In today’s show Peter Turley and Leslie Watts discuss how to make your first 20 pages showcase the best of your work. If you’ve wondered what the do’s and don’ts are for those first crucial pages, this is not a show to miss!
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Leslie: Welcome to The Book Editors Show. Today, we’ll help you amp up the first 20 pages of your manuscript for submission. I’m Leslie Watts, standing in for Clark Chamberlain and…
In a world where agents must wade through info dumps, beginnings without conflict and an ocean of typos, one man has endured fire and ice and survived with a game of thrones to bring you the magic elixir of an un-put-downable story. That man is my friend and The Book Editors Show co-host, Peter Turley. Peter, how are you today?
Peter: I’m great. That was so relevant as well after a start of season six finale the other day. I like that. I like how you kept it on point with the current events. Well, current events in West but still current.
Leslie: I haven’t seen it, and Peter, you are of course, the kind of person that would never reveal spoilers.
Peter: No, no, never, no, no. That’s not something me and Clark do often on the show at all. Well, it’s great. So immediately after this, run off and watch that. It’s just brilliant.
But, yeah, I’m awesome. How are you doing?
Leslie: I’m doing well. I have spent the last several days in one manuscript, so I’ve been visiting England, or the UK, and that’s been really fun.
Peter: How did you like your imaginary tour of England?
Leslie: It’s very good. It didn’t quite compare… I did get to go visit earlier this year, which was a big, big fabulous, awesome fun thing, because I’ve always wanted to. It’s nice to read, and be editing, and be in a book for a long time that’s in a place that’s much cooler than where I am now.
Peter: Well, say that after living here a while. I’m joking. I love it here.
I think that’s the only way — full immersion sometimes, when you’re working with something. I can’t dip in and out of things. I’ve got to be neck high in something. That’s the only way I can really understand what’s going on.
Leslie: Yes, I’m the same way.
Peter: Awesome. Much the same for me, really. Just editing and writing; still trying to keep up with Clark’s 90 day challenge.
We did a show on this and we are over two thirds of the way through. But if anyone listening still wants to jump into that, they can find the group on Facebook. It’s just Clark’s 90 Day Challenge. It’s going to be an ongoing thing, so anyone could come in at any time and keep going with that.
Just a reminder that if you’re looking to set yourself a new challenge whether it’s writing, editing or life stuff, then head over to that and jump in because it’s been great.
So today’s show — we’re talking about how we can amp up the first 20 pages of your story. We’ll start by talking about why the first 20 pages are so important.
What we’re going to talk about, I think you can apply to the first chapter, the first couple of chapters or — the beginning, basically.
We’re looking at around the first 20 pages because I think that’s how long people are maybe willing to maybe give a story to get going. So if you’ve not managed to get into it yet at that point then you probably are a little goosed and…
Leslie: They talk about… NPR attention… Never mind.
Some people will stick with it and some people will put it down right away. They won’t tolerate it.
Peter: There was a vivid fact bubbling beneath the surface then, wasn’t there?
Leslie: There was. It has escaped me.
That’s awesome. So, you were saying?
Peter: It’ll probably come to you half way through the podcast and you’ll remember exactly what that means.
Leslie: NPR attention span, that’s what it is. It’s that some people have that, will sit and listen to stuff that isn’t quite relevant. But when you’re talking about agents, and you wanting to submit your work or you’re talking about most readers, they’re not going to sit through something that’s not working.
Peter: Unless they’re Game of Thrones readers and they managed to get through the family tree that is the opening of the first book.
Peter: We could do a correlation between NPR and Game of Thrones readers.
Leslie: That would be interesting, wouldn’t it?
Peter: We’ll have a Monthly Pointless Study show on the show.
Leslie: Clark is going to be thrilled with this…
Peter: Yes, I’m guessing everyone can kind of tell which bracket we fall into.
Why are we amping up with the first twenty pages? I’d suggested that was three people who were looking to submit the work to — agents or editors, but also if your book is on Kindle and people want to check it out. It’s obviously the first part that they’re going to be able to download and that they’re going to be able to look at before they make that crucial decision to buy the book.
It’s really important that we polish that first section as much as possible. You’ll probably know when writing and editing — I know when I do — I get sick of the opening of something because you can spend so much time on it. I think a good tip here, if not a little tangential, is to try not to go over the opening until you finish the whole thing because I am a sucker for getting a few chapters in and being — really not sure on that opening, I’m going to go back and take a look at that.
Then you just spend hours and days just going over the same stuff. So this is definitely when you’ve finished a draft.
Leslie: Right. I think that a part of it is coming back to it with objective eyes. Because what I find a lot in the manuscripts that I edit is that there is a lot of “throat clearing,” getting ready to tell the story. Like the author does not necessarily have everything figured out.
Of course you don’t; it’s the first draft. Even further in a little bit — you’re still figuring that stuff out. So getting some distance so that you can be objective about those pages is important.
Peter: Yes definitely.
There’s no better place to start than any. Obviously you can start wherever you want when you’re looking . . . is the first line. Kind of moving outwards from there like a ripple effect. I think it’s good to have a really tight and polished first line, that then extends to the first paragraph and the first chapter, and perhaps in that order of importance, I would suggest.
I think a few things to include when you look at your first line — if you’re wondering what constitutes a solid first line, are things like a hook. Do you think a hook needs to be in the first line? Or…
I think it is possible, something that you could have as the first line. It’s a vague thing, isn’t it — a hook?
Leslie: A hook is vague. Yes.
I think it is important to have a hook in the first line because you have people who don’t have the Game of Thrones/NPR attention span. If you have a first line that grabs the reader, they keep reading. Then they will read the paragraph and the whole scene in your chapter.
Getting back to the hook. Yes. A hook is — it’s a question, or something intriguing that the reader asks in their mind and that keeps them going so they can find out what happens. It doesn’t have to be necessarily connected to the big conflict. It should be connected to the whole big story, but it doesn’t have to be about the big conflict — the main conflict of the story — just something that’s interesting, where the reader goes “huh?” and they want to read more. — What’s going to happen next?
Peter: Yes, and it’s hard to do. Obviously there’s great examples of classic first lines and everything, but…
Leslie: “It was a dark and stormy night.” — no, that’s not very good.
That’s the bad example that people trot out.
Peter: That’s like one of those dream sequence endings.
Peter: I read a — I love fantasy — Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series recently.
That opened with just a really short first sentence, if I recall correctly. I don’t have it around. It was — “Ash fell from the sky.” That’s descriptive and it’s about the setting.
I also thought that was a little bit of a hook because it made me wonder and it raised questions and it did a few of these things really gently that made me want to carry on reading. I just thought that was perfect. Especially within the genre, which it would be. A perfect first line; I just thought that was great.
Leslie: I’m trying to think of, now, something… The ones that come to mind right now are the classics. I think that we have different sensibilities now.
That “A Tale of Two Cities” — It was the best of times, it was the worst of times — and on and on. I don’t think that works anymore. It’s kind of interesting and it was probably very interesting to people who had much longer attention spans. But today, I think something that has a question, a little mystery. Like — what is that ash? Where is it coming from? — that kind of thing. It’s kind of irresistible.
Peter: Yes, that intrigue. I think we have. We’ve definitely evolved from those classic opening lines. They’re great to look at but also — look at some modern examples.
A tip that we gave out in last week’s show — look at stuff that you’re reading now and see how these things are being done because you’ve definitely got to be aware of current trends so that you can either go with them or do something a little different.
But, yes, I just think that’s a great hook.
Next… This is by no means in order of importance. This is just sort of what I would go through when I’m looking at it and making sure that all these things are present in these first 20 pages.
One of the big “don’ts” I would say, is to have overly long descriptions of the settings in the first 20 pages. I’d say what’s more important is to introduce the main character and possibly, if you can what their goals are going to be for the wider story.
Leslie: Right. I agree.
The book that I read in the last year that’s really, really stuck with me was the “Aeronaut’s Windlass” by Jim Butcher. The opening pages are — this woman and you see her in a situation where she’s having a disagreement with her mother, and she wants to do something that’s out of character for young ladies of her station. It’s a characteristic moment and you see the echoes of it throughout the story and we’re thrown right into the middle of it, rather than dipping a toe in. I think, either way, some stories do great to start out with that — with the main character in a situation. Like, they’re in it and this demonstrates who they are.
On the other hand you don’t have to do that, it’s more of what fits with your story. But finding that thing, that way to help us care about the character and connect with them is so important.
Peter: Yes. I think the sooner we can connect with that person or that character, the better.
We have discussed in the past ways that you can connect with a character, and I think the basics are having an empathetic character, someone that’s relatable, and you talked about this woman who’s… What did you say? She’s reaching for something —
Leslie: She wants freedom. Basically, she wants to join the army, in essence, and it’s not something that women of her station normally do. So this is a characteristic thing of her, of this character, and it’s also… Some of us can relate to that, that feeling of wanting something that’s outside of what we’re supposed to have, in the moment.
Peter: Yes. It gives us something to get behind immediately as a reader — there’s a person here that has a goal, a strong, passionate desire to reach for something — then immediately we want them to reach that goal. We’re then going to be willing to follow them on that that journey through the ups and downs. So I think that’s why establishing the goal as early as you can just let’s the reader fall into tow and be like — OK, this is someone I’m happy to spend the whole of the book with.
Leslie: Right, yes. I love when that happens, that you fall in love with the character right away, you connect with… In some way you connect with what it is that they want, and then yes, anywhere you go; I’m going with you.
Then I’m willing to sit through if there’s a bit in the middle where it drags a little or whatever, it doesn’t matter, because I’m in love with the character.
Peter: Yes. You almost become willing to see them in any situation. It’s like, now they’ll go shopping and you’re like — well, OK, I’ll go.
Leslie: Yes. That’s a good point.
Peter: Although, I think on a shopping trip, there would be very little conflict and I think that’s our next point.
Introducing conflict and/or an antagonist, or at least alluding to who the main antagonist is going to be, because it’s quite powerful to have in the opening of a story. You mentioned something about bridging it back to the main conflict.
Leslie: Yes. When you start the story, one of the things you’re doing is establishing the ordinary world. So the main conflict that the story is about might not have arisen yet, but what you do in those opening pages is provide a conflict that bridges to the main conflict. It might be a…
OK, so I’m going to come up with a crazy example here.
There’s a show called the Wonder Pets; it’s for kids. In the beginning they always have… They go on a journey in their fly-boat which is made up of components that you might see in a pre-school classroom. In the beginning they always have a little trouble getting the fly-boat together. There’s a little conflict that they work out and it always relates to the big conflict, the main conflict that they have in the episode.
That kind of thing — you can create that in your story, and this is a very simple little show but you can do that with your big, even an epic fantasy, have a conflict that is somehow tangentially connected to the main conflict that helps the reader get in there and be interested while you’re giving them the elements and building up to the main conflict.
Peter: This is so “Game of Thrones” in here today. Unless you do a George R.R. Martin and introduce the White Walkers in the opening, and then don’t come back to them for an eon.
Leslie: I think it’s one of those cautionary example — people will say George R.R. Martin can do it in “Game of Thrones” and it’s like — Yes. He did a lot of things and it doesn’t always work.
You want to make sure that… I’m not saying he got lucky, because the man is an amazing storyteller, but what I would say is that you can not necessarily count on whatever worked for somebody else to work for you.
You really need to build your story your story telling chops and tell a great story
Peter: Yes, definitely. I think that’s the main purpose of a lot of things we talk about. Do these things maybe first, and then let it evolve from there and see what you’re better at and what are going to be the things that are unique to you.
We talk about this a lot in stories and in writing — making promises to the reader.
It’s easy to forget that even if we’re not consciously doing this, the reader — that’s how they’re perceiving our work.
They’re hanging on every word we say at the beginning, so I think if we open with an action scene, for example that’s really brutal and gory, and guts riding up fingernails, and it’s really gritty, then that’s going to set a promise that story is going to be this way.
Promises can be many things, but one of those things is — what kind of book are you going to be reading? What kind of plot is this going to be? Is this going to be a tragedy? Is it going to be like a revenge plot? Because then that’s another promise.
The reader is then going to expect to see this revenge enacted later in the story. Basically everything we write has a thread of a promise running through it whether we’re aware of it or not.
Leslie: When you were talking I was thinking about Indiana Jones, the first movie.
Peter: Just randomly.
Leslie: When I think of Peter Turley, I think of Indiana Jones, they’re like the same person right? If they had opened that movie with the scene where Indiana Jones is the professor and he’s teaching in a university classroom, then it would be kind of breaking a promise, like not being upfront about what’s going to happen.
But they open with a scene where he is out in the jungle and he is trying to acquire that object. Everything that you need to know about Indiana Jones for the most part is in that scene at the beginning — all of the promises; this is a guy who believes things; the artifacts should be in a museum so they can be studied so people can see them — and I’m wandering off a little here — but the point here is that you’re making promises in the very beginning and you want to make sure that you are making the right promises for what you are going to deliver.
Peter: I think that’s a great example if we consider it the other way around and that it opens with him giving a lecture to a class, then it’s just going to go against what we want of the very first section, the first paragraph or the first scene — it’s going to be a bit too boring.
Whereas when it opens that way, it kind of ticks of ticks all those boxes of intrigue, and hawk, and character. When you kind of find out that he’s a university professor and there’s this other side that’s then out of depth and it then serves to deepen the character that way.
That’s a really good example.
I think also tied to promises — it’s kind of an offshoot maybe — when you’re looking over the first 20 pages or the first chapter in whatever it is, the theme of the novel should probably be present and the tone that the novel is going to be written in.
You don’t want to polish something off that kind of makes it so it doesn’t resemble the rest of the book. If someone picks it up in a bookshop and reads the first page and your author voice comes across and your tone and then they fall in love with that, but then in chapter 2 it’s just a different style of writing, and then the theme changes.
I think that what’s been established has to be persistent throughout, really trying to set the tone. You do that through your writing style, really, and really setting your POV and having it really just clear cut what kind of book this is going to be.
Leslie: That’s a really important part of the overall… You need that; you need the beginnings of that, the theme. What is it about?
Sometimes people make it a little more complicated than it needs to be. If you have a romance, your theme is something connected to love. So maybe there’s something that reveals what the main character believes about love. You don’t want to knock people over the head with it, but you want something in there about — this is what I’m telling you; this is what this story is about thematically.
It’s about love or it’s about justice or whatever the big topic that you’re kind of wrestling with under the surface. That needs to be in there, for sure.
Peter: This is a great place for beta readers to step in because sometimes we don’t know why we’re writing a particular story and what . . . trying to get to the surface. Other people can be a great sounding board to help you figure out what keeps recurring through the story and then you can think of a clear, good way of having this in the opening of the book.
This isn’t something you’re gonna sit down in the first go of the first chapter and your theme is going to be present and it’s going to be put across in the perfect scene. But yet I think all the people are just invaluable at this point when you’re trying to think what keeps popping up.
Because we don’t always know that ourselves. Maybe you do; maybe you sit down and you write out this — I’m going to do this topic justice or I’m going to tackle this — but sometimes we don’t.
Leslie: I think the genre tells you a little bit; it gives you a ballpark but the specific thing you wanna say about it, you might not necessarily know. I think that’s brilliant that you talk to people and find out — what did you get out of this? What did you get from it? — I think that’s a really important step.
Peter: I thought when you said that the genre was a ballpark, you wouldn’t have a gruesome horror that tackles the theme of romance. Or…
Peter: — maybe there’s a little bit of romance in there. But you’re thematically trying to explore this topic within a horror setting.
Leslie: Are you accepting that as a challenge?
Leslie: The Amazing Peter Turley. We’ll talk about that next time.
Peter: That’s a writing prompt. Send us your submissions. Your horror romance anthology.
Leslie: Yes that’s awesome, that would be really fun to do a mash-up like that.
Peter: To take two polar opposite ideas and just throw them together on a page.
Lastly, after looking at a bit of checklist, this is the more boring one, and it’s important for the whole book but I think this is really… Mistakes can’t really be avoided at all in this bit.
The technical requirements of your submission.
Peter: They need to be there, don’t they?
Leslie: I suspect that it is pretty rare that an agent or acquisition editor would think — oh, this is not the “final” final. People when they notice typos, they’re… If you have a typo in resume, you’re not going to get hired, generally.
People look at that and they think, “oh if you’re not getting this part that’s kind of straight forward…” Even though typos are difficult. I’m the first to admit, typos are difficult and getting the punctuation and getting it all in there, it’s tricky.
But I think people think that that’s the very basic ticket of admission, is that you have to meet all the requirements and that you have to have it be as error-free as possible.
Peter: Yes, that’s a really interesting way to look at it, is the first 20 pages or the first three chapters or whatever it is that you are submitting to whoever, they’re kind of like a resume for the rest of the book. They’re your sort of resume for your abilities.
If you’re submitting it traditionally to a traditional publisher then there’s going to be room to change things, probably over the next year
Leslie: Or two.
Peter: Yes. So it is going to kind of serve as — “look, this is my ability; this is my skill; this is where I want to take the story.”
So spelling, punctuation, grammar really has to be on point and along with that there is also the submission guidelines. Looking at where you’re submitting it and… Because they’re kind of different all over the place, which is a little bit annoying. There’s no sort of universal requirement.
Leslie: Everybody has their particular things. Van Halen wants all the brown M&Ms taken out of the bowl of M&Ms in their dressing rooms. We all have our little quirky preferences.
Peter: I’ll only edit something if it’s in wingdings because it’s a sufficient challenge of course.
Leslie: Yes, I understand. Of course, with all of your abilities and experience you would be quite bored editing something that was just in straight up English prose. That makes total sense.
Peter: Yes that would probably be nigh on impossible.
To tie this up, just to touch on a few things to avoid in the first twenty pages. We talked about what you can do and what to look for and checklist been included. But there’s also a few things not to do. You have any suggestions of something to avoid for the opening?
Leslie: Oh yes. I think having info dumps and too much backstory, too much world-building. Your aim is to install the reader in your world. Take them there; immerse them in it. But you do that by engaging them with characters they care about and with conflict and intrigue. You don’t do that with your really cool world. It’s an important element and I don’t wanna say — don’t give it time and…
I know you think that detail about the phone is so awesome, but… I’m not saying that.
What I’m saying is you want to avoid focusing on the things that don’t necessarily pull the reader through your story. Those things don’t tend to. Even though they’re awesome.
Leslie: Yes, which may be interesting. As much as I talk about this, I also tend to do a lot of research.
I include like cool things and they’re cool to me but they’re not necessarily cool to the reader, who’s not as interested in why we say “neat and tidy.”
Leslie: I’ll let that hang. That’ll pull you through. I’ll reveal it on a future episode, and obviously, you have to keep listening.
Peter: We’ll end on that intriguing hook then I think. That’s a good way to end our first twenty pages. Have you got anything else you’d like to add?
Leslie: Yes. I would say avoid staying in the character’s head too much; get them involved and interacting with other people right away in the beginning is probably another important thing.
I think a lot of people who are submitting in the traditional world or submitting for literary contests and prizes don’t necessarily hire an editor to look over that stuff. But I think it’s a good idea to get objective feedback.
So — beta readers or hire an editor to look through your first twenty pages and give you feedback on the story and the things that you can do to amp it up. That would be my final tip.
Peter: Because that can be pretty cheap. You’re not having to send in the whole book.
Leslie: Do that.
Peter: Yes, that’s great advice.
Well, if you like the show, as filling as it has been. Please leave us a review on iTunes, plus on Google, or a like on YouTube. Or if you’re an editor who would like to be a guest on the show, stop by thebookeditorshow.com and drop us an email. I’m Peter Turley and for our co-host, Leslie Watts, keep writing, keep learning, and build a better book.