If you’re like me, before committing to a book, you’ll open it and read the first page in a store, or download the free excerpt of an ebook, before buying it. That’s also what an agent or publisher does with your manuscript. Needless to say, there’s massive pressure on your first few pages because their job is to hook your reader (be that agent, publisher or eventual everyday reader) and convince them to commit to reading the rest of your story. A reader will not “wait for it to get good. You must wow them now, immediately and right away.
In romance terms, those first five pages must seduce the reader into a relationship. Instantly, with no foreplay!
On that topic, I thought I’d ask Robb what usually captures his attention as a reader and makes him want to keep reading. Robb?
- Every reader is different, but there are a few key points you want your opening to accomplish to grab attention from the first sentence.
- For some readers, it’s the story hook: between the front cover, the blurb on the back, and the first pages, first paragraph, first sentence, does the writer catch your attention with “What is going to happen with this set of circumstances?” Does the writer know exactly where and how to start the story?
- For others, it’s the character that grabs the attention right off the mark. Is this an interesting, compelling character? What’s going to happen to her?
- Then there’s that almost indefinable, and perhaps unteachable, quality: voice. Does the voice of the opening pages pull the reader in? This may be the most difficult but most important aspect of the opening. This is what I need in a book before I buy. I can’t even say I look for it. It’s either there or it’s not.
- Writers who can make all that happen right from the start show the reader they are in command of their art and craft, and have created something worth continuing the journey.
- A brilliant first sentence will lead to the second sentence and the third, so a writer can craft an excellent first sentence and still lose the reader in the first few pages. But if you grab and hold their attention for the first five pages, and you’ve hooked them into the character and story question, you’re off to a great start.
Thanks, Robb. I agree with all of that. It’s prompted me to share a story of how the first page of a book once seduce me.
Let me first clarify that I’m a busy woman (two kids, two jobs, one husband, writing, the occasional yoga class to mitigate all the writing-related sitting) and I have limited reading time. So when I invest my time in a book, I want to know I’m settling in for the kind of read I like—crime, chic-lit or romance (in that order!) I do not do genres like fantasy, horror or sci-fi. I just don’t like them and I’m not prepared to waste my precious reading time on them.
Or so I thought.
Several years ago, I was at a writing workshop where the presenter used the first page of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes as an example (of what I don’t recall). This book, as some of you may know, is a time-travelling, fantasy, and horror, genre mash-up. Not my thing at all. Yet that first page grabbed me. The voice, the atmosphere, the character and the hook all seduced me in one tiny page and I had to go and buy the damned thing. It is now one of my all-time favourite novels and I’ve read everything that the brilliant, freaky Lauren Beukes has written. I also pester her regularly on Facebook for more. That’s the power of a fantastic first page, people!
So when Robb and I sat down to write this course, we asked ourselves what do our favourite books accomplish in those first few pages, and how can we teach other writers to replicate that? We think we’ve answered this question because it really all comes down to a few fundamental craft basics, followed up by —you guessed it— editing.
We can’t wait to share our lesson and critiquing with you so that one day, your manuscript may also seduce that reluctant reader who has sworn off ever reading the type of story that you write.
Samantha and Rob will be teaching Focus on the First Five starting on August 28th.
Samantha Bond is a reformed corporate lawyer, now writer and public servant. Her creative work has been published in numerous national literary journals, anthologies and magazines. She has an Advanced Diploma of Professional Writing, winning the award for Highest Overall Achievement for her graduating class of 2014 and now teaches and mentors in that course.
Samantha loves books containing heartbreaking and humorous characters, a plot that keeps her guessing right ’til the end and a bit of sexy romance is great too. She leans toward the crime genre and tries to provide all these ingredients in her own fiction.
I’ve worked with the written word in one form or another since the high school student newspaper. Along with a career in journalism as an editor and newspaper executive, I’ve also spent years writing, studying, and learning the art and craft of fiction. For the past few years, I’ve edited fiction and non-fiction manuscripts for published, agented, and emerging writers.
I have published two novels through Evolved Publishing. Hannah’s Voice is available through Amazon for print and e-book, and through Barnes & Noble in print. Carry Me Away is also available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The newspaper biz has taken my family and me from Phoenix, Arizona, to small towns in North Carolina and Texas, and from seven years in Washington, D.C., to five years in Asia. Born and raised a small-town kid, I’m as comfortable in Tokyo or Tuna, Texas. I now reside in a small community in Wisconsin where I manage the business operations of a daily newspaper. The variety of places I’ve lived and visited serve as settings for the characters who invade my head.
I enjoy helping writers almost as much as I enjoy writing. It’s a thrill when authors I’ve worked with land an agent or a publishing contract. It’s exciting to watch a developing writer grow and mature, to see a writer resolve a plot issue, round out his characters, or find her voice, and to have played a small role in that growth.