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The Dreaded First Page
Lucy Silag - Book Country Community Manager
Posted: Tuesday, January 6, 2015 10:54 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359


In the first post of Biographile's "Write Start" series this month, thriller writer Brad Taylor shares thoughts on how to approach "the dreaded first page." I liked his point:

 

In the first couple of paragraphs, the reader isn’t asking questions about the characters or plot. He or she’s asking one simple thing:

“Why should I keep reading?”

 

 

 How are you getting your readers to keep reading?


RCGravelle
Posted: Thursday, January 8, 2015 9:36 PM
Joined: 6/25/2013
Posts: 55


This one is making my head spin. I think this is a frightening mess these days. There's something a little Machiavellian about the importance given to The First Sentence, and it seems the blogger is almost saying hook the reader as a means to your end (the rest of the story), even if you don't develop that initial character or image. So much weight is placed on The First Sentence that I have to wonder 2 things: 1) How does some modern fiction get published, and 2) Would the revered writers essential to English department curricula get an agent, let alone a publisher, nowadays? For instance, consider this: "A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded..." (Need I go on?) That's The First Line of The Scarlet Letter, and it's full of "sins": excess description, no "hook," no enticement to keep reading, information dumping, clauses in clauses...Or this: "On February 24, 1815, the watchtower at Marseilles signaled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples." That is The First Line of The Count of Monte Cristo. Captivating? Engaging? Exciting? Hardly! 

I could pick on some revered modern writers, including one with a 195-word opening paragraph that commits the enormous sin of dumping a mountain of description and narrative, but I think I'd get in trouble, so I'll stick with public domain, which means of another time and, what has become obvious to me, more tolerant expectations/requirements/essentials.

I am struggling with my failures. If it wouldn't get me in trouble, my mischievous side would like to submit this to an agent: "It is with humility really unassumed--it is with a sentiment even of awe--that I pen the opening sentence of this work: for of all conceivable subjects I approach the reader with the most solemn..." In a parallel universe, if I really did write these words, they would be so-o-o-o rejected. But I didn't pen them; Edgar Allan Poe did. He wrote this amazing cosmological prose poem called Eureka. And rejecting the first line means you miss out on his uncanny theories about the universe, including his big bang theory that predated a scientific understanding of the big bang by decades. 

I'm going to write the first lines I want to. I'm done trying to figure out how to succeed. I'm just going to write. I may never fit into this literary era, but I'll leave behind my own creations, my way. Because for all these reasons, The First Sentence is nothing but a narrow passage between Scylla and Charybdis. And I'm not going to try to navigate it any more.

--edited by RCGravelle on 1/8/2015, 9:53 PM--


RCGravelle
Posted: Thursday, January 8, 2015 9:57 PM
Joined: 6/25/2013
Posts: 55


But on a more useful note, here's an idea: practice writing like a journalist. Write concise letters to the editor. Write a submission to the "Commentary" section of your local newspaper, or "My Voice" or whatever your paper calls it. Write short short stories. Express big ideas in a brief poem. The idea is to practice writing SHORT. When every word counts, we train ourselves to start with a bang and be conscious of every phrase, every sentence. (But I still think The First Sentence is too freighted an entity in the modern literary landscape.)
curtis bausse
Posted: Friday, January 9, 2015 6:20 AM
Joined: 11/13/2014
Posts: 37


Totally agree, Renee, very few older classics would be published these days - as has been demonstrated a few times by pranksters who've submitted them, having updated the style. Same goes for many established contemporary authors. But I'm optimistic (or naïve) enough to think it is indeed the first page (OK, paragraph) that counts, and if the initial sentences can intrigue enough, the battle is half won. But of course, that's a tall order these days - just wish I had the solution! Meanwhile, I go along with your conclusion - like you, I'm just going to write. Once you've got the bug, it's difficult to stop!
Charles J. Barone
Posted: Friday, January 9, 2015 12:56 PM
Joined: 7/18/2014
Posts: 120


I'll agree that many of the classics probably couldn't be published today. Others are eternal - Mark Twain for example. Several years ago I found a classic, a very old copy of The House of Seven Gables. I couldn't do more than two pages. I barely made it through the first page. 

 

I'll just repeat what I've posted elsewhere here, said decades ago by one of my favorite writers. With sales now over 250 million, I'd say he knew how to grab readers. 

 

 "The first page sells the book. The last page sells the next one."

--edited by Charles J. Barone on 1/9/2015, 12:57 PM--


RCGravelle
Posted: Friday, January 9, 2015 2:36 PM
Joined: 6/25/2013
Posts: 55


Sorry, Charles, but I can't attribute financial literary success to the first and last lines. There are two reasons (at least). One is that first and last lines don't explain the success of today's bestselling authors who, as I said in the original post, have HORRIBLE first lines. (True, I didn't address last lines.) Second: I think success, like people, events, and just about everything, is complex and multi-faceted. I think 50 Shades...is terrible. But it's successful, and from the enthusiasm of my female co-workers who bought it and fed the monster--it wasn't the beginning or ending they wanted. To a woman, they've gotten bored before the ending, actually, of the trilogy, if not the first book. There's so much that goes into success, in the arts as much as anything else. Where you live, who you are connected to, perseverance, life circumstances, ability to self-promote, occupational choices that lead to the right people, and yes, hard work and dogged determination and talent. Wendy Corsi Staub is from Dunkirk, NY, where I live. She had the good sense to leave here and get an editing job in NYC when she was young. I, from suburban Rochester, well--I did less success-possible things. And both our stories are way more complicated than those summaries. Are my first and last lines to blame for my failures? No, I think it's far more complicated than that. Maybe the biggest factor of all is saturation. There are so many of us trying to be the few. And while there are prescriptions galore for "good" writing, there's so much "successful" writing that falls outside those parameters. Why? I don't know. But I DO know it's complicated. And that if we are so impatient that we have to be instantly excited, then we've lost something precious that our forebears valued in their quest for a good story.
VietVetTx
Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2015 4:38 PM
Joined: 3/9/2014
Posts: 3


Lisa Cron authored a writing book titled "Wired for Story. This details the mental reaction from your prose. She delves into what stimulates the reader and motivates that person to become a fan. One brilliant aspect of this deals with what the topic of this thread is about.

 

There are three questions which need to be proffered and answered by your beginning.

 

Whose story is it?

What's happening here?

What's at stake?

 

Cron goes on to explain Stanley Fish, a literary theorist, published an article in the New York Times which addressed those three questions.

 

He was headed to board a plane for a trans-continental flight when he realized he had nothing to read. Darting over to the magazine stand with bare minutes left, he decided he would use the first sentence to be the arbiter of which book he bought. Not the cover. Not the back cover blurb. The first sentence.

 

The winner - Elizabeth George's "What Came Before He Shot Her."

 

"Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride."

 

As Cron continues:

 

Whose story is it? Joel Campbell

What's happening here? He is riding a bus, which somehow leads to a murder.

What's at stake? Joel's life, someone else's life and maybe more.

 

+++

 

Beyond this, I ask you one question.

 

Who is YOUR reader?

 

This is not a description of your reader. Nothing like five feet four, blue eyes, educated.

 

The premise here is what drives your reader to read the specific kinds of books you write? And do you write the kinds of books people will read?

 

Now to be fair, I must tell you I will insult some of you here with this theory. You see what this theory implies is writing is a small business. It has nothing to do with what you read, but what the reader of your work reads. What are the triggers in your prose that convert your reader from being a casual bystander to a fanatic about your  books. One who waits in the cold for your next epic to hit the stands. Or has some kind of alert when Amazon uploads you. The type of reader who tells her friends about your books, but will not lend them her's because, "This one is mine. Get your own."

 

 In this theory, story and plot are not the same. The story is the motivating factor behind the plot, which makes your MC who she is.

 

"Harry Potter" and "The Silence of the Lambs" are the same story. I'll allow that to stew for a moment as your brain either rejects me completely, or wants to know more.

 

The book of Silence and the film are remarkably the same. Harris was masterful at crafting his story, and it came out on the screen without much editorial adjustments by the producer/director or the writer.

 

Now think on the beginning. Clarice Starling is running the obstacle course. She is sweaty, running in a light rain. It is surely fall where she is - Quantico, Va - and she is training alone. Alone! Then a man tells her Crawford wants to see her. She wanders through the complex, passing PT - physical training - classes and instructional classes. She ends up in an elevator where she is standing in front of four or five men, all over 6 feet tall. They are clean cut, wearing clean clothes and she is dwarfed by them in her sweats.

 

She is alone, in a world mostly dominated by big men. Alone!

 

It isn't much longer that we find out Clarice Starling is an orphan. Fact is Hannibal Lecter is an orphan.  And as you have put together now, Harry Potter is an orphan.

 

And what is the inner motivation of orphans? To assimilate with family. Through magic Harry gets his family back at the end of the series. Hannibal and Clarice end up being a dysfunctional family, but they connect.

 

Your reader can be an orphan. Not in the sense they had no parents. But perhaps a relationship with parents that was strained. Or they didn't get the love they wanted from their parents, or parent. So the motivation of the reader is to connect with family in the deepest recesses of their subconscious.

 

Knowing this, do you fill that desire of the reader? Because there are many desires which drive us all, and all encompasses readers.

 

Now here is the insult. If you write stories that would please you, the kind you would read, you are missing the point of being a small business owner. Many times I have spouted this and had people tell me they write for themselves. I have no issue with that position. I am merely expounding on the terrain where we currently find ourselves.

 

But there is something the big time speculative fiction writers do, either deliberately or instinctively that connects with their readers. Because, if you look at S. King, J Patterson, J. Grisham, J. Evanovich, ad infinitum, ad nauseum, you will note they all write at about a sixth grade level.

 

What this means is they keep their prose simple and accessible. A sixth grader could read the book, but there is a good chance they would not understand some of the adult themes. 

 

The author who perhaps is the best at this time in servicing the desires of the reader is James Patterson. He worked on Madison Ave. as a Mad Man. He understands the 30 second commercial, and can fashion this type of writing to meet the requirements of his readers emotionally. But, to be sure, they all do this. Nicholas Sparks is masterful at this. And yet he isn't what you'd call a master story-teller.

 

Now drop the notion you are writing art and focus on the commercial aspects of writing. This theory puts a real twist in how you write. If you write for the reader, then you are most likely not writing something which is your métier. However, once you accept this idea and begin to fashion stories which reach the reader, they become your story too. That is the dichotomy of this thesis.

 

Romance has a footprint where the reader is looking to rejoin a lost love, or a love they never had. Notice there is usually a page where the man realizes he cannot live without her and will sacrifice everything to be with her. This is the money shot for the reader.

 

Mystery/crime fills a need for a reader whose requisite is to make logic out of chaos. It was Professor Plumb, in the Library, with the Cuisinart.

 

Oddly enough, the conventional detective story has little character arc, as does thrillers. Jack Reacher nor James Bond never changes who they are, or has an epiphany. Bond simply beds the next hot girl and has a martini, stirred not shaken. Reacher buys new clothes and disappears.

 

To sum up, before there is "Once upon a time" there should be some serious thought toward who is your reader.  If you are going to be so deliberate as to write the first sentence, first page, first chapter, or place a hook at the end of each chapter, then this is a logical step. It is a part of fashioning your book, your story.

 

If you are writing what pleases you, and think this is a load of manure, enjoy. People need hobbies.

 

I was inspired by the thread theme to share this. It may be gold, it may be crapola. You decide.

 

But regardless if it is one or the other, finish. Finish. Finish.  The End may be the two most important words in your opus.


Mimi Speike
Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2015 6:55 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


Excellent post, very insightful. But to write the book you need to write does not turn it into a hobby, a trivial pursuit. A pig-headed dream, I'll go along with that. I can live with that. And, I do.

 

--edited by Mimi Speike on 1/15/2015, 8:22 PM--


Lucy Silag - Book Country Director
Posted: Tuesday, June 2, 2015 11:03 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359


I like Renee's point about practicing writing like a journalist. I don't think I have ever written a letter to the editor (though I have plenty of opinions, so maybe I just might!). Don't forget that if you want to get a little experience writing for a blog, Janet and myself are always open to pitches for the Book Country blog!

 

And, of course, writing posts about your thoughts and ideas here on the discussion boards is always good practice for learning to write a good hook in a concise way. (Though--you do NOT have to be concise here! You can share ideas as casually as you like.)


Peter Carlyle
Posted: Friday, August 28, 2015 7:09 AM
Joined: 8/20/2015
Posts: 19


The trick is to know WHERE to start. 

 

 


Peter Carlyle
Posted: Friday, August 28, 2015 7:10 AM
Joined: 8/20/2015
Posts: 19


Lucy Silag - Book Country Community Manager wrote:

In the first post of Biographile's "Write Start" series this month, thriller writer Brad Taylor shares thoughts on how to approach "the dreaded first page." I liked his point:

 

In the first couple of paragraphs, the reader isn’t asking questions about the characters or plot. He or she’s asking one simple thing:

“Why should I keep reading?”

 

 

 How are you getting your readers to keep reading? 

Excellent point.


Excellent point.


Charles J. Barone
Posted: Friday, August 28, 2015 5:07 PM
Joined: 7/18/2014
Posts: 120


First two sentences of a novel. Yeah, it's old and dated.

 

"No dame is pretty with a gun in her hand. But at least this one was alive."

 

Are you a just a teensy bit curious what comes next? The same 'author' said he wasn't an author,  that he was a writer. Authors wrote books that sat on coffee tables and were never read.

--edited by Charles J. Barone on 8/28/2015, 5:07 PM--


Peter Carlyle
Posted: Monday, August 31, 2015 9:17 AM
Joined: 8/20/2015
Posts: 19


Charles J. Barone wrote:

First two sentences of a novel. Yeah, it's old and dated.

 

"No dame is pretty with a gun in her hand. But at least this one was alive."

 

Are you a just a teensy bit curious what comes next? The same 'author' said he wasn't an author,  that he was a writer. Authors wrote books that sat on coffee tables and were never read.

--edited by Charles J. Barone on 8/28/2015, 5:07 PM--


Yes, definitely a compelling start, Charles.
 

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