- The great majority of all manuscripts we buy need revisions to the openings. Meaning, even the good writers usually need help in this area. The percentage of manuscripts in this category is large enough that if this were an election, we'd be talking in terms of landslides.
- A seasoned editor can learn all she needs to know about a manuscript out of the opening lines. We don't need a whole chapter or scene. Three lines is usually more than I need to determine the rejectability of a manuscript.
Three lines. That's it. I parse those lines almost automatically, and I'm looking for specific red flags that will lead to a rejection. I am looking for a reason to reject, in other words, but that doesn't mean I'm closed off to a possible sale. I always want a sale with every single manuscript I read. I just know the odds are against it. Editorial fatalism.
If the first lines are decent but not as solid as we'd like, I'll frequently flip a few pages back and start reading at a random point. Sometimes the writing will improve once we're moving through a scene instead of just mucking around and trying to figure out how to get the wheels rolling.
But more often than not, any problems in the first three lines will repeat themselves throughout the text. My theory is that writers know how important the opening page is, and they make it as good as they can. If they're missing certain problems in the first page, it indicates they aren't aware that these things are problems, or at the very least, don't know how to fix these problems. Obviously rejectable manuscripts -- those with big red flags right from the outset -- usually deteriorate once you get past the openings.
Openings are hard. We know that. But we also know that openings are strong indicators of the condition of the rest of the text. So write a solid manuscript, of course, but do everything in your power to make that first page really dazzling. We'll be judging you on it -- and maybe on nothing besides it.
Do you want to know what the red flags are? Or are you sick of this subject and want to talk about other things?