Spring is a season of beginnings and, for my writing, the season of enduring. I want to be outside enjoying the sun, regardless of what my allergies may say. Although I use my community to help stay motivated, most days it is a struggle to sit down and write.
This year the first day it felt like spring, I conquered my outdoor fever by attending my first writing workshop. The New Jersey chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators held a First Pages Boot Camp. Aubrey Poole and Jim McCarthy were both incredible speakers, and I wanted to share some of their advice and insight.
Picking a book is a lot like online dating. We start by peruse covers to get a feel for a book’s vibe. Much like a profile picture, a cover is our first impression and gives us a little insight into the book’s personality. If we like what we see, we check out the book’s “profile” to learn a little more about it. We read the jacket copy and discover more about the book’s personality. Then we decide we are ready to take a chance and go on the first date because make no mistake, that is what first pages are.
Will you be my date
First pages are all about chemistry. You need to entice your reader, peek their curiosity and interest so they want to know more. The longer your reader reads, the more they will continue to read. Once significant time is invested, they are less likely to set down the book (unless they are a promiscuous reader).
To create chemistry, you need to engage a reader’s emotions or curiosity. You must overcome their fear that they could be missing out on something better while they spend time with your book. And most importantly you need to not be boring. If your first pages are dynamic and engaging, your reader will stick with you and build a relationship with your book.
- Be Memorable: You want to be memorable and a dynamic and strong voice can capture an audience. The language you use to engage the reader can be just as important as the meaning behind them.
- Tip: Humor can be a compelling way to hook your reader and can create a strong voice from the start.
- Be Beautiful: Make sure your prose is as polished as it can be. If you can craft exquisite prose, it may overshadow other weaknesses. However, remember it is the substance behind the beauty that will keep people reading.
- Be Lively or Endearing: Your main character should be someone the reader cares about. That caring doesn’t have to be affection. They don’t even need to want good things to happen to your character, but they need to invest in the character and want something to happen to him, good or bad. Make sure your character leaves a lasting impression.
- Be Honest: The stakes or conflict of your book should be shown in your first pages. The reader should have an idea of what kind of book they are embarking on. There is no point in continuing to date if your book and your reader are incompatible.
- Tip: Try to make your first chapter a short story with its own arc that is a reflection of the whole story.
- Tease: Keep your reader wanting more. Tease them with mystery and questions. Leave them wanting with a cliffhanger. Make them restless to see what will happen next.
- Be Engaging: Make sure there is tension in your story. Something happening, especially conflict, can create a sense of interest and suspense.
- Talk about the Past: Don’t dump your book’s backstory on your first date. You want to flirt, hinting at your book’s depth and providing context. You don’t want to drive your reader away by unloading too much information.
- Tip: If your story feels more like summary or backstory, you are likely beginning in the wrong place. Make sure you are starting with the narrative arc not the first important incident chronologically.
- Be Mediocre: You want to show how your book is unique, and why it is better than anything else out there. Use this opportunity to highlight your book’s strengths. Don’t waste it with one cliché after another.
- Not Know Yourself: Your first pages should reflect the whole book. You need to understand your story to create this. As your story changes throughout editing, your first pages will need to change as well.
- Have Poor Hygiene: Grammar is prose’s hygiene. A hair out of place is one thing, but if it goes beyond being a little disheveled, your reader isn’t going to bother finding out how interesting your story is.
First lines are your first conversation on the date. You want to generate honest interest, reveal something about your story, and highlight its uniqueness. Make sure you create a question with your first line, something unique to your story. It is an opportunity to show your angle and how the story will be told. However, be sure your opening line bears fruit in a small way in the first chapter and in a big way by the end of the book or your relationship with your reader will fall apart.
The best way to find perfection is to experiment with different ways to begin. Here are eight distinct types of first lines. Try rewriting your beginning with each of these methods and see if it sparks a new way to begin your book.
1. Middle moment: Start in the middle of the action to hook your reader.
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” — The Gunslinger by Stephen King (1982)
2. Simple truth: Keep it short, simple, and raise a question.
“I am an invisible man.” — Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison(1952)
3. Give away the plot: If your story is about the journey and not the destination, reveal it.
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” — A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (1989)
4. Statement of principles or values: Give an opinion that sets the tone of the book
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” —Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
5. Paint a richly detailed picture: Envelop your reader so completely in the world they never want to leave.
“The rain poured down on London so hard that it seemed that it was dancing spray, every raindrop contending with its fellows for supremacy in the air and waiting to splash down.” — Dodger by Terry Pratchett (2012)
6. Introduce voice: If the voice of your piece is exceptionally strong or unique, you may need to give the reader time to adjust. This means your first chapter may be light on characterization or plot to allow the reader to adapt to the voice.
“Check this out. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons . . . with his nose. Yeah. That’s true.” — Ghost by Jason Reynolds (2016)
7. Statement of paired facts: Combine two ordinary things to make them extraordinary.
“In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” — The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)
8. Statement that serves as a frame of reference: Talk directly to the reader. This type of beginning is self-aware and meta. It is one of the few instances where you tell instead of show.
“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” — A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (1999)
Unlike dating, with writing, you get the opportunity to revise and make the perfect first impression. Keep revising until your story is irresistible.
I am really excited to be co-hosting this month’s IWSG Hop. Created by Alex J. Cavanaugh, the IWSG’s purpose is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
To join, simply sign up by clicking on the button below and adding your name to the linky list. Then post the first Wednesday of each month and visit your fellow bloggers to lend your support.
This month’s optional question: “It’s spring! Does this season inspire you to write more than others, or not?”