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Writer’s Craft #75 – The First Page

June 4, 2012

A Pushcart Prize nominee, Hunter Liguore earned an MFA in Creative Writing. Her stories generally push conventional boundaries of genre and subject matter. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Mason Road, The MacGuffin, Strange Horizons, Steampunk Tales, SLAB Literary, Barely South Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, and more. http://skytalewriter.com/index.php

Over the last week I made a bargain with a friend to read some classic science fiction or fantasy together, since this friend had not read too many in the Canon. Having a ready supply of books, we sat together and picked out a handful based on title and back-jacket description, and then began to read the first page of each book aloud.

Immediately, I could see which ones my friend glazed over with, and which ones she considered potential maybes. As we whittled the choices down to five books, a pattern emerged. The books that received a second or third look were the ones that immediately presented an engaging mystery, especially one less-than-ordinary.

Writers go and read the first page of your novel. Does it grab the reader? How can you rework the hook of the story to be in the very first page? Try the book experiment on your own. Take a few books off the shelf and read a page. Ask what keeps you or steers you away. It is usually the story that is unordinary that wins.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2012 10:58 am

    Right, of course! Catch 22 is always, for me, how to set up a really different culture well enough to portray unordinary things when people have to get hooked on the first page and therefore have to recognize what’s happening. Got better at it book to book. Suspect the best “first page” for my series is somewhere in the middle of a book, though. And the greatest rewards for readers will always come to those who get into the cultures and characters enough to know why it would be funny to expect Horth to handle diplomacy on Rire, (Book 5: Far Arena) or a Big Blow for a Demish prince to be interdicted by the League of Women for the betterment of Men (Book 7: Healer’s Sword).

  2. June 11, 2012 10:42 am

    This is such a problem for me. Especially with short stories. Short shorts, under 1500 words, have just one or two scenes and jump directly into the action, so it isn’t a problem. Stories over 12,000 words are long enough that I can rearrange the order of presentation to put something catchy at the front. But 2,000-8,000 words is hell – there aren’t enough scenes to rearrange them, yet there’s too much setup necessary to start at the beginning.

    This is something that an education in literature will actually make you worse at. Read the first few pages of anything by Tolstoy, or Fitzgerald, or even Hemingway. Does it pull you in? Hell, no. No one would suffer through the first two chapters of War and Peace if it were a random book they’d heard nothing about. Writers’ group critiques won’t help you either, because your fellow writers are going to read the whole story, not give up after 1000 words because they’re bored.

    The only way I even learned this was a problem, was by writing fan-fiction. I break these stories into roughly 1000-word “chapters”; and then I can see a count of how many readers read each chapter, and compare it to similar counts for other stories. I discovered that my carefully-crafted stories were all placing in the bottom 1% of all the the stories on the site, in terms of how many readers went past the first page. At least the bottom 50% were utter crap; horrible, typo-ridden, ungrammatical, pointless drivel; but still trouncing my stories by a wide margin in terms of popularity. Because they jumped right into some kind of action.

  3. June 11, 2012 4:31 pm

    Good points! And true, it isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels orchestrated. When I find myself intentionally going back to add a more engaging opening, I call it, “the movie scene.” In other words, just like a movie, we get that blink of action, drawing us into the world. And Lynda, true that it’s hard to do in a new world especially.

    After first pages, the next hardest thing to right is that amazing first sentence, that in one blip can draw a reader in. I can certainly think of a few books that have done this successfully.

  4. June 11, 2012 8:26 pm

    Sobering. And yet, there ARE novels and series it takes more than a page to get into which survive to be classics. Or is that, now, to be a thing of the past. If true, I cannot celebrate the fact.

  5. July 4, 2012 2:41 pm

    I just plotted user rating vs. word count for 4300 fan-fiction stories. (I used only stories from authors with more than one story on that site, to try to avoid the bias that many authors write only one story, which is usually short and bad.) The graph shows that the “donut hole” where stories are noticeably worse is 1000 – 9000 words.

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