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Are You Fishing for an Editor?
Then Bait Your Hook on the First Page

"Musings" Archive for July 2001

by Margot Finke

Last year, at SCBWI's Silver Falls Retreat in Oregon, I learned an amazing truth. This happened when Linda Zuckerman explained how vital the first page of your manuscript is if you want an editor to offer you a contract.

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Linda Zuckerman, a children's book editor for over thirty years, now runs her own consulting business in Oregon. However, she has been an editor at some of the most prestigious publishing houses in the USA. When Linda speaks, writers listen.

Ms. Zuckerman said many editors are swamped by hundreds of manuscripts a month. They read most of these while going to and from work or late at night on their own time. Editors become glazed by the sameness of the writing before them. That first page of your book must jolt their senses and scrub the glaze from their eyes. It must grab their interest. If your first page doesn't hook them, they move on to the next manuscript in the pile. Editors today don't have time to keep reading until your third chapter "when the good stuff really begins."

What is a "hook?" A hook is a hint of trouble, a nibble of guilt, a rustle of fear, an explosion of anger -- it must lure your reader onward. It must offer a crumb with the promise of the whole cake soon to come.

Without that hook, guess what? You will probably receive a generic rejection letter within several days. Ms. Zuckerman told us the kind of bait editors look for on a first page, that special "something" that will hook them into reading all of your book.

Offer a sense of time and place.
  1. Allow the "voice" of the main point of view to shine through.
  2. Give a hint of things to come, plot wise.
  3. Make the editor want to continue reading by injecting a seductive "hook" into the last paragraph of your first page.
If you use the right bait, that hook will catch you an editor. The following is the first page of my book "Almost in the Aussie Soup." Linda Zuckerman said my first page would tempt her to read further:

Thousands of termite mounds and prickly pear stood silent watch, while dawn's first light softened the harsh outlines of the Queensland outback. The red mountains that hugged the horizon were older than time.

A kookaburra in a dusty gum tree interrupted his loud morning laugh to snatch up a snake -- a well-earned breakfast. Closer to Coorparoo homestead, on the red tin roof of the hut Taconi shared with his dad, a flock of brightly colored Galas added ear-splitting squawks.

Taconi woke with a start, yawned, and scratched a few private places. His sense of bad things about to happen lingered -- sleep hadn't shaken them loose.

He yawned again, then dressed, and hurried to where his dad worked in the homestead's kitchen.

Near the kitchen door, he stumbled over a huge tent flopped on the grass. The tent made his fear of something bad happening, more certain. He remembered how nervous he'd felt last week, when he'd overheard the Boss, Jack Howard, make his dad the big offer. That's when the first uneasy feelings nibbled their way into his stomach. He knew the workers would put up the party tent today, but if things didn't go just right, tomorrow his dad would get the sack.

Two notes on this approach:

Your hook does not have to be an explosion or an act of violence. It can be a desperate thought, a deed, or an evocative description. If it grabs the reader's imagination and makes them eager to find out more then you have used the right bait.

I will leave you with another clue about how to make an editor read your whole book and love it. This one is from me. Bring the same "first page" attention to detail and excitement into every page of every chapter. This kind of writing hooks editors into reading until THE END.

Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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