I love Chuck Wendig. Well, not really. Rather, I love what he has to say. If you don’t follow his blog, terribleminds, you should. [In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that he uses quite a few…er… “colorful” words in his posts. I’m just warning you…]
Recently, Chuck wrote a post about some common mistakes writers make. He had been at the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference in Colorado and was asked to do blind critiques of the first page of several writers’ WIPs. He noticed five “themes” in what he read…the result was this amazing blog post. I suddenly saw with crystal clarity that I was doing the exact damn things in my own writing. The points Chuck makes are all things we know or have been told repeatedly. Lord knows I have, but suddenly it all made sense. Maybe it’s his liberal use of swear words or his plucky way of writing. In any case, I had an instant revelation of how my story had to change.
This is particularly relevant given the recent “No thank you’s” I received from and editor (and agent — I got her email last week). As you’ll recall, the editor said I needed to work on saying exactly what I meant to say. The agent, while complimenting me on my writing (twice!), said that what I wrote didn’t excite her.
After reading Chuck’s blog post, I now know what I’m doing wrong. Here are his five main points:
- The First Page is Vital
- You’re Totally Overwriting
- Character Above All Else
- Make Something Happen
- Get the F#@* Out of the Way of Your Story
For the next five weeks, I’m going to tackle each one of his points and apply it to my own WIP with examples (talk about throwing it out there!).
So, Number 1: The First Page is Vital.
We hear over and over again that the story starts when the action starts — when the status quo changes. The first page has to draw the reader in, give them something interesting to chew on that they don’t want to spit out. As Chuck says, “That first page is the start of the fulfillment of promise of your premise.”
For Susannah, the status quo changes — and the promise to the reader begins — when her uncle says “You’re getting married.”
So how does my WIP stack up? Rather than jumping right into the story, my book starts with some verbose mumbo-jumbo about how Susannah’s father’s study has been converted into a taxidermy showcase. The excerpt below is literally the first page of my book:
The falcon’s talons reached out, ready to grab Susannah, and she gasped. The stuffed bird of prey was the first thing she saw when she stepped through the door of her father’s old study. Surprised to see it there, she glanced about the room, tears springing to her eyes. No, not this room, too, she thought. An immense pressure in her chest threatened her next breath as she took in the changes. What had once been a refuge filled with shelves of leather-bound books had been transformed into something from a Gothic horror story. Every book was gone, the bookcases had been taken down, and the walls, once light and airy, were now papered in dark green damask, covered by a grotesque display of stuffed birds and animal heads. The animals looked vicious, their teeth bared and eyes narrowed, and the birds were no better, with wings extended and talons out as if ready to pluck prey.
Exciting huh? It may be nice prose, but does it draw you in? (Answer: perhaps not.) What does it tell you about Susannah? (Answer: she doesn’t like the changes to the room, but is that relevant to her status quo changing? Um, no.) About the trouble to come? (Answer: nothing.). My analysis? That stuff shouldn’t be there.
Start the story where the action starts.
Here’s my (rough) revision:
Susannah stood in what used to be her father’s study, her heart racing. Gone were the intricately carved bookcases and her father’s beloved book collection. In its place was an assortment of stuffed animals, fierce-looking creatures with teeth bared and claws out. However, it wasn’t the changes to the study that made her heart race. It was the long, white gown on the dressmaker’s dummy in the middle of the room.
Susannah stared at the dress, offering up silent prayers that it was for a ball, then turned to her uncle and guardian, Jackson Humphries.
“What is this? A welcome-home gift?” She laughed nervously.
“Of sorts.” He smiled, but his gray eyes glinted steel. “You’ll wear it three weeks hence.”
The blood drained from Susannah’s face and she had to grab onto the back of a nearby chair for support. White dress. Three weeks. Oh my Lord, he’s marrying me off.
Okay, it’s a first draft (written expressly for this blog post) and hardly perfect, but doesn’t that have more punch than wasting lots of words on the fact that her father’s study has been torn apart? That’s not to say I don’t use that somewhere else, but I shouldn’t be doing that on the first page.
- Start your story where the action starts.
- Give the readers something GOOD to read.
- Draw them in; make them want to turn the page.
What else do you think that first page should do?