Monday, June 3, 2013

Grabbing Your Eyeballs and Nailing Them to the Page

We all judge books by their covers.  By the blurb on the back, too, and whether we like the clever title.  But the only way to keep us reading that first page until we simply must read the second, and the third, and then rush up to the front of the store and buy it is with the strength of the writing.  So, how to write that unstoppable opener?

Well, I've got a few ideas.  A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of handing over my first page of NinChicks to be read aloud and critiqued, along with a roomful of my equally desperate fellow aspiring writers who had turned in their first page, too.

That's me almost all the way to the right on the nearly back row, in a dark pink sweater with my hair up.  By this time I'd calmed my internal shaking by downing two mini cupcakes, three strawberries and a half-dozen little squares of cheese.  Thankfully the lady next to me did not mistake me for a hungry caterpillar, and further soothed my nerves by being super sweet and chatty.

At the front of the room you can see the illustrious panel, from left to right:Jackie Ogburn, Sue Soltis, and Cate Tiernan.

The event got underway promptly, and then these amazing ladies spent the next several hours giving us brilliant feedback on our first pages.  I didn't try to take specific notes on individual stories--I knew they'd all be muddled in my brain by the end of the day.  Instead, I wrote general advice which applies to pretty much any first pages.
  • Remember that the first page is a contract between the writer and reader--figure out the promise you're making, then keep it.
  • Try not to keep your main character's name hidden. Makes it harder to identify with them.
  • Give us a concrete place which we can see--one problem with dreams is they are either too realistic and build a false expectation, or too dreamlike and lack setting.
  • With shorter books, you need to show where the story's going quickly--by the second spread in a picture book.
  • An abrupt reversal of expectation is always good for a laugh.
  • Voice should match genre and story style--mystery with ominious or mysterious tone, fairytale can have higher language, etc.
  • The style of writing, paragraph lengths, etc. should match the mood of the characters.
  • Get quick conflict by having different characters with wants that are mutually exclusive.
And, last but not least,
  • It's always good to start in a privy.
Of course I've skipped a lot of tips I think are obvious to all but beginners--the language needs to sound modern, the dialogue shouldn't be stilted, the setting details need to be to the point, and there's really no place for back story or info dumps.  Then again, it's easy to make beginner mistakes with the first page, because we feel so much pressure to get it right and maybe haven't quite found the story's start or nailed down the character's voice.

Me, I like to throw the beginning away.  Every book I've ever written, I wrote the best first page I knew how and went on to the best second, third, and so on, and then discovered after I'd finished the book and set it aside and come back to it that my actual factual shiny and glowing opener was somewhere along page three, or even deeper in the novel, with a bunch of writing piled on top of it.  Once I cleared away the fluff (translation, sobbed my way through a massive delete) the opener could take its proper place as the beginning of the book.  And that beginning did all the stuff listed above, minus maybe starting in the privy.  But I'm working on that one!

Many thanks to Jenny Murray and her writer's group for hosting a fabulous event!


  1. No, don't subtract the privy advice!

    I shall remember it FOREVER--and blame my use of it on you!

    Great post. Very solid advice.

    1. Haha that's great! I can see it now, someday agents will tell their audience that the one thing they don't want to see is a book which starts off in a privy. It's so overdone! lol

  2. Or a dream about waking up in a privy, that might even be better ;)

  3. Favorite post ever, from title to privy. I think we all ought to attempt a first page in that locale.

  4. See, this is why we all write for kids/teens! We can appreciate the finer nuances of the privy as a plot point. ;)

  5. Wonderful tips! And I so completely agree about giving a sense of PLACE right away. If readers can't get that mental picture going in their heads, I don't think they stay with you.

  6. Not only are they likely to abandon ship, they can also feel cheated or intentionaly misled when they discover that your version and theirs don't add up. Something I have to remind myself, since I have been known to assume my reader is telepathic and will simply lift the details from my mind! lol