Monday, May 9, 2016

Lessons Learned from My First Page Rodeo

First Page Rodeo Panelists
Margaret, Greg, Eleanor, and George
Unbound Book Festival’s First Page Rodeo was one of the most anticipated events of the festival, and not only by me.  Early in the day I overheard several festival-goers remark on how they were looking forward to the event.

The distinguished First Page Rodeo panelists were: Margaret Sutherland Brown, literary agent; Greg Michalson, Publisher of Unbridled Books; Eleanor Brown, NYT best-selling author of The Weird Sisters; and George Hodgman, NYT best-selling author of the memoir Bettyville.

The panel members discussed five “winning” first-pages selected from dozens submitted in advance of the festival. The panel assessed aesthetics, praised, criticized, and commented candidly on the merits of each of the five entries.
Confession time: One of the five submissions was mine, but thank goodness the authors’ identities weren’t revealed until the end of the discussion.
Mary, Dianna, and Donna (me)

I was grateful to have some friends with me for moral support. Mary Horner and Dianna Graveman (pictured on the left) sat next to me, while Sarah Kohnle, one of the festival volunteers, cheered me on from inside the auditorium.

By the time the panelists got to my submission, my heart was beating rapidly; I gripped a pen in my sweaty palm as I prepared to document their words of wisdom in my notebook. 
When the first word out of an expert panelist’s mouth is “Never!” you know you're in for a rough ride. (The Never! rebuke referred to never submitting a manuscript in single space. Although the FPR submission guidelines called for single-spaced submissions, mine was "singled" out because, in an effort to get as much as I could on my first page, I didn't leave a lot of white space.)
Listening to some other issues pointed out with my first page, I became discouraged because I should've known better. My spirits lifted a bit and I hung on to positive feedback about my use of time-centered references, nice description, and turns of phrase.

My First Page Rodeo was a humbling, yet enlightening, experience which I hope to learn from and use to improve my novel.

Here are some FPR lessons learned in the form of Dos and Don’ts. Note: These applied to at least one of the five submissions, but not all applied to mine.


Bring strength and energy to your work, which is something that can’t be taught

Let the language catch up with emotion

Let the emotional content work its way to the surface

Engage the reader/draw your reader in immediately

Make good use of summary and back story

Answer the question: Why now?

Speed it up!

Know which genre you’re writing in

Develop an engaging voice

Balance your natural strengths

Remember there’s a lot at stake on the first page

Know who your characters are

Let the reader know whose story it is

Be aware of pacing and flow

Create tension

Remember you can only control what is on the page

Write about what you believe in!

Create scenes

Create time-centered references

Begin with the most intriguing aspect right away

Be aware of how your words look on the page

Vary sentence and paragraph lengths

Include nice details and turns of phrase

Take a fresh approach

Create a unique voice

Have an appealing sensibility

Watch syntax and verb tenses

Make dialogue ring true

Avoid using second person

Bring something new

Make the reader want to “get into the boat” with your story

Use a first draft to tell the story to yourself

Start with the thrust of action

Stay in the “now” of the story

Be persistent and courageous


Overcook the prose

Push too hard

Create confusion, especially at the beginning

Force the reader to reread to understand

Use too much pedestrian detail, such as "I walked."

Submit in single space

Begin with a year

Start with flashback or a lot of back story

Use too many long paragraphs

Summarize -- scene is better

Have long passages of dialogue

Have too much internalization

Start too early

Every give up!

I sincerely appreciated the panelists' forthright and generous comments and suggestions, not only of my own first page, but also of the other submissions.

In all honesty, after listening to the panelists' critiques of my work I thought about giving up on my novel and sticking to writing non-fiction. But during the drive back to St. Peters I decided my story is one that needs to be told and I want to tell it.

When I got home I revised my first paragraph and reduced my first page by more than 100 words. To pick up the pace, I varied the paragraph and sentence lengths, which I hope will interject more energy into my story. Taking one panelist's advice, I decided to complete my first draft so I know the story myself before I let anyone else read it.

My larger plan is to restructure my novel to start in the now and weave the back story in later. 
It will be a lot of work, but I’m determined to stay in the saddle and ride this story till the end.

 How about you? Are there any items on these lists that caught your attention?


  1. You are so brave to let your work be "dissected" for the panel. Yet it sounds as though you got some good feedback that will make your novel stronger and better than before. I'm glad you didn't give up on it as you are such a talented writer.

    I'm discovering myself that novel writing is so different from personal essay or short stories. Every day I realize what foreign territory I'm in, so heaven knows I can use whatever help and suggestions I get from those who know what they're talking about...even if I need a thicker hide to hear it.

    Critter Alley

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hi Pat,
    You are so right. Novel writing is way different from writing personal essays or short stories. I thought our critique group was rough, but this panel felt like rubbing sandpaper over the submissions. Hope the end result will be a polished manuscript.

  4. Thanks again, Donna, for inviting Mary and me along to "support" you during the panelists' discussion. Submitting your story for critique took more courage than I would have had! And the panelists had a lot of nice things to say about your use of language! I learned so much from the experience. I'm glad you decided to stay with the novel. It's going to be a wonderful book.

    1. Hi Dianna,
      Thanks for your kind words and support. It was a pleasure -- and an adventure -- to spend the day with you and Mary at the festival.

  5. As always, you impress me with how willing you are to share your humbling moments as well as your triumphs. And yet, being chosen as one of five "best" first pages is a huge triumph and proof that you have talent and voice. So happy that you're never giving up! Thanks for sharing, Donna.

    1. Hi Clara,
      You are so kind. It was a humbling experience, but one I learned from a lot. Thanks for you words of encouragement

  6. Donna, I was right there with you feeling your heart pounding moment. Your professional feedback dos and don'ts list is one I will often peek at and use as a refresher.
    I attended one of these workshops at the MWG conference and so enjoyed it. This is how I learn. I want to hear the bad, good and ugly. :) Congrats on having your work chosen.

    1. Hi Linda,
      These types of events are wonderful learning experiences. I'm happy you were able to attend one at MWG. Thanks for your words of encouragement.

  7. You are one brave woman, Donna. :)

    I like "don't force the reader to re-read to understand." As authors, we think the meaning is totally obvious, the scene crystal clear, etc but we're often wrong - it's not as clear as we thought.

    And don't give up on your story!

    1. Hi Madeline,
      That particular comment caught my attention too. You are absolutely right about how we as writers know what we mean but it's not always obvious to the reader.

      Thanks for encouraging me. I plan to keep plugging along and learning as I go.

  8. Glad you made the cut and so experienced the advice personally. Nice long list you got here, and like Linda, I will have to save and use as a guideline! I know this was great experience for you!!!

    1. Hi Claudia,
      It was a bit unnerving, but it was a good experience. Glad to hear you can use the list.

  9. Donna, I was proud of you for having the guts to enter. One thing I thought interesting was how the opinions differed -- one person said "cut this," while another panelist said "leave this in." I think you need to take all the comments together and do what is best for your story. I look forward to reading your novel!

    1. Hi Sarah,
      You are right about the opinions differing, and some differed a lot. I agree that I need to take the comments together and decide what's best. Thanks again for your support.

  10. How awesome that your first page was chosen for the Rodeo! I'm sure it provided great insight for you. I appreciate the list of DOs and DON'Ts you have shared with us.

    1. Hi Val,
      The panel did provide great insight, and I'm happy the list of DOs and DONT'S might be helpful.

  11. I was so glad I was able to go with you that day, and everyone on the panel said they were intrigued by the topic and would read more! I know I would. Can't wait to read the novel when you are finished!

  12. Hi Mary,
    We had fun, didn't we? Thanks for remembering the panel's comments. I thought I jotted everything down, but I missed some of it. I'm going to keep plugging along, and I can't wait to read your novel too!

  13. Oh my goodness, Donna. I'm sorry I missed this post when it first came out, but I'm so glad I didn't miss it completely.

    From from Diana and Mary said, you MUST continue and you must finish it. I love your creative nonfiction, so a novel of yours? That would be worth the wait, in my opinion.

    Having a sense of time (seasons, for example) is what I know I don't have in my WIP. That will have to come during the 3rd draft...

    Thanks for all the do's and don'ts. I should print them up and hang them over my desk.

    1. Hi Sioux,
      I'm glad you didn't miss it, either. I always look forward to reading your comments.
      You are amazing. I'm impressed that you are already on your third draft! I'm still plugging through my first draft.
      Hope you find the dos and don'ts helpful. There was a lot more said that I didn't jot down, but this list is at least a start.
      After you're retired I'm certain you will have more time to work on your WIP.
      Happy writing!

  14. It's tough putting your work out to be critiqued, especially in public. Kudos to you for doing it. And kudos for moving forward with your story. Good luck with it.
    For some reason, I find varying sentence length to be challenging.

    1. Thanks, Sandra. Overall, it was a positive experience.


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