider setting the protagonist on their journey much earlier.
Just as often, writers really don’t find their voice until later in the novel and the opening feels a little stilted in comparison. It’s often necessary to go back and make the opening sound more like the more polished writing that emerges as you find your footing as the novel goes on.
It’s often extremely hard to look fresh at your opening because it’s hard to imagine your novel starting any differently.
But it’s so important to take a step back, follow the revision checklist, get as much feedback as you can on your opener, and polish it within an inch of its life.
You want that reader in the bookstore to start reading the opening pages of your book and finish them at the cash register.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Art: Portrait of a Sculptor by El Greco
JOHN T. SHEA says
Demented indeed! Many years ago Stephen King suggested the last chapter should be omitted from novels and only mailed to readers when they passed a test proving they read the rest of the novel!
Bryan Fagan says
Nathan – You and I must have been on the same wave length. Not trying to plug my blog while I’m on yours but I wrote something similar this morning.
As a writer it makes me feel good that I’m thinking this way. Hopefully I’m on to something.
If you, a former agent, feels the same way I do it means I have an understanding of how important the first page is.
Thanks so much for this eloquent and spot on advice, Nathan. Coming to your blog is like doing an online course without assignments but with more personality.
Actually, I’ve noticed that many novels tend to have an impressive initial few chapters, but the writing and story can peter out a bit in the last quarter. I tend to go over the first 100 pages incessantly for a long time but always find things that still need improving. I think the first 100 pages of WIP has finally become something I’m proud of. The last 300 pages have evolved into something that’s really out there, but in a good way, I hope. I think the story has become quite original – apart from the romance factor. But now the romance is almost secondary as I’ve moved into a different area of focus as my interests have changed over the years.
Neil Larkins says
I remember when you gave that advice years ago and I have tried to follow it ever since. My current WIP has 120 pages and so far the first 30 have been reworked at least five times more than the remaining 90! But I’m glad I did it because the piece now reads so much better than it did that many revisions ago. Thanks Nathan.
I had an agent ask for the first pages… it has been two weeks since I sent it in and haven’t received a response yet. How long should I wait before following up?
Nathan Bransford says
David McGuire says
Hi… when you say “30 pages”, what does that equate to in word count? Thanks!
Nathan Bransford says
The first 30 pages formatted according to industry standard: https://nathanbransford.com/blog/2020/10/how-to-format-a-manuscript
Word count doesn’t enter into the picture. Don’t overthink it.