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Thursday, June 21, 2012

The first page by Terry Burns


The purpose of the first page is simple – to get the reader to turn the page and move on down in the book. It has to be about the story, of course, but it is even more about hooking the reader into the book and selling the book.

In my own writing the first page is not the first thing I write but the last thing. I consider my first couple of chapters as temporary, they may or may not go into the book or if they do will probably need to be rewritten after I am really familiar with the story and the characters. Then when I am through and happy with it I go back and say “Okay, now how do I get them off this page?”

Readers don’t really care about the weather or the setting until they have decided they are going to read, then we can set the scene for them. What do I like to see on a first page? An action initiated that is not completed, curiosity aroused and not satisfied, a question posed and not answered, anything that begins on the page but is not completed until the next page.

While an agent or editor may not reject a book on the basis of just a first page, most of them want the page to be compelling. They know a majority of readers standing at a book rack pull a book down and read the back cover copy and the first page. The object is to get them to turn that page and read a little further into the book, because that’s when they will carry it up to the checkout stand. And that’s why first pages are so important.

13 comments:

Timothy Fish said...

One of my favorite Edgar Allen Poe stories is The Fall of the House of Usher. You may recall that it begins, “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” Obviously, Poe didn’t agree that readers don’t care about weather and setting until they’ve decided to read more.

I’m a very visually oriented person. If a writer doesn’t set the scene for me quickly, he’s lost me. It isn’t enough for me to know that two people are talking; I want to know what is going on around them.

jill said...

I want to meet a character I think I'm going to like and start getting clues as to what's different about that person. I'm highly character driven. If I think the person is going to be boring ors someone I can't relate to, I won't read on.

Amy Sullivan said...

Good kick in the butt to make our first pages count. Thanks, Terry.

Rick Barry said...

I like your blunt assessment that the first couple chapters are temporary. Although I enjoyed the first two chapters of my current project, the reality was that they were too slow for a suspense novel. I totally scrapped chapter 2, proceeded to cut the first six pages of chapter 1, then condensed and rewrote that first chapter several times before I got it to glisten.

I think cutting and polishing is essential for both sculptors and writers. :)

sally apokedak said...

I don't purposely look at my first chapter as temporary, but I have rewritten every first chapter after I've finished every book. Because when I know how the story ends, I know what questions I need to raise in the first chapter. I think it's great advice for us to not sweat over that first chapter too much, knowing it will change. I've known people who write the first three chapters over and over and can't ever move on.

Timothy, I love that opening. But it's not just weather. It's mood, and it's character. I'm with you, though: I like the scene to be set. I like to find myself in a real world. That's the first thing that draws me into a story.

Terry Burns said...

Ah Tim, I can always count on you to look at every post differently. And yes, that scene is a classic. The problem is that most classics are literary fiction and literary fiction you have all the time in the world to set the scene, to get verbose and flowery, because literary readers have different expectations. Back in the days of the classics there was no competition with a book someone brought home, no TV, no movies to go to, they brought it home to READ and were willing to devote whatever time was necessary for the plot to develop at whatever pace it developed. Today's genre readers do not feel that way, they want to be pulled into the story immediately or they pick up the next book and sample it. The sad truth is that if the classics were submitted to today's editors they would probably be rejected. You may disagree with what I have in my post or may not like it, but the truth is that most agents and editors will look on a first page very much like this.

Timothy Fish said...

Sally, you’re right, it isn’t just weather. That’s the cool thing about weather. The weather of a scene drives the mood.

Andy Scheer said...

I look at an opening page expecting it to represent a writer's very best, most enticing work. If it falls seriously short ...

Diana said...

You are right Terry. There is such a tiny market these days for Literary pieces. We now live in a world of sound bites and flash fiction.
I loved what you shared with us Timothy. Beautiful.
But if an author wants their book to be read, they need to write to the market to a large degree without sacrificing their voice.
I rented the now old movie classic, Stepford Wives, to watch with my son. We then planned to go to movie theater to see the new one together. On the way to pick up the video, I built up the film, telling him how trilling it was. We settled in to watch it and about 1/2 way through, I turned it off. It moved so slow I became bored with it. In a few short years my preference for a slow building plot had changed. Times have changed and writing has to with it.

Timothy Fish said...

Terry and Diana, I agree with that and I’m no proponent of trying to write in the style of the classics. The sad truth is that some of those writers were getting paid by the word and they wrote like it. If anything, I’m one of the worst for wanting authors to get to the action quickly. But I see that as all the more reason to use weather. Weather allows us to set the scene with very few words and move on to what the characters are doing in that weather very quickly.

Terry Burns said...

Very sound point, Tim, but does it over-ride the fact that most editors and agents are saying not to do it? It adds interest to a blog when you take a counter point to everything that is said - as long as some less experienced writers don't take it to heart and get a submission rejected that maybe should not have been turned down.

Timothy Fish said...

Terry, I appreciate the compliment, but I find it highly unlikely. I doubt any author, even inexperienced ones, would put significant weight on what I say on your blog.

sally apokedak said...

I can relate to the STEPFORD WIVES example. I was going to read my children THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, because it was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. Oh, my. We got through only two chapters. I couldn't get over all the description. So sad. I loved that book. I'm afraid I the Internet has given me a short attention span.