Monday, December 13, 2010

What makes a great first page?

I was casting about on Twitter for ideas on what to blog about, and author/illustrator Katie Davis asked the question, "What makes a great first page?"

This reminded me of the wonderful post "Great First Lines" over at PW's ShelfTalker last week. One of the first lines quoted was from the book Quest for a Maid which, coincidentally, my assistant had recently quoted to me: “When I was nine years old, I hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.” Isn't that great? I hadn't remembered I had actually read Quest for a Maid until I saw the book cover and read the summary online.

Another favorite is the first line from Charlotte's Web: "Where's Papa going with that ax?"

So what makes a great first page? When I go to writer's conferences, I'll often do a first page critique. The format of the critique isn't always the same, but for the most part it consists of a fresh reading/hearing. Someone (sometimes me) will read the first page of a book out loud, and then I'll let attendees know if, had the book been submitted to me, I would read more based on that first page.

In general, what makes me read beyond the first page is what makes me read beyond that first sentence. (Although, in all honesty, I'll always read past the first page. I try to give a novel at least 30 pages. However, this doesn't meant that I don't make up my mind on the first page...more on that later.)

The first page has to:

-be compelling: duh. I have to be compelled to turn the page. Generally, it's great to have the first page draw the reader directly into the action. Save exposition for Chapter 2 or later.

-give me an idea of what the book is going to be about: if I find a first page too confusing (without being intriguing enough), I tend to lose patience. Also, I want to know what kind of book this is from the first page: fantasy or science fiction? Historical fiction? Romance? Comedy? Drama? Sometimes whether I read more depends on whether or not I think there's a place for the book on both my list and my publisher's list. For example, if the voice and topic is exactly like a book we already publish, I'll read more just in case, but will find it easy to say no.

-be well-written: I can definitely gauge how talented a writer is based on the first page. In fact, because authors know the first page is so important, they tend to spend a lot of time revising that first page (if they're smart!). So if I don't think the writing is all that good on the first page, I don't have high hopes for the rest of the book. However, if I personally find the first page to be sloppy or scattered or whatever, but it has at least one gem of a line, one flash of brilliance that gives me hope, I'll still give it a chance and keep an open mind.

-have a strong voice: I need to get a sense of the voice right away. If the voice doesn't grab me, it's probably a no go. 

-be relatively free of typos: one or two are maybe forgivable, depending on what kind they are (although if there continues to be one or more per page, I'd have to stop), but more is just plain sloppy and unprofessional, particularly on the first page. Others would say even one typo would make them give up, but I try to be somewhat forgiving, because goodness knows I've had my share of typos on this blog!

As I outlined in my "How I Read Submissions" post from a while back, sometimes I read looking for a reason to say no, something I read looking for a reason to say yes. I think a lot of that depends on the first page. If I see something that raises a red flag on the first page, I'll keep reading but will basically read to find more reasons to say no. To recap that post, some of the reasons to say no:

-not well written
-too slight
-too quiet
-forced rhyme, off rhythm (for picture books, mainly)
-too similar to something already on our list
-too similar to too many books already in the market
-forced/inauthentic dialogue
-too didactic
-slow pacing
-too niche in appeal
If I find a lot of the above in the first page, then I'll likely not need to read more.

However, if I read the first page and absolutely love it, I'll keep reading hoping that I can say yes to it.

One of my favorite first pages from this year is from an adult book called Room by Emma Donoghue. Here's the first paragraph:

Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. "Was I minus numbers?"
This first paragraph gives me a strong sense of a distinct voice. It also hints to something unusual, with the capitalized words, and the narrator going to sleep in a wardrobe. It also gives me a hint to the narrator's intellect and curious mind. This made me want to keep reading.

So, what makes you read on after the first page? Do you have any personal favorite first pages from the past year? 


Also, check out the comments of this Read Roger post for some interesting discussion about writing for the market (and BTW, congrats to Grace for Ling & Ting making the Horn Book fanfare list! I think that makes five end-of-year "Best of" lists for Ling & Ting. Hurray!). The first commenter states:  "A friend told me that she's written books that are 'good but unpublishable' because, she's been told, they aren't 'strong enough for the current market place.'"

Just FYI, in editor speak, "good but unpublishable" means "not good enough",  regardless of marketability.


::Sylvia:: said...

Thanks for the tips Alvina! Great reminders before the SCBWI Miami conference coming up in January!

Libby Koponen said...

This was fascinating....I have a slightly different take. If the first page feels forced to me, I stop reading. Sometimes I stop after the first line or first paragraph, because the author is so obviously trying to find something startling/sensational/be different.

With all the examples I quoted in my post on great first lines, I was immediately drawn into a world: with one sentence! The beginning felt almost inevitable it was so natural.... I knew what the world felt like and even had a sense of what it's boundaries would the authors did it, I don't know: voice? an intriguing story set in a distinct world?

I'm attracted to good writing, characters who feel real, an intriguing situation--and repelled by anything that feels sensationalistic (is that a word?), forced, trying too hard -- CONTRIVED.

First line of TRUE GRIT, by Charles Portis said...

"People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day."

Sheila said...

I agree with Libby. Sometimes a first sentence can be great, but the rest of the book is overwritten or "contrived," in my opinion. I won't give examples because I don't have the books in front of me, and some respected reviewers love these books. While I feel I appreciate good writing and can identify it, obviously, individual taste plays a major part. I love quiet novels with well drawn characters. Here are a few beginings that kept me reading. "My sister, Lynn, taught me my first word: kira kira." (KIRA KIRA); "She wished something would happen." (CRISS CROSS); "Blaze Werla buried Ortman before breakfast." (WORDS OF STONE); "Angela's great-grandmother stares at her with faded, puzzled eyes that make the girl long for home." (JERRICO)

Each of these first sentences introduces the main character in a way that's low-key yet compelling.

Thanks for an interesting topic!

Nikki Shannon Smith said...

This is informative, Alvina. Thanks! Your focus on a great first line or "gem" of a line somewhere on that first page is interesting.

I also think Libby and Sheila make a good point about the beginning not being contrived. There's a fine line between intriguing and contrived. I hope I manage to be on the right side of that line!

I love the first line that Sheila posted from Words of Stone. Makes me wonder to myself. I also love the first page/line of WRINGER.

Interesting conversation! Thanks again!