Saturday was the traditional Meet the Agents organised every two years by the Geneva Writers Group (See GWG photo gallery). The afternoon was given over to members’ first pages. Each page is read out anonymously by a designated reader. In this case Alan (see photo) and Caroline. The agents are asked to imagine they are reading the manuscript in their office and must ring a bell the moment they loose interest in what they are listening to. The hope of each writer is that his or her text be read to the end without any bells being rung. The purpose being that agents’ and editors’ subsequent feedback throws some light on what makes a first page successful, at least in the eyes of the publishing industry.
To my surprise, the most interesting part of that meeting was the afternoon first-pages session with agents and editors. I remembered it from two years ago as a ritualised slaughter of authors’ first pages, a memory which may explain my reticence. The fascinating thing about listening to so many first pages is that, in focussing attention on beginnings, it helps better understand the nature of a first page and what works and what doesn’t.
In a world were attention span has shrunk and instant gratification often has the upper hand, the first page or couple of pages of a novel are probably the writer’s only chance to capture the reader’s interest, especially if he or she is writing for a younger audience. This sense of urgency was often absent from those of the more leisurely pages that were read to us. In a few cases, the contrary was the case. The story lurched from the page in the first few lines in an attempt to grapple the reader to the ground and grab his or her attention; a manoeuvre that hardly inspires confidence. As one of speakers rightly said, writing entails getting the reader’s trust such that the person can let himself go with the story, and as a writer the time to do so is short.
I am supposing that those first pages were meant to be from a novel. There is a particular challenge to beginning a novel that has to do with getting the reader to embark on the imaginary world you have created. Listening to the forty first pages, I was sometimes left wondering whether certain pages were really the beginning of a longer story, but then maybe that is my failing and not that of the pages.
For me, writing the initial pages of a novel is all about story telling. It is the promise of things to come: a first brush with the characters, a glimpse at the setting, a sense of the underlying tension and movement. It is not a time to talk about generalities nor to get lost in details. Is is not a time for chatter or providing profound truths. It is not the time to enlist the aid of other worlds or other books, of time past. Although all these gambits might work if not sustained too long. Even if the story is told in the past tense, it has to be present. The opening page is the first incarnation of the story and as such it has to have ‘body’ and life, a player that has to be reckoned with, someone that cannot be ignored.