Those first five pages – setting the hook

All the how-to book writing books, articles, blogs and tweets insist that the first five pages of a novel manuscript are the most important. This is an author’s best chance to set a hook.

This is where readers first decide whether it’ll be worth it to read the whole book. So publishers insist they be gripping. So agents insist they be gripping. In fact, many agents ask wannabe clients to submit only the first five pages.

So do you write those pages to pander to this demand?

I’m rewriting The Murder Plague right now and I decided to give it a try. Here was my problem. The action really ramps up midway through Chapter 1 … on page seven. Too late? I decided it was.

But those first six pages have gone through multiple rewrites. I liked them as they were; at least I did after the first few drafts. What do I get rid of?

Any newspaper writer (my day job) faces this dilemma almost every day. It’s perfectly common for the reporter to turn in a polished 30-column-inch story and then be advised by the editor that he now has a 20-column-inch hole in the paper to put it in. Any reporter worth his salt knows how to trim, tighten, squeeze, and make those tough decisions that eliminate 33 percent of the words without losing any of the valuable content.

That’s what I did with Chapter 1 yesterday. And I am disappointed in myself that I didn’t do it earlier. Trimming, tightening, squeezing and making those tough decisions are so fundamental. I mean, I thought I’d done that. I spent one whole rewrite focusing on trimming. The problem was, I didn’t set myself any real limits, so the effort was without urgency.

Now the action ramps up midway through page five of The Murder Plague, and I don’t think I miss anything I cut. By the time a reader gets to the bottom of page five, if his heart’s not beating fast, then I must suck. Mission accomplished. The first five pages have the hook and I don’t feel the least bit cheap and dirty for making it so.

On to Chapter 2.

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