My Favorite Authors Pitch Their First Pages

I recently sat in a “First Page Reads” session where two agents, an editor and a creative writing professor collaborated to Gong Show writers on their work. Writers were instructed to submit anonymously the first page of a work of fiction. A moderator read each work aloud, while the panel of four followed along from printed copies, stopping the show when one of them found a spot where they would quit reading if the piece were submitted to them for publication.

Writers were expecting constructive feedback on the entire first page. But for the vast majority, it was only some snarky comment after a sentence or two, with the rest of the page not even being read. And it was all done with an air of this is the one right and true viewpoint. Also, without any positives to balance the negatives, or remarks about what was working on the page. This is a major peeve of mine, seeing aspiring writers bullied and discouraged by those who could be helping and encouraging them.

crumpled paper on gray surface
Photo by Steve Johnson on

I’ve had enough work published, and experienced enough legitimate editing and critique to be able to put the “feedback” in context and not take it to heart. But I could see this wasn’t true for some other participants. Attendees who entered the room buzzing with optimistic anticipation left an hour later looking defeated. At least one was muttering about giving up entirely. Well done, panelists! I can’t believe I paid money for that experience.

And here’s the thing. For every work they scathingly lambasted based on only a couple of sentences, I could think of a book I loved that would not have passed their muster. I imagined some of my favorite authors pitching first pages to this group.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

“That’s enough, Mr. Twain. We don’t need to hear more. So much wrong in one sentence. The character speaks directly to the reader. Just no. Fiction is never written in second person. And the over the top dialect. Nobody has the energy to read that for an entire book. Stick to mainstream English. You know, how regular people (people like us) talk. Next!”

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide.

“Stop, stop, stop. Ms. Hurston, you’re giving the reader no idea what this book is about or even whether a character is going to appear any time soon. This is mere philosophical meandering, not a story. Show us some action. Next!”

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

“Mr. Steinbeck, did no instructor ever tell you not to open with weather? You never start a story talking about weather. It’s simply not done. Next!”

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

“Hold up. You’re telling, not showing, Ms. Rowling. Next!”

“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”

“The first words of a narrative should never be dialogue, Mr. Rushdie. Next!”

So there you go. Put the literary world in the hands of this panel and we would have none of these wonderful works.

I hope the writers in the room who looked so downcast will come to realize this. I hope they will realize they are in excellent company.









Support Your Local Writer

I know a lot of folks who appreciate the arts and would love to show support, but who don’t have a boatload of money for extras. Some of them don’t even have a thimbleful of money for extras. For those in this situation, let me offer some tips on how you can help out writers you know and/or admire.

If you have some money to spend on books, but not much, prioritize. Choose to spend your book money only on publications by local writers, or only on publications by writers you know personally, or choose one writer you can feel really good about supporting and buy her/his books new. Fill the rest of your reading list at the public library, or buy used. I manage to budget enough money to buy about half a dozen books a year new. Most of these are written buy people I know, some of them self-published. I also buy all of the Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher. He’s localish, living in the same state, and he came to speak to my writing group once before he made it to The New York Times bestseller list. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy who wanted to help other writers. And I like the books.

If you have no book money in your budget, you can still help a writer in need by checking out her/his book from the library. The more a book is checked out, the more copies get ordered, and the more likely it is to be replaced if lost or damaged. If you can’t find the book in your library, ask about placing a request to purchase. Public libraries encourage patrons to communicate about what books they want. If the selector knows a book will be read, he/she is likely to buy it.

If the writer you want to help out is someone near and dear, and you don’t mind going above and beyond, there are even more actions you can take. Call your nearest bookstore and ask if they have the title, even if you don’t plan to purchase it. That way you’re helping raise public awareness about the existence of the book. If the bookstore employee asks whether you’d like to place a special order, you can always say “Not right now. I’ll check a couple of other places first.” If the bookstore does have the title, and you have time to kill, you can go in and browse, incidentally leaving the volume prominently displayed when you’re done skimming it.

And once you’ve done all of these things, don’t feel bad about reminding that certain special writer in your life about the purpose of the acknowledgments page. You might get in a mention in the next book.