Friday, July 24, 2009

The First Page

By John Gilstrap

Greetings from Muncie, Indiana, where I have the honor of serving on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference on the campus of Ball State University. As part of my responsibilities, I'm evaluating students' manuscripts. I had forgotten how much I learn about my own writing by helping others improve theirs.

The manuscripts submitted to me are all thrillers, and the submissions were limited to five pages in length. As you might expect, the competency of the writing--from a commercial standpoint--varies fairly significantly among the students I'm evaluating, but I've noticed a common denominator among all of them that I think is a potential trap for writers everywhere: Slow first pages.

In this particular batch, the slowness trap is mostly about physical description. We open with a detailed rendering of eye color, fabric, hand gestures or in one notable case, breast size. In six of the ten manuscripts I evaluated, literally nothing had happened by the end of the five-page submission.

In the early drafts of everything I write, I seem to need a few pages of warm-up before I really get down to the business of telling the story at hand. That's my process, and like all things process-related, I don't even try to understand it anymore. It just is what it is. But I always go back and edit out all of that stuff. At least I try to.

I occasionally hang out in bookstores and watch people shop for their next book. The pattern is universal: Look at the cover; read the jacket notes; read the first page. Inexplicably to me, a significant minority also read the last page. Then they make their decision. I make my decision the same way. Don't we all?

Those first few pages need to really sizzle. With any luck at all, the first line really sizzles. Ditto lines two, three, four . . . all the way to the end of the book. There's probably some forgiveness somewhere in the middle, once you have the reader hooked, and they've already spent their money, but man those first pages are the audition. They're the sales pitch. Thy've got to scream.

Do you obsess about your openings? Do you re-write the beginning a dozen times like I do? Are you constantly aware of that reader out there who's judging you from a cold start based only on those first words?

11 comments:

  1. You're spot on, as the British say. The first few lines should hook the reader, the first page draw them in, and subsequent pages in the first chapter should set the hook. We may not always accomplish it, certainly never with the first draft, but we shouldn't stop polishing until we've reached the goal.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've lost count of how many times I've rewritten my first pages. Part of the problem is when I start writing something, I don't always have the character's voice down yet. I have to go back and not only eliminate any backstory, but make sure the voice comes through.

    ReplyDelete
  3. John, being agentless with only one book published, I am very obsessed with the first page, then the first 3 chapters.

    I also want a big ending. Don't want it to fizzle at the end. Who was it that said your first sentence sells this book, the last sentence sells the next?

    Somewhere, while writing that first manuscript I started watching episodes of 24, on FOX. I started getting the knack for pacing and ending chapters like 24 ends an episode, wanting more.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great points, John. In Latin, I believe it's called starting "in medias res"--in the midst of things. I've also heard that the place to start any story is at the point of "impact". By that, I mean the point that something impacted the main character's life and caused it to change, perhaps forever. I think the best advice on where to start comes from Kurt Vonnegut's 8 rules of writing. Number 5 is: Start as close to the end as possible.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I've evaluated hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts over the years, and I would say 90% of them have benefitted from the "Chapter Two Switcheroo." That is, throw out Chapter One and make Chapter Two the new opening. At the very least it gets rid of all that explanatory stuff new writers think they need. "Act first, explain later." Readers will patiently wait if they are immediately caught up in an opening disturbance. It doesn't even have to be "big." Just something that impacts the "ordinary world." For example, Jonathan Harr's "A Civil Action," non-fiction that reads like the best legal thrillers, begins with an early morning phone call. That's never good news. Anything like that, just not the weather or a dream.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Good advice, Jim. Never start with a weather report.

    ReplyDelete
  7. In my series, I have to turn in the first chapter of the next book along with the current finished manuscript, so that the chapter can be published in the back of the current release. That's a killer, because it's extremely hard to know exactly how a first chapter should open until you've gotten pretty far along in the writing process. My writing critique group is very used to my obsessive rewriting and even panic attacks over getting the first chapter just right.

    ReplyDelete
  8. John, you are indeed spot on - I probably spend more time on my first three chapters than on anything else! That first page has to grab me when I'm a reader so I think it is vital. The first page gets reworked and reworked because it sets the tone and voice for the whole books as well as starts things off with a bang.

    ReplyDelete
  9. The first page is so important. Yes, I write them over and over again.

    I don't get the people who read the end of the book first! Maybe they're not planning on buying the book?

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

    ReplyDelete
  10. Totally agree. Though I am not a thriller writer, I decided to have a lot of blood flowing already in the first sentence of the first chapter of my new work. It's a short chapter and I had all my friends read it, even put it online with the question: would you continue reading after the first page?

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm one of those folks lucky enough to have their manuscripts evaluated by John and since I had taken his all day class on crafting thrillers, by the time I met with him, I already knew what the problem was - basically kill the first three pages! That story was thirty seconds away from heading to the trunk. Now I'm back on track again.

    If you ever have a chance to attend a conference where John is presenting - do NOT miss the chance to go. It is well worth it! Thanks again - Terri

    ReplyDelete