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Cher-y-lynne {sher-uhl-lin} –noun 1. One who formerly sold and recommended children’s books at a bookstore; a specialist in young adult, middle grade, and picture books. 2. A para-educator at a middle school. 3. A struggling young adult writer. 4. A lover of chocolate and popcorn. Archaic: An Audiology and Speech Language Pathology major at Brigham Young University. Questions? Suggestions? Books you'd like me to review? E-mail me at cherylynne1 (at) gmail (dot) com.
This is a blog for my ranting, raving, and occasionally brilliant opinions. You have been warned. Enter at your own risk.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Dreaded First Page

Let's discuss the bane of every writer’s existence: Your first page.

1. Plant your hook: While in a bookstore or library, chances are that the reader is going to give your novel the one-page test. If you don’t grab them in the first page, you’re done. Maybe your manuscript gets incredible on page 37, but if they don’t read page one, they’ll never get there. You MUST have something that makes your reader say, “Why?” or “How?” or, if you can do it very very well, “What?!” (The “What?!” approach is what made me read The Book Thief. The first page was pretty, but made no sense. I had to read more. I don’t recommend this for most authors, but like I said, if you can do it well…)

2. Set the genre of your novel: You can hope that the publishing company gets it right and gives you a title and cover that will clue any reader into what genre you’re in. But I don’t trust anyone when it comes to that kind of information, and since I have little to no control over titles or covers, I want to make sure my readers are not duped on the first page. If it’s a romance, bring in something romantic. If it’s science fiction, make sure we see something scientific-y. If it’s fantasy, we need to see some hint of magic. Think this isn’t important? Think back to all the novels you started but didn’t finish. Why? Usually it’s because the first page made you expect something that was not delivered in the novel itself. Don’t become the book that gets returned to the library before the reader hits page 50.

3. Don’t start with a dream: One of the most commonly broken rules. But let me tell you why. It has to do with Rule #2. Many times, these are designed to fool your reader. You start with an intense nightmare, tons of action, lightning-fast pacing…then the reader is dumped into a quiet book about a lonely girl in the Midwest who likes to pick dandelions. There’s a ditched book waiting to happen. And it’s a problem in two ways: first, the readers that pick it up will never finish it, and therefore never recommend it to friends, because they want what the book promised. Second, the readers that would like a quiet book about a Midwestern flower picking girl will never pick it up, because they’ll see a first page that looks like it dropped out of a James Bond movie. When you fool your reader on the first page, no one wins.

4. Don’t start with a flashback: This has to do with the fact that kids like to read “up.” They almost always prefer a book with a main character who is just a few years older than themselves. So if they open your novel and find it’s about a four-year-old, there’s a good chance they’ll just toss it. Tell us who your character is now, not who they were then. Now, is there ample opportunity to show us their life history later on? Absolutely. But leave it off the first page.

5. Ditch the prologue: I know. We can all name at least twelve books off the top of our heads with prologues. But there are very few prologues that are necessary, and even fewer that are done well. Prologues have many problems. For one, many prologues are just a lazy way to info dump, to tell us in long, dragging soliloquies about the world so that they don’t have to find more creative ways to actually work it into the manuscript. Or it’s a sneaky way to work in a flashback at the beginning, which is against Rule #4. Or it’s a way to fit in what is essentially a short story that happened in your world centuries ago, and has little to nothing to do with your character…but it’s fast paced and exciting, and it will keep your reader reading in order to find where that story ties in. My advice? Save the short story for your website. Don’t fool your reader into thinking that the characters in the prologue are main characters in your story. And don’t hide important information in the prologue, because studies have shown that most teens will just skip it anyway.

6. Introduce characters slowly and clearly, and keep your pronouns straight: You know your characters backwards and forwards, and you know that Riley is a girl who happens to be a tomboy. But your reader doesn’t. Be particularly careful if you have gender-ambiguous names, or characters that are doing activities not necessarily associated with their gender. I’m not saying that readers are sexist, but when we don’t have strong reason to believe otherwise, we will always fall back on stereotypes. And if you throw in more than three characters on the first page, I can almost guarantee that your reader will get lost. First pages are not normally read carefully. I always speed through the first page, because I want to know where the novel is going. And if your reader is not going to be careful, you have to be. Make it very clear who is who, and your reader will soon fall as in love with them as you are.

7. Avoid driving, sleeping, watching TV, or eating: This is a pretty easy one to fix. These are all passive activities. And in case you didn’t know, passive=boring. These activities are pretty boring when you do them in real life, and they’re definitely boring to read about. Now, at some point, your character will probably have a need to do some, if not all, of these things. That’s fine. But keep it off the first page. And when you take them out of the car or off the couch, you’ll be amazed at how interesting your character suddenly becomes.

Above all, have fun! The worst first page you could possibly have is a blank one. As long as you write something, anything, you’re on your way to an incredible story.

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  1. Great tips!

    Going from a fast-paced dream to picking dandelions? Too funny!

    When I first wrote, I made all of the rookie mistakes. My first novel started with waking up. I was told this was bad, so I changed it to a dream. How my second one didn't start with either is just a coincidence, but that had other problems.

  2. What great advice! I am currently hosting a contest for this very thing. First pages are so important.

    On beginning novels with dreams, you should stop by my blog and comment on 1 of the submissions that started with a daydream. it was really short, but I still didn't like it while others did. I would love your opinion on it.