Improving those opening pages, part III: and then there are Millicent’s page 1 pet peeves

woman tied to a train tracklion and tamertommygun1

How have you been enjoying this week’s series on editing page 1 of your manuscript, campers…or is enjoying too strong a word? I’ve been getting such a varied response (ranging, understandably, from thrilled to horrified) from such a wide spectrum of writers (straight nonfiction, memoir, every stripe of fiction) that I’m already toying with making this a regular feature — the first page of the month, perhaps — to give us time and a great excuse to dig deep into the peculiarities and joys of various book categories.

All too often, those of us who teach writing to writers speak as though good writing were good writing, independent of genre, but that’s not always the case. Every book category has its own conventions, after all; what is expected in one may seem downright poky in another. A passive female protagonist might well be a drawback in a mainstream fiction manuscript, for instance, but for a rather wide segment of the WIP (Women in Peril) romance market, a certain amount of passivity is a positive boon.

Doubt that? Okay, to a peril-seeking reader, which would be the more exciting rescue object: the lady tied to a train track while menaced by a lion wielding a Tommy gun, or the bulletproof lady too quick to be lashed down who always carries large steaks in her capacious pockets in case of lion attack?

I’ll leave you to ponder that cosmic mystery on your own. Let’s get back to analyzing our sample first page.

So far, we’ve talked about how Millicent the agency screener might respond to the way this page appears on the page (formatting issues, punctuation, grammar), what clues about the rest of the manuscript she might derive from certain authorial choices (italics usage, word choice, repetition), and book category appropriateness. Today, I want to concentrate on matters of style — which, on the first page of a submission, requires some consideration of the more notorious of Millicent’s pet peeves.

Already, I see some hands raised in the air, clamoring for my attention. “But Anne,” rules lawyers everywhere cry with one voice, “since Millicent is a composite character, the fanciful Author! Author! personification of professional readers’ attitudes toward submissions, how meaningful could it possibly be to talk about her pet peeves? Are they not by definition personal, and thus variable from reader to reader?”

Yes and no, rules lawyers. Yes, pretty much everyone who reads manuscripts for a living harbors at least a couple of individual dislikes — it drives me nuts, for instance, to see She graduated college on the page, as opposed to the more grammatically correct She graduated from college. Have you noticed how common it’s become to ignore the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs? Not to mention the vicious, civilization-dissolving practice of transmuting perfectly innocent nouns into verbs, presumably to save a couple of characters per sentence — why, just the other day, my weary eyes were insulted by The institute tributed director X in a fairly respectable local newspaper. Would it have killed the article’s writer or his editor to adhere to the longstanding norms of the English language by coughing up the extra character for the less nonsensical The institute paid tribute to director X? And whose bright idea was substituting tonite for tonight, anyway? What great contribution to Western literature do abbreviators believe they are going to be able to achieve with those two saved characters?

Those of us who read for a living tend to cherish our personal pet peeves, as you may see, but there’s not very much an aspiring writer can do to protect herself from running afoul of any given Millicent’s. Or, indeed, from annoying her with your subject matter.

“Oh, God,” Millie mutters, “another romance set in Paris? That’s the third one I’ve seen this week!”

You’re scowling, aren’t you? I’m not at all surprised. Of all of the many aspects of the submission process over which the writer has no control whatsoever, the role of who happens to be screening on the day a particular manuscript arrives in an agency is one of the least understood and most resented by writers. Perhaps with good reason: we’d all like to believe that our manuscripts will receive a fair, impartial reading, regardless of the pet peeves or mood of the screener.

However, there’s just no denying that if you have written a semicolon-heavy literary fiction piece about the many loves of an airline pilot, and the agent of your dreams has just hired a Millicent who simply loathes semicolons, is a dedicated monogamist, and was jilted yesterday by a pilot, the best writing in the world probably is not going to prevent her from rejecting your submission.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you — but an aspiring writer who is aware of the role that personal preference and chance inevitably play in whether a manuscript gets rejected or accepted is, in the long run, going to be significantly happier than one who believes that all Millicents read identically. Ditto with contest entrants; every contest judge brings a few personal preferences to the table. Assuming, as virtually every aspiring writer does when first submitting, querying, and/or entering, that any individual professional reader’s reaction to his work is representative of what EVERY professional reader’s opinion would be is just, well, wrong.

It’s also a strategy notoriously likely to depress aspiring writers into not querying, submitting, or entering widely enough to get their work into publication. If every professional reader’s opinion is identical, fledgling writers are all too apt to reason, why shouldn’t a single rejection — or two, three, or forty-seven — be taken as if it were the entire publishing industry’s reaction to the book in question?

There’s a very good reason, as it happens: screeners are individuals, with personal opinions. So are agents, editors, and contest judges. Keep sending out your work until you find the one predisposed to love it.

But that didn’t answer the rule-mongers’ question, did it? “That’s all very pretty and inspiring,” they concede. “Does that mean I don’t need to worry at all about Millicent’s pet peeves?”

Well, no — certain pet peeves are shared by most professional readers, simply because they turn up so often in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Spotting even one non-doubled dash on a manuscript page leaves many a Millicent gasping with indignation, for instance; a submission without indented paragraphs renders many positively apoplectic. And if you really want to ruin a pro’s day, try submitting something with unnumbered pages.

Hey, standard format is standard for a reason.

Most of the ire-inducing gaffes above are relatively well-known (but if any of them came as a surprise, run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right, if only for the sake of Millicent’s blood pressure). I was delighted to see, however, that our sample page 1 included several of the lesser-known ones. Discussion gold!

Okay, so perhaps delighted isn’t a particularly normal response. Had I mentioned that reading manuscripts for a living radically alters how one reads?

Here is our example again; don your Millicent mask and try to ferret out three common screeners’ pet peeves we have not yet discussed. If you want a hint: two of them are dialogue-related.

page 1 example wrong

How did you do? The third in particular might be a tad hard to spot if you didn’t happen to have spent the last six hours reading first pages; certainly, it would be significantly harder to get excited about it. To give you a sense of how exorcized Millicent might have gotten about all three, allow me to stick a Sharpie in her hand and let her have at it:

page 1 edit 4

Thanks, Millie; why don’t you go score yourself a latte and try to calm down a little? I can take it from here.

Now that we’re alone again, be honest: in your quick scan of the page, had you noticed all of the issues that so annoyed Millicent? Any of them?

If it’s the latter, don’t be embarrassed — very few readers would have, at least consciously, and self-editors. If you’re caught up in the characters’ lifeworld (as Millicent hopes you will convince her to be by the bottom of page 1), none of these questions is likely to occur to you. Let’s take her concerns one at a time, so we may understand why each bugged her.

1. Opening with an unidentified speaker.
I’m really glad that our generous example-provider chose to open the manuscript this way, because it’s a very, very popular choice: depending upon the fiction categories Millicent’s boss represents, she might see anywhere from a handful to dozens of submissions with dialogue as their first lines on any given day. A good third of those will probably not identify the speaker right off the bat.

Why would the vast majority of Millicents frown upon that choice, other than the sheer fact that they see it so very often? A very practical reason: before they can possibly make the case to their respective boss agents that this manuscript is about an interesting protagonist faced with an interesting conflict, they will have to (a) identify the protagonist, (b) identify the primary conflict s/he faces, and (c) determine whether (a) and (b) are interesting enough to captivate a reader for three or four hundred pages. So when they pick up page 1, they’re looking for some pretty specific information.

Given that mission, it’s bound to miff them if they can’t tell if the first line of the book is spoken by the protagonist — or, indeed, anyone else. In this case, the reader isn’t let in on the secret of the speaker’s identity for another 6 lines. That’s an eternity, in screeners’ terms — especially when, as here, the first character named turns out not to be the speaker. And even on line 7, the reader is left to assume that Emma was the initial speaker, even though logically, any one of the everyone mentioned in line 7 could have said it.

So let me ask the question that Millicent would almost certainly be asking herself by the middle of the third question: since presumably both of the characters introduced here knew who spoke that first line, what precisely did the narrative gain by NOT identifying the speaker for the reader’s benefit on line 1?

99% of the time, the honest answer will be, “Not much.” So why force Millicent to play a guessing game, if it’s not necessary to the scene?

Trust me on this one: a Millicent in a hurry tends to dislike guessing games, especially on page 1. Go ahead and tell her who is speaking, what’s going on, who the players are, and what that unnamed thing that jumps out of the closet and terrifies the protagonist looks like. If you want to create suspense, withholding information from the reader is not Millicent’s favorite means of generating it.

That’s not to say, however, that your garden-variety Millicent has a fetish for identifying every speaker every time. In fact, she regards the old-fashioned practice of including some version of he said with every speech as, well, old-fashioned. Not to mention unnecessary. Which leads me to…

2. Including unnecessary tag lines.
Unless there is some genuine doubt about who is saying what when (as in the first line of text here), most tag lines — he said, she asked, they averred — aren’t actually necessary for clarity. Let’s face it, quotation marks around sentences are pretty effective at alerting readers to the fact that those sentences were spoken aloud. And frankly, unless tag lines carry an adverb or indicates tone, they usually don’t add much to a scene other than clarity about who is saying what when.

So why include them, in instances where any reasonably intelligent reader would already be able to figure out who the speaker is?

That’s a serious question, you know. Most editors will axe them on sight — although again, the pervasiveness of tag lines in published books does vary from category to category. Since most adult fiction minimizes their use, novelists who have worked with an editor on a past book project will usually omit them in subsequent manuscripts.

So common is this self-editing trick amongst the previously published that to a well-trained Millicent or experienced contest judge, limiting tag line use is usually taken as a sign of professionalism. Which means, in practice, that the opposite is true as well: a manuscript peppered with unnecessary tag lines tends to strike the pros as under-edited.

Paragraph 2 of our example illustrates why beautifully. Take another gander at it then ask yourself: at the end of a five-line paragraph largely concerned with how Casey is feeling, wouldn’t it have been pretty astonishing if the speaker in the last line had been anybody but Casey?

The same principle applies to paragraph 4. Since the paragraph opens with Casey swallowing, it’s obvious that she is both the speaker and the thinker later in the paragraph — and the next one. (Although since a rather hefty percentage of Millicents frown upon the too-frequent use of single-line non-dialogue paragraphs — as I mentioned earlier in this series, it takes at least two sentences to form a legitimate narrative paragraph in English, technically — I would advise reserving them for instances when the single sentence is startling enough to warrant breaking the rule for dramatic impact. In this instance, I don’t think the thought line is astonishing enough to rise to that standard.)

Starting to see how Millicent considers a broad array of little things in coming up with her very quick assessment of page 1 and the submission? Although she may not spend very much time on a submission before she rejects it, what she does read, she reads very closely.

Sort of changes your mental picture of how and why the average submission gets rejected on page 1, doesn’t it? Professional reading doesn’t miss much. Remember, agents, editors, and their screeners tend not to read like other people: instead of reading a page or even a paragraph before making up their minds, they consider each sentence individually; if they like it, they move on to the next.

All of this is imperative to keep in mind when revising your opening pages. Page 1 not only needs to hook Millicent’s interest and be free of technical errors; every line, every sentence needs to encourage her to keep reading.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea to think of page 1′s primary purpose (at the submission stage, anyway) as convincing a professional reader to turn the first page and read on. In pursuit of that laudable goal, let’s consider Millicent’s scrawl at the bottom of the page.

3. Having enough happen on page 1 that a reader can tell what the book is about.
This is a really, really common problem for first pages — and first chapters of both novels and memoirs, if I’m being honest about it. A lot of writers like to take some time to warm up…so much so that it’s not all that rare to discover a perfectly marvelous first line for the book in the middle of page 4.

Then, too, opening pages often get bogged down in backstory or character development, rather than jumping right into some relevant conflict. US-based agents and editors tend to get a trifle impatient with stories that are slow to start. (UK and Canadian agents and editors seem quite a bit friendlier to the gradual lead-in.) Their preference for a page 1 that hooks the reader into conflict right off the bat has clashed, as one might have predicted, with the rise of the Jungian Heroic Journey as a narrative structure.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Since the release of the first Star Wars movie, it’s been one of the standard screenplay structures: the story starts in the everyday world; the protagonist is issued a challenge that calls him into an unusual conflict that tests his character and forces him to confront his deepest fears; he meets allies and enemies along the way; he must grow and change in order to attain his goal — and in doing so, he changes the world. At least the small part of it to which he returns at the end of the story.

It’s a lovely structure for a storyline, actually, flexible enough to fit an incredibly broad swathe of tales. But can anyone spot a SLIGHT drawback for applying this structure to a novel or memoir?

Hint: you might want to take another peek at today’s example before answering that question.

Very frequently, this structure encourages writers to present the ordinary world at the beginning of the story as, well, ordinary. The extraordinary circumstances to come, they figure, will seem more extraordinary by contrast. Over the course of an entire novel, that’s pretty sound reasoning (although one of the great tests of a writer is to write about the mundane in a fascinating way, I think), but it can inadvertently create an opening scene that is less of a grabber than it could be.

Or, as I suspect is happening in this case, a page 1 that might not be sufficiently reflective of the pacing or excitement level of the rest of the book. And that’s a real shame, since I happen to know that something happens on page 2 that would make Millicent’s eyebrows shoot skyward so hard that they would knock her bangs out of place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? We’re not going to get into the next scene until next time.

So let’s stick to our moral for the day: since submissions and contest entries are evaluated one line at a time, holding back on page 1 might not make the best strategic sense. Remember, Millicent is looking for an interesting protagonist facing an interesting conflict — appearing as soon as possible in the manuscript. You might want to invest some revision time in making sure your first page gives all that to her.

Just a suggestion. Or three. Keep up the good work!

6 Replies to “Improving those opening pages, part III: and then there are Millicent’s page 1 pet peeves”

  1. Okay, quick question re the un-attributed dialogue tag … as I have one of those too. What do you do when ALL of your test readers send that particular section back with “This would read better without the tag?” Ignore them or what?

    1. I’m a trifle confused by the question, CW — do you mean that they suggested cutting the tag line (i.e., the Molly said part that would have given the dialogue attribution) or to cut the unattributed dialogue altogether?

      Every first page is different, of course, but if it’s a choice between presenting Millicent with a piece of dialogue apparently spoken by no one and cutting the line, I would agree with Doug: you’re almost certainly better off cutting an unattributed opening piece of dialogue than keeping it. If, however, all of those first readers advised cutting the tag line itself, I would tend to ignore them — after, of course, I had double-checked to make sure that axing the speaker ID was what they were suggesting.

      The reason I ask relates to how you framed the question. Dialogue tag is not a standard editing term, after all; is it possible that they were not talking about the tag line per se, but the entire line? Writers (and established ones, for that matter) often throw terminology around in feedback without first making sure that everyone agrees on what each term means. Making sure you’re all talking about the same thing is vital in a case like this, where more than one piece of editing advice might be informing the suggestion — a writers’ group where one member knew that minimizing tag lines was a good idea, and another had heard that some agents frown upon opening with dialogue at all (their argument: it’s too movie-like) might easily produce the apparently unanimous advice to cut an opening piece of dialogue, right?

      It’s also extremely difficult to answer a question this general from this side of the comments, so let’s nail down the possibilities more precisely. To be clear, what I think you are saying your first readers unanimously suggested is changing:

      “I hate your guts,” Molly said.


      “I hate your guts.”

      If that’s an accurate reflection of their feedback and you are writing for adults, I would tend to ignore that advice, however unanimous. (The convention of opening with an unattributed piece of dialogue is more accepted in YA.) As I explained in the post, at the submission stage, there can be no benefit to making the reader guess who is speaking: Millicent hates guessing games, and it’s just not a very sophisticated means of creating suspense.

      If, however, what your first readers are actually suggesting is changing this:

      “I hate your guts.”

      Delia had heard that assertion so many times from her kids that it rolled off her back like water from a duck….


      Delia’s kids had shouted, “I hate your guts!” at her so often that this time, it rolled off her back like water from a duck….

      That’s pretty good advice, from a marketing perspective. Both versions convey the same information, but the first assumes, quite possibly wrongly, that Millicent will be willing to hold off knowing who is speaking until the beginning of the next paragraph. Depending upon how busy a screener’s day is (and how much she dislikes unattributed bits of speech), that’s not always a warranted assumption. The second does not identify the speaker (and I gather that this is important to your conception of the scene), but provides enough context for the shout that the reader is carried into the story. Millicent may still want to know which kid is shouting it, but she can at least make an educated guess.

      All that being said, given the universality of that feedback, I would also be curious whether your first readers are (a) habitual readers of your book category, (b) writers themselves, and/or (c) familiar with how differently an agent or editor reads from how the general public would. Even with the best will in the world, not all first readers give equally helpful advice (and for some tips on picking ones that will, you might want to check out the posts under the FEEDBACK THAT’S ACTUALLY HELPFUL category on the archive list at right). Someone who doesn’t read your type of book, or who hasn’t read anything that came out within the last five years, simply could not give you the insight that someone who reads your genre religiously; a non-writer will often suggest more radical cuts than a writer, simply because s/he is unaware of revision possibilities. And even someone who writes in your chosen book category may be unaware of Millicent’s more common pet peeves.

      In short, unanimity does not necessarily equal correctness, and what reads better to someone unfamiliar with other books in the manuscript’s category may well be different than the kind of flow an inveterate reader would like to see. As with any other piece of editing advice, it’s worthwhile to go back and find out what the logic behind the suggestion was.

      You may well not have been the only reader facing this dilemma, however, or who found the back-to-back injunctions to attribute speakers and minimize tag lines somewhat confusing. Perhaps I shall address the possibilities for how to fix the problem in my next post.

  2. christwriter: my own opinions follow.

    One possibility is to replace the dialogue tag with a ‘beat’: an action that identifies the speaker while providing some context.

    Opening a manuscript with a line of dialogue is discouraged in some quarters (and not in others). The dialogue is necessarily “Brenda Starr” dialogue: the reader has zero context. You, the author, are visualizing who’s speaking, who they’re speaking to, what the setting is, and what the situation is. We, the readers, haven’t got a freakin’ clue. We’re reading words that are being spoken in a vacuum, without so much as a “male” or “female” timbre to them.

    If the dialogue contains clues as to what’s going on, or if it happens to be really intriguing when read completely out of context, it might work.

    It’s usually better to set the stage first, though. In my opinion.

    1. Primal screaming is a healthy part of the submission process, Nuria. I find it also helps to name a pillow Millicent and give it a good pummeling now and then.

      1. What a lovely suggestion. I have an old pillow “sham” that will do just fine as a stand-in for Millie. Thanks! 🙂

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