Friday 1 June 2012

Singapore Fling – What makes an editor read on? First Pages

By Candy Gourlay

Notes from the Slushpile suffered the slings and arrows of a trip to Singapore to bring you reportage from the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. This is the second of a series covering the First Page Panel organized by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. With many thanks to the deathless efforts of the organizers of a superb Festival.
(left to right) Sohini Mitra, Commissiong Editor, Penguin India, Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, Publishing Director, Hachette India, Alvina Ling, Editorial Director, Little Brown Books, USA,  and Sarah Odedina, Managing Director, Hot Key Books

There it sits with a bazillion other manuscripts, on the desk of your chosen editor or agent. The object of your submission is a busy, busy bee, looking after her chosen ones. But this day of all days, is the day she plans to at long last read through her slushpile.

Will your prose catch the editor’s eye or cause it to glaze over? Will the agent want to read more or want to throw up? Does your manuscript have what it takes for the editor or agent to pick up the phone and say, ‘I liked what you sent, send me the rest’?

Kathleen Ahrens, international coordinator of SCBWI read out the 23 first pages

Behold – a panel of agents and editors here for the express purpose of demonstrating what indeed they do when surveying submissions!

 A First Page Panel may be one of the most revelatory SCBWI events you can attend. The panel read the first pages of manuscripts submitted by the audience. Only first pages ... they were not shone the pages prior to the event, so their reactions were unprepared, on-the-spot.

Kathleen Ahrens, SCBWI International Regional Advisor, told the audience to listen. No talking back.  No explaining. No defending.

The apprehensive audience
I’ve attended a couple in the decade that I’ve been a SCBWI member and it’s not for the faint hearted. But it can be life changing.

The SCBWI’s First Page Panel for the AFCC featured Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, Publishing Director, Hachette  India, Alvina Ling, Editorial Director, Little Brown Books, USA, Sohini Mitra, Commissiong Editor, Penguin India and Sarah Odedina, Managing Director, Hot Key Books.

[You can stalk Alvina Ling on her Bloomabilities blog, and Sarah Odedina on the Hot Key Blog]

"Just listen," Kathleen tells the audience.
Kathleen read our 23 first pages out loud one by one. Then the panel followed with copies of their own (they weren’t given a preview so their reactions would be fresh).

I wrote down some of their comments – and what’s fascinating is you don’t need the texts themselves to learn something from what the panel said.

The panellists tended to agree with each other on technical and craft points. But whereas one might be willing to read on, another might not.

Here are their comments. Read and learn.

Kathleen Ahrens reads out the first pages which are shown on the screen

“There should be something interesting on the first page.”

“A lot of information and a lot of alliteration can be tiring on the first page. Especially in a 1,200 word picture book.”

“I like Young Adult novels with prologues to get into the action quickly.”

“I am not fond of retellings. There are so many new stories still to be told.”

“I like the writing but I’m not sure how this story will look. My decision can’t just be based on (nice writing).”

“250 words and nothing has happened. Make sure there’s a story.”

“You’re telling too much in too short a time.”

“You need to engage your reader emotionally.”

“Can you make the stakes higher?”

“I’m concerned about the number of words you have in this picture book.”

“You see a lot of writers feel that they have to give a lot of information very quickly . You have to entice me to read.”

“I’m not sure if it starts where it should start even if it’s an intriguing first line.”

“There are too many characters being introduced in the first three paragraphs.”

“This is a perfect first page because the conflict is already there.”

“I wondered if the character was an adult or a teenager?”

“Some of the language was cliché but it sounded like a commercial thriller (so would read on).”

“Sounds like fun and the armpit hairs are going to get the kids.”

“I see a lot of floating, flying, moving bits of furniture and talking pets. While the writing is good it would be nice to see something fresh.”

“I’m having a hard time imagining what the pictures (for this picture book) will look like.”

“Culturally it’s a little alien but I’d read more.”

“If you are writing a picture book, it should be child centric. There is too much information – it sounds like the start of a chapter book, not a picture book.”

“Stepsisters just don’t exist in an Indian context but I would want to read on.”

“You must give space for the pictures to tell the story. The words will give the emotional context.”

The editors applaude the courageous volunteers who submitted first pages

The Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2012 was held from 25 May to 30 May 2012. It was attended by delegates from all over Asia and included a primary and preschool teacher's congress, a parent's forum, a media summit and a SCBWI conference. 

Stories from the Asian Festival of Children's Content

View list


  1. I really need to figure out how to get my first page to have that hook.

    But it looks like you got a lot out of that panel!

  2. A really useful post Candy, am off to look at my first page and go through these points against it! Thank you

  3. I went to my first First Pages session at the SA SCBWI conference last year. Your coments could have come straight from that! Clearly editors have universal requirements! :-)

    1. ... or maybe, authors commit the same mistakes the world over!

    2. I think that's very likely, Candy. Great post and I'm particularly pleased that someone liked armpit hairs as I'm considering basing my career on them.
      The first page panel is a Fab idea, but I bet there was a bit of weeping and soul searching afterward. Must have been a bit of a wake up call for newbie writers. But then, there are so many wake up calls on this journey!
      And more subjectivity coming across. Maybe this is why it's so hard to get started these days, you have to be 'right' for so many people, not just one editor. And, if there is so much subjectivity then writing to please the publishers is impossible! I'll say that again - WRITING TO PLEASE THE PUBLISHERS IS IMPOSSIBLE!

  4. Great post. Will certainly refer back to this one when editing the first page of my fantasy ms next week! Thanks

  5. What a great panel - we should definitely organise one like this here! Thanks for sharing Candy

    1. The panel is great if you're in the right frame of mind. I do worry about absolute beginners though. But you're right ... it really helps if you're in a place to take the pain.

  6. Fascinating stuff and thanks so much Candy. I agree with Kathy. We definitely should have one here - maybe just with an enormous health warning!

  7. Wow! I had no idea that this kind of thing went on. As you say it's not for the fainthearted but no doubt it helps to have the company of 22 other first-pagers to share the experience with. I would imagine that it puts quite a lot of pressure on the editors as well.

  8. Great post, Candy, thank you. Like others I'd love to attend a similar SCBWI panel here. As a newbie to children's fiction (but not to earning a living from words) I think tough, realistic advice early on is particularly valuable. It's better to find out sooner rather than later how competitive it is out there, and sharpen your wits accordingly.

    1. I dunno if I could cope with it if I was a newbie. And I don't know if I would have had the wherewithal to know how to fix the problems..

  9. Sounds like a really useful learning experience, but pretty scary at the same time.

  10. Another fantastically useful post, Candy. I really liked the phrase about 'enticing' a reader into the story. As somebody who used to panic and cram too much into the first page, I wish I'd had this advice years ago! I think the panel sounds like a good idea but my inner cowardly lion quails at the thought of it.

  11. Absolutely terrifying! I think I'd be hiding under my chair. But fascinating too, if I had the courage to peep out.

  12. Thank you for the interesting post. Will definitely be re visiting my first page.

  13. Such a great post. I love the comments from the panelists! Rightly or wrongly we hang on their every word. :-)


Comments are the heart and soul of the Slushpile community, thank you! We may periodically turn on comments approval when trolls appear.

Share buttons bottom