How to Nail Your First 50 Pages

I have just given a seminar on this topic as part of the amazing Indie Author Fringe festival. Hopefully, you managed to tune in and join me, but if you didn’t you can replay the video below:

I chose the topic because, as an author, you need to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward. Your opening chapters need to work the hardest, as they have to convince the reader to invest their time and money on the rest of your book. Whether they are just flicking through a few pages in a book store or have downloaded the first chapter for free on Kindle, it needs to leave them hooked and wanting more.

However, in my 10+ years of working as an editor (and also a literary agent), I have found that the opening chapters are often the weakest areas of the whole manuscript. This is because authors haven’t yet found their rhythm or got into the swing of their writing. I have read too many opening chapters that felt tentative and hesitant rather than powerful and attention-grabbing. In this webinar, I focus on how you can make sure your opening chapters are as strong as can be.

How to Nail Your First 50 Pages Webinar

how to nail your first 50 pages

Webinar Overview

In my session, I covered:

  • why it is so important to get right
  • why so many authors fail
  • the secret trick to help you view your opening chapters in a completely different light
  • how you can conduct an opening chapter audit to ensure your readers are gripped from page 1

I really stressed the two most important jobs of any opening chapter:

  1. To get you invested in the characters
  2. To make you want to stay tuned

I showed the audience how authors and TV dramas do this really well, with snappy extracts from super-slick US drama, The Blacklist, and then BBC drama, The Line of Duty. Both of these were full of action and charged with dramatic tension that left you desperate to know what happens next. Then I wanted to show the audience how authors use the same tricks to the same end. I read sections from Ian Rankin’s Even Dog’s in the Wild and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – both of these have amazing opening pages. If you haven’t read them yet, then check out the look inside sample on Amazon and see how powerful they are.

Opening Chapter Audit

Finally, I ran through an opening chapter audit. The idea of this exercise is that authors can use the questions below to help them think more critically and objectively about their work.  They should be thought-provoking and enable authors to evaluate their opening chapters, identify potential weak areas and then concentrate their energy on strengthening those points.

  1. Does it introduce the main character and present them in a way we can connect with? Does the reader generally care what happens to them and want to go on their journey with them? This is job no.1.
  2. Is it structured in such a way that creates a sense of urgency. It’s your job to make sure the reader wants to read on.
  3. Is it clear what the protagonist’s goal is/what their problem is/what they need to make happen – this will set up your story arc. Get this in early to create intrigue and dramatic tension.
  4. Is there some kind of juicy conflict set up or at least hinted at? Is the will she/won’t she consequence clear e.g. can the policeman catch the serial killer before he strikes again, will she cheat on her husband before he gets back etc. This ramps up the drama by making it clear what’s at stake.
  5. Have you set the tone? Is it clear from your first chapters what kind of storytelling experience the reader can expect? Your book needs to feel like one whole experience. If readers like your opening chapters, they are going to want a lot more just like it. Often I see authors experiment with writing techniques in the opening chapters that they promptly ditch – it’s got to be smooth.
  6. Are you spreading yourself too thin? Have you got too many characters and not a sharp enough focus on one central figure? Are you making it hard for the reader to take it all in? Don’t forget the reader is new to this world that you have been building for months or even years; they don’t have your intricate level of knowledge. Go gentle on them, there will be plenty of time for the details later.
  7. Have you got too much tell and not enough show? This is the quickest way to bore a reader. These heavy sections will encourage the reader to close your book.
  8. Could you put more of it in dialogue? Dialogue is the fastest way of conveying information to the reader, also it feels exciting and immediate.
  9. Could you have started the opening scene any later? Try fast-forwarding slightly to see if you can create more tension by throwing the reader into the middle of something.
  10. Are you guilty of too much scene setting or backstory? Is there any description or background information that you could cut out and put in a later chapter? Those details may be important to the story, but is it important to know them right now? The only thing the reader really needs to know initially is where and when the action is taking place – the rest can wait. Weave in little details rather than info dumping.
  11. Can you cut 100 words, maybe more? Check your word count. Keep it short and sweet. You will make a stronger impact with fewer words. This needs to be your sharpest work, so don’t get complacent. See what you can do to pack more of a punch.

After you have done this exercise, you’re ready to bring in the professionals, so check out our Start Strong Manuscript Assessment Service. Our expert editors will carefully read through the first 50 pages of your manuscript along with your synopsis. They will then create a 6-10 page manuscript assessment report, which will cover both broad strokes issues and give specific examples of smaller problems along with solutions of how they can be fixed. This allows you to make really speedy progress improving your work, as you will be armed with an action plan of what you need to do, where and how.

If you tuned in to the webinar, I’d really appreciate some feedback as it was my very first webinar and this showbiz is all new to me! Or if you have any questions, please email


Comments ( 3 )
  • Isabel Dennis says:

    Thanks Leila for an excellent webinar. It was full of clear, concise advice and well timed as I am just focusing on the more detailed editing of the manuscript for my first novel and have much to learn!
    I’ve made notes and will be applying your writing tips this very afternoon!

  • barry cole says:

    Great webinar Leila, I’m sure it will get us all thinking outside the box, well me anyway!

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