When I don’t know what to read and I browse through a bookstore or the library, my acid test for selecting a book has always been reading the first page. It doesn’t matter who the author is, what the cover looks like or what the book blurbs say; if the first page doesn’t grab me, then I’m not interested.
The late William G. Tapply wrote an article for our October 2009 issue, “Set the narrative hook,” in which he examined the art of writing a novel opening and why the opening is so important. He suggests that writers watch how people behave when they’re browsing in a bookstore. He observed that people will look at a book's cover and the back, and maybe even the flap, but if that’s not enough to make them buy it, they’ll open to the first page and start reading.
Tapply said “starting to read a book is like meeting a stranger. The first impression matters.” That sounds like a simple, common sense idea that we all know already, but it can never be repeated enough. The opening of your book is the showcase of your writing and storytelling abilities, and it’s worth spending time on. In so many parts of writing world, your opening will determine if you can get anyone to read your book. (Your mother doesn’t count – she’s obligated to read your stuff.)
Editors and publishers, too, aren’t thinking about the title or even the story when they look at a manuscript–they look right at the first page. Finding a reader or editor or publisher who skips to the middle of the book to decide if he wants to read it is pretty darn rare. And we’ll never know how many manuscripts are rejected on the basis of their drab opening, but I’m willing to bet it’s a lot.
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