Hey Everyone! If the picture above didn’t give it away, it’s time for this month’s #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, created by the lovely Raimey Gallant. Hopefully as you check out the different posts here, you can find little nuggets of wisdom to help you improve your writing skills. Or maybe just find one or two cool GIFs.
Today’s post is going to be what I’ve learned about that all-important first page of your manuscript and everything it’s supposed to do. I was going to call this post Trapped In the Never Ending Hell of Self Doubt and Revision Hell, which should give you a little indication of how tricky getting the first page right can be. Unfortunately, the original title didn’t really flow, so I went for a more simple approach.
Actually, it only feels that way until you figure out the basics. Once you have those down, you can spend your revision tears on other fun things like filler words and passive voice… so let’s get started, shall we?
In revising my own novel, I must have rewritten my first page a million times. My first draft had my character in a car pulling up to her new home, hating her forced circumstances and dreading her new life.
This is not good. I learned this is a cliche opening.
Then I moved the start point to where she was in her new room trying to make sense of her new place. Better, but editors and critique partners told me my start was still cliche. Why? Because it was the wrong place to start the narrative. No action, too much thinking.
There’s an entire list of cliche opening pages. With the help of a Writer’s Digest article, I’ve put together a list:
- Character is waking up.
- Character has been pulled out of their ordinary world and is driving/parking/walking to new one.
- Starts in first period or as bell rings (This is obviously more YA).
- A tour of who’s who in the story. Could be household or lunch room assignments.
- Character is sitting around thinking about all their problems.
- Looking at self in the mirror. (Please never do this. Even on page 100.)
- Being the new kid.
- Having to do something/go somewhere/be someone they don’t want to be for the summer.
- Newly orphaned and placed in any of the above situations.
- Being sorted/chosen for dystopian world the main character will eventually destroy/make better/accidentally help another creepy power guy gain control.
So what CAN first pages do?
Last week, to prepare for this post, I read about thirty different first pages. Most of them, admittedly, were in the YA category, but I chose a few adult novels as well as a few written by the Big Names. If a book was part of a series, I only looked at the first one because subsequent stories can sometimes bend the rules.
I looked at things like character name, cliche openings, voice, stakes, action, setting and dialogue. Very few novels gave the main character’s name or described him or her right away. More of them described the setting, but not always. Mostly there were hints that would ground the reader into some sort of placement, but rarely was the world elaborately built. Typically, the main character either acted or reacted to something, but none of them had both action and reaction. In every instance, it was one or the other.
A few novels did start with a cliche, but they were written by rock star authors who have built their brand and established their writing chops, so they can basically do whatever they want now.
So what did they all have on their first page?
Every novel I looked at presented what the main character would be up against throughout the entire story arc. Some authors were clever about it. They alluded to the larger stakes by setting up a smaller version of the Big Stakes for the character to overcome. But most authors jumped right in and let the readers know what sort of roller coaster ride they were in for.
The one other thing every novel had was voice. What is voice exactly, you ask? This is the verbiage and sound that creates your character’s specific dialect. No, this doesn’t mean you need to give your antagonist an over the top, cheesy British accent. Voice just means the reader can tell who’s talking or thinking. Voice is the “feel” of your story.
I polled quite a few editors and #PitchWars mentors, and every one of them said voice was the number one thing they looked for in a manuscript.
Now that I’ve said all of this, here’s the rub. Only you know how your story should start, and only you can make that final call. I resisted changing mine for a long time. If you are getting advice to rework your opening, take a poll and see if the advice is coming from just one finicky person or it seems to be the general consensus among all your betas and CPS. If more than one person is saying the same thing, it may be worth considering.
The worst thing that can happen? You get a stronger manuscript or you feel more confident about how you’ve already opened your story. And you won’t be saying this: