Saturday, April 4, 2015
The Essential 10: The First Page
Last month, I started a series on perfecting your submission package for querying. I started with ten tips on how to write a better query letter, and this month I’m focusing on how to craft a first page that works—meaning it entices the agent to read more. That’s all a first page has to do. Sounds much simpler than it is.
And believe me, I’m speaking from experience. When I wrote Becoming Jinn, which releases in a mere 17 days (cue panic attack! . . . and cue shameless plug: I'm running a signed bookmark and $5-$50 gift card giveaway if you preorder or buy by April 25! Details here), I spent a long time on the opening of my novel. I thought it worked. It didn’t. I found that out when I got passed over in many contests. Everyone thought the hook was great, but the first page didn’t live up to it. After participating in the terrific First Five Pages Workshop (which if you don’t know about, I urge you to find out about and participate in!), I realized that my novel was starting in the wrong place.
I had too much scene setting, too much world building, too much *yawn* slowness. I took what was Chapter 3 and reworked it to be Chapter 1. The inciting incident now happens on page 1. This was not easy. This took me weeks, during which I wanted to give up, thought it’d never be good enough, thought everyone was asking too much of me.
They weren’t asking too much; they were asking just enough. Because it is with that new first page that I started to have success. In contests and in querying. And that first page is still the exact same first page of Becoming Jinn. Through revisions with my agent and with my editor, not a word changed. Hard work pays off may be a cliché, but it’s also true.
Here are my tips, based on both my own experience and the numerous critiques I’ve done over the past couple of years, on how to craft a first page that works.
1. Don’t be a stickler for the “rules.” This may sound funny as here I am giving you “rules” in the form of tips. But the rules I’m talking about are the ones that say 100% don’t do this or 100% do that. Because rules like that can never apply to all stories. When I reworked my first page, do you know what happened? The novel started with—gasp!—a character waking up. One of the things we are told to “never” do. But my character did and still does. Why is it “okay”? The answer is simple: because it’s core to the story. It’s the inciting incident for her story problem. It’s where her story begins. The “rules” about not starting with a character waking up or with the weather shouldn’t be taken so literally. What the rule is trying to imply is this: don’t start with the mundane. Don’t have a character wake up, get out of bed, see that it’s raining, take a shower, dry off, eat breakfast, etc. and THEN actually do something. We get it; we all wake up and shower (most of us) and eat breakfast. We don’t need to see that happen to accept that it does happen. Get to what’s core to your story and if happens to happen in the shower or when the alarm clock goes off, that’s okay. Just make sure it’s the absolute best place to start and you can be a rule breaker too.
2. Give us a whopper of a first line. This is subjective, right? Yes and no. Because when we all see a great first line, we know it. When we see a mediocre one, we know that too. The first line must catch the reader’s attention by surprising them, by giving tremendous voice, or by incredible writing. There are many ways to craft a first line, but the ultimate goal is to leave the reader with no choice but to read on. However….
3. Starting with dialogue is tricky. This isn’t a rule but is more like a caution. You can start with dialogue, and it can work. But that dialogue has to be very targeted, specific, and follow tip number 2, which is to catch the reader’s attention. Consider the difference between starting a book with this:
“I have no idea what to wear,” I say to my BFF, as I rifle through my closet before my big date. (from my boring brain)
“Dad’s dead,” Wendy says offhandedly, like it’s happened before. (from Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You)
In both instances, we have the quintessential problem with starting with dialogue: which is that we don’t yet know the characters who are speaking and as such it is hard to care about what they have to say. It’s hard for the dialogue to mean anything or matter to us this early on. However, the second example is so damn good and compelling and shocking that not knowing the characters doesn’t matter one bit. It catches our attention. It does what a great first line should do.
4. Introduce your main character. This isn’t a deal breaker. A first page doesn’t have to introduce your main character, but if it doesn’t, there should be a very good reason for that. Your main character is who we will be following in this story, and the earlier we get to say “hi” to them, the better.
5. Give us or be leading to the inciting incident. As I said, my inciting incident happens on page 1. The same is true for a lot of books. This isn’t a necessity, so long as you are leading us to that inciting incident. We need to understand why your story starts today, not yesterday, and not tomorrow. What is different about today? While there is good advice that says we need to know a character’s world before the inciting incident, that doesn’t mean we want pages and pages of the character’s world before something happens. You can give a lot of hints and clues to a character’s “before” quickly and efficiently. And then you fill in as the story, and the inciting incident, plays out.
6. Hint at the story problem. This ties into the inciting incident tip above. And while it is very difficult and not necessary to give us the full extent of the character’s story problem, hinting at it through tone, attitude, or your character’s reaction to that inciting incident is all we need to latch on and keep reading.
7. Action. Action doesn’t mean a car crash or an explosion. All it means is your character must be doing something. This harkens back to tip number 1. Eating cereal is technically an action, but it’s not an action that’s going to make me want to keep reading. Unless there’s a diamond ring at the bottom of the bowl and the character swallows the engagement ring her fiancé not-so-wisely dropped in and she’s rushed to the ER where she realizes this guy is a doofus and she cannot marry him. See how we started with an action that led to an inciting incident that led to her story problem? All by eating cereal.
8. Be wary of flashbacks. Starting in the wrong place is a problem for many first pages, and a quick start and segue way into a flashback may be a sign of that. If that incident in the past is so important, why not start there?
9. Understand the pressure. What I mean by this is that there is a lot riding on your first page. A scene that may be perfectly fine later in the book may not cut it for the first page. The weight of your entire manuscript sits on the foundation of your first page. It simply has to be great. Not okay, not “enough to get by” until you get to the “good stuff.” It has to be the good stuff; it has to be the great stuff.
10. Above all else, voice. Here’s one rule I’m sure is true: you can ignore everything else I’ve just said if you write a first page that drips with voice. How do you do that? Why, funny you asked. Check out my series on voice right here on YAtopia!
Next month, I tackle what many consider the worst part of the submissions package: the synopsis. *shudders*
Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (now available for preorder; Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, April 21, 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.
14th -- Jennifer Galasso
16th -- Chris Bedell
22nd -- Rosanne Rivers
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