Control of metazoan embryogenesis shifts from maternal to zygotic gene products as the zygotic genome becomes transcriptionally activated. In Drosophila, zygotic genome activation (ZGA) has been thought to occur in two phases, starting with a minor wave, in which a small number of genes become expressed, and progressing to the major wave, in which many more genes are activated. However, technical challenges have hampered the identification of early transcripts or obscured the onset of their transcription. Here, we develop an approach to isolate transcribed mRNAs and apply it over the course of Drosophila early genome activation. Our results increase by 10-fold the genes reported to be activated during what has been thought of as the minor wave and show that early genome activation is continuous and gradual. Transposable-element mRNAs are also produced, but discontinuously. Genes transcribed in the early and middle part of ZGA are short with few if any introns, and their transcripts are frequently aborted and tend to have retained introns, suggesting that inefficient splicing as well as rapid cell divisions constrain the lengths of early transcripts.