The New Jersey Chapter of SCBWI was treated to an afternoon of professional first page critiques yesterday in Princeton. (Heck, we even felt smarter just being on the campus of Princeton University!)

Editors Connie Hsu and Kate Sullivan from Little, Brown shared their literary insights with 30 aspiring authors. Manuscripts ranged from a whimsical picture book about goldfish to a compelling young adult novel set in a foreign village under siege.

After each first page was read aloud, the editors provided their immediate impressions of the manuscript–what worked, what didn’t.

Some helpful advice included:

  • Use first person point-of-view to your advantage. It helps the reader get into your character’s head, so if there’s too much dialogue on the first page and not enough introspection, you’re not using that device to its full potential.
  • Make sure the voice fits the genre. This is a common critique I’ve heard repeated at every first-page session. Some picture books were wordy, with long sentences and adult sensibilities. If it takes the entire first manuscript page to set up the story, then you need to cut, cut, cut. Little kids beg their parents to turn the page, so you must get to the story quickly. The first manuscript page needs a clear story arc. Regarding books for ‘tweens and teens, a young adult novel should have longer sentences and be more gritty than middle-grade. In general, the editors said an MG voice can sometimes be classified as “whiney,” whereas a YA voice is angrier and angst-ridden. Yes, let that YA voice curse and swear.
  • Make room for illustration in a picture book. You don’t have to describe every detail. Instead of saying, “the girl’s hair was red and wavy like her mother’s red, wavy hair,” try instead, “the girl’s hair was just like her mother’s.” This provides the double benefit of cutting words and leaving the family’s appearance to the illustrator’s interpretation. (Read Linda Urban’s interview with illustrator Marla Frazee regarding The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman. Great example of how an illustrator fleshes out the story.)
  • Don’t try to surprise your reader on the first page. It can lead to confusion instead. Some stories left important details aside (who/what/why/where) and forced the reader to guess what was happening. You don’t want your reader to guess wrong! If they do, then when the correct information is revealed, they will be confused. You want the reader to move forward, not double-back to re-read.
  • Set the scene. The setting provides a clear context for your character’s actions and emotions. Again, don’t make the reader guess where your character is. Show the reader. Immerse the reader in your world.

One of the funnier moments occured when the editors cautioned against using the word “puberty” in a middle-grade work. It guarantees giggles of embarassment among that age group. “It’s a word no ‘tween wants to admit exists,” said Kate Sullivan.

While the insights above were specific to the pages submitted, they can be applied to your own manuscript. Keep in mind that rules can be broken, but it typically takes an experienced, talented author to make the unconventional work.

Want to read more about first pages? Check out these previous posts: