Justine: Five Weeks Analyzing Common Mistakes. Week 1: The First Page

justine covington, first page, writing, romance, novelI 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:

  1. The First Page is Vital
  2. You’re Totally Overwriting
  3. Character Above All Else
  4. Make Something Happen
  5. 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.

To recap:

  • 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?

22 thoughts on “Justine: Five Weeks Analyzing Common Mistakes. Week 1: The First Page

  1. Oh, my, talk about killing your darlings! I like the first version, too. I wonder if there’s some way to combine the two paragraphs — I think it could be a real one-two punch. Horror placed upon horror. Although, this is a bit gothic, and I’m not sure if the rest of your book is more gothic in tone, or more like a caper.

    I think both versions do basically strip Susannah of her girlhood. One steals her childhood retreat, and the other pushes her into womanhood and marriage.

    Gosh, Justine, I like both! LOL, what can I say?

    • Yeah, I butchered my darlings. I have already figured out where I can use the stuff I cut, should I decide to, but while I’m sad to see those words go, I do think the book starts off with a bit more of a bang.

  2. I’m a bit untraditional in the sense that I actually like a mellow and slow-paced first page, or even chapter. At least if it provides me with insight and that the main character comes to life for me. I often feel that I connect better with a character when I meet him or her in a very normal setting, and get to understand how think and feel when there’s no drama or action. I’m not a big fan of the Bang! Off we go-start myself, but I know I’m the exception to the rule and if we hope to be published one day we have to give the readers what they want, to some extent. So I agree with the Michaeline here…I would also prefer a combination of the two.

    • Oh, forgot to say: Thank you for that blog recommendation! I’ve been skimming through terribleminds, and it’s awesome!

      I think I’m one of those people that my friends feel it’s necessary to protect their children’s minds and hearing from (keeping us in separate rooms while I’m visiting, and/or stuffing kids’ ears with cotton wool, or let them listen to the iPod as loud as they want, that kind of stuff), so I had no problems with the language.

      • I think terribleminds is just genius! I only put the warning out there because he has it on the first page of his site (I think it says NSFW or something). Glad I’m not prudish because I’d be missing out on a lot of great stuff.

    • I think there’s a place to introduce the reader to the main character, but there still needs to be stuff happening.

      What I wrote as a revision was really just for this blog. I may have a hybrid of the two by the time I send this out again. I just have to keep in mind that the story has to move. Forward. haha!

    • There’s a writing theory that (as far as I can tell) essentially contradicts the notion that you should start in media res—in the middle of the action—and that is, establish the old world first. Like you, Cay, I like that style too. (I think it’s from Blake Synder; he’s a screenwriter, so maybe film scripts are better developed that way.)

  3. Yes, yes, yes, holy crap a hundred times over, YES! I vote for the new version. It’s so much stronger visually and cuts to the heart of the matter. It still sets the time and place in a vivid way but you instantly show the conflict rather than tell it (as the original did).

    I can’t wait to see what Susannah does to counter her uncle’s first move.

    I can’t wait to see next week’s post!


    Did I mention I LOVE it!!

    • I knew you’d like this! I’m using your suggestion re: the dress, after all! I think I need to do a wee bit more to set the time and place (when I re-read it last night, I actually tripped up on “stuffed animals” thinking like something you’d cuddle at night), but there’s also a lot fewer words in my revision, so more room for another thing or two on the first page.

  4. There are two ways of approaching writing. One: write down everything as it comes to you and then go back and trim out all the fluff. Two: write down the bare bones and then go back and add in enough description, internal monologue, etc. to ground the reader and let her connect to the characters. I tend toward the second, but you seems to go more for the first. And, of course, every reader has a different bar for what they consider too much exposition.

    (I like your revision and think it’s stronger than the first, but my writing is pretty spare. And I do like the taxidermy stuff, because it’s such a nice metaphor for the times Susannah lives in.)

    • Believe it or not, I write like you do, Jeanne. I am very bare-bones the first couple times around, then start to layer in detail (which, as you’ll see in a subsequent post, can be trouble). My first few scenes have been massaged a LOT because I submitted them for contests, but the rest of the book is a little Spartan.

      Thanks re: the rewrite. I like the taxidermy stuff, too, because it says a lot about her uncle, so I’ll probably use it somewhere else (or use it as little filler bits somewhere else).

        • I thought about doing that when Susannah finds Nate snooping. I’ll have to see how the rest of the first scene plays out now that I’ve pared down the first bit.

  5. I definitely like the new version. It’s more engaging. Great job on it!

    I agree with Cay in that I don’t really like reading a book that starts with action. I know it’s what we are told by agents and such but, as a reader, I actually look forward to the first chapter being light and playful. Funny even. I see the first chapter as a way to get to know the main character and the basis for the story. When I’m thrust right into the action it’s exciting but I feel less connected to the story.

    • I don’t know if I have an opinion re: starting with action or not. I know I don’t like to be confused, though, so too little information/too much action might not work, either. It’s a delicate balance, which is what Chuck said at the end of his post. There’s a lot of stuff you’re trying to do on that first page and it’s daunting.

  6. Too true all.

    I am on the savvyauthors site as well and they just did first 30-pg critiques with group (for first 10 pages, and then down to a partner for the next 20-page). It is always so much easier to see and help others than yourself sometimes. I’d never had a chance to have a critique partner or group before – so I found it very interesting and refreshing. It gave me clearer vision and fresh eyes as well. Everyone suffered from most of those sins. My biggest complaint to most was that after 10 pages most of them hadn’t done anything action-y and I kept waiting for something to begin. Let alone getting it done on the first page. Of the six first 10-pg critiques I did, I only really wanted to read more of 1 of them. A couple were very tough to get through, because you couldn’t get into them. Too much meandering description and a lot of BS (back story). Most authors say no BS in the first 2-3 chapters – let alone the first page. Get into the story, show the character in action, people will wait for more info.

    Another great blog you might want to look at – because you get to see real author + critiques of real people’s first pages (plus honestly it’s just an awesome blog) is the Kill Zone at http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/
    Search for first page or first page critiques and you’ll get a whole pile of them from 8-12 different authors, who critique anonymously submitted first pages. Some of them had even submitted their own first pages at different times for critique and comment. They used to do them for a month once a year, I think they do them once a week now.

    Kill zone talks about craft, publishing, etc… all pure awesome.

    FYI – James Scott Bell critiqued a first page of mine. I’ve gotten back to this WIP and am finishing and revising now. It is http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2012/04/limit-exposition-in-your-opening-pages.html#.U2jWbld7Ruk

    • I’ll have to check those sites out. I agree that it’s often easier to see the problems in someone else’s work, rather than your own. I’d be interested to see the first page submissions on savvyauthors (and Kill Zone — that sounds cool!) to see if I can learn something just by reading other people’s critiques.

  7. Unfortunately the school teaching the second style method is why lately the majority of genre books read like cheap summer blockbuster view. It is typically American and I find it by now barely readable in its staleness, endless similarity and treatment of fiction as if it were screentime (of action movies mainly).

    I’d prefer a well-edited first version, and I tend to give a book not one page to convince me, I give it somewhere between 5 and 10. If a book starts like some action movie it has less than those to convince me to keep reading. And the author had better not use any stereotypical language to warn me I may expect more of the same. Oh, and I really prefer less dialogue than what lately has become the rule, especially in romance.

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