Mini Conference: Five Days To A Fab First Page
Five Days To A Fab First Page
March 23-27, 2020
The first page can mean everything. As you know from browsing in bookstores, it can be the difference for any reader–but is a HUGE difference when that reader is an agent, editor, or other publishing professional pressed for time.
Enter Five Days to a Fab First Page–The Manuscript Academy’s newest mini conference. Join us for daily classes, inspiration, community + a live first pages panel.
Starting March 23, you’ll receive a video class–with written notes–every day in your inbox and on this page. You’ll watch them, discuss the lessons on our private forum, partner to critique your pages–and get your pages ready. We’ll be there to help you every step of the way.
After you go through our five-day process, we’ll send you a checklist and you can give your first page a final polish before sending that page back to us for our live Manuscript Academy First Page Expert Panel (pages will be picked at random, and we’ll get through as many as possible). The first pages panel will air LIVE, Friday, March 27, 8pm EDT–but you can watch the live recording at your convenience. You’ll have thirty days to rewatch, rewind, and take notes.
I’ve got a tic: as soon as I finish a book, I go directly back to page one to reread the first. I do that because I’m always interested in the craftmanship of what that first page represents for the entire work of art.
And the trick here is that you are not telling the promise. You are showing it.
If we go back that examples of the first line and think about E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. The chapter title is called, “Before Breakfast.” So just like that you know who these people are, you know that Mr. Arable is going to kill the pig from the opening line, but for me it’s the statement. “It’s small and weak, and it’ll never add up to anything.” Boom! There is it. Wilber can only go up from there.
Now, let’s look at something nonfiction. This is just as tricky to maneuver because you are dealing with facts. But a really nice example is Unbroken: A World II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. The first page sets us up, 1927, with the main character Louis Zamperini laying in bed as the German Graf Zeppelin buzzes his house in Califonia, a pivotal moment… the year and the action cue us to the amazing life that he goes on to live: as both an athlete and a prisoner of war during WWII.
A really nice example of this from Jessica Knoll’s novel Luckiest Girl Alive and from the very first page I was taken by the main character Ani FaNelli’s obsession with violence, pared with clear body issues, immediate relationship difficulties, and her obvious raw intelligence. Now this is the trick… I made all of those assessments within half a page, and by the time I finished the book the promise of those feelings that I got from reading the first page more than met my expectations.
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
Simon & Schuster (2015)
I inspected the knife in my hand.
“That’s the Shun. Feel how light it is compared to the Wusthof?
I pricked a finger on the blade’s witchy chin, testing. The handle was supposed to be moisture resistant, but it was quickly going humid on my grip.
“I think that design is better suited for someone of your stature.” I looked up at the sales associate, bracing for the word people always used to describe short hungry girls hungry to hear “thin.” “Petite.” He smiled like I should be flattered. Slender, elegant, graceful–now there’s a compliment that might actually defang me.
Another hand, the skin several shades lighter than my own, appeared in the frame and made a grab for the handle. “Can I feel?” I looked up at him too: my fiance.
That word didn’t bother me so much as the one that came after it. Husband. That Word laced the corset tighter, crushing organs, sending panic up into my throat with the bright beat of a distress signal. I could decide not to let go. Slip the forged nickel and stainless steel blade (the Shun, decided I liked it better) soundlessly into his stomach. The salesman would probably emit a simple dignified “Oh!” It was the mother carrying her crusty-nosed baby behind him who was the screamer.
Ummm… are you wondering where this thing is going? I’ll tell you it’s a wild ride. So much promise to nosh on here.
So what to do now. Look through your activities, your news writing. Is your promise there? Write us a scene with that promise. Upload and critique.
Welcome to Day Four: Tension!
When I critique anything, the first thing that I look for is tension, because without tension, I’m not really invested in the story. So I snuff it out like a truffle pig, and when I find it, that’s where I start my critique.
So I ask you, what happens when you write a scene with mostly dialogue?
Watch how Ruth Ware’s novel In a Dark, Dark Wood (Simon & Schuster) deals with tension by using mostly dialogue:
Chapter One, Page One:
It hurts. Everything hurts. The light in my eyes, the pain in my head. There’s a stench of blood in my nostrils, and my hands are sticky with it.
The voice comes dim through a fog of pain. I try to shake my head; my lips won’t form the word.
“Leanora, you’re safe- you’re at the hospital. We’re taking you to have a scan.”
It’s a woman, speaking clearly and loudly. Her voice hurts.
“Is there anyone I should be calling?”
I try again to shake my head.”
“Don’t move your head,” she says. “You’ve had a head injury.”
“Nora,” I whisper.
“You want us to call Nora? Who’s Nora?”
“Me… my name.”
“All right, Nora. Just try to relax. This won’t hurt.”
But it does. Everything hurts.
What has happened?
What have I done?
When you get rid of the crutches of other language, it forces you to be crafty.
Now, go back to your first scene. Rewrite it without anything but dialogue.
Start from a point, and raise those stakes.
Need an idea to get started?
- Take away something precious
- Break up
- Join a group
The trick is that on the first page each and every word should have a very SPECIFIC PURPOSE.
Be smart with your choices. They make meaning. They make your story.
Head over to Facebook and share your dialogue. We can’t wait.
Without character, you don’t have story. It’s true. Let’s test this out.
Imagine you have a man hanging off a cliff by a fraction of a fingernail. Now imagine another character diving to the spot where he’s frantically holding on. What happens at that moment depends solely on who those characters are.
First, let’s break down who that man is–inside and out. Is he handsome or homely? Is he brawny or weak? Is he a Kindergarten teacher or a thief—better yet, is he a thief who’s a Kindergarten teacher? (Um…that’s interesting.)
What about the other person running up to save the hanging man. A scorned lover? The person he bullied in third grade? His best friend?
The point is that NONE of the action matters if there isn’t character.
Now… let’s bring it down to the problem of the very FIRST PAGE. Here you need to show immediate character by telling very little and showing as much as you can.
The answer is both simple and tough at the same time. You need to spend time prewriting with this character.
- Favorite meal
- Worst day in sixth grade
- Earliest memory
- Secret under the mattress
The more of these things you know, the better the world within your book is. This makes a character unique–try to pull that uniqueness into the first page.
Everything you write makes you better. But if you really need a tip, here’s one:
“A good story begins in opposition to its ending. That means you work out how it finishes first, and then begin the story as far away from that point – in terms of character development – as you can.” ~Chris Wooding
Now let’s bring this back to the first page. You need to start with a well-rounded character who is going to move along a developmental arc, the way they change and grow to circumstances….IN THE STORY.
That needs to be–if not on the first page–pretty close to it.
So, go give it a try in our Facebook critique group.
And good luck! I can’t wait to see what you guys come up with.
And then give your fellow writers feedback on their ideas.
When I teach I screenwriting class, I always talk about the importance of grounding your story in setting.
Then I spend a good chunk of the semester saying, “You’ve overwriting your setting, where’s your story? Or I say, “There is not enough setting here…. I’m not sure where I am in time or space.”
For me, that’s the rub with setting–especially on the first page.
The question always is:
How to achieve the perfect balance of story grounded in a realistic and interesting world, all while keeping story moving?
Here is the opening paragraph to The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard:
I hate First Friday. It makes the village crowded, and now, in the heat of high summer, that’s the last thing anyone wants. From my place in the shade it isn’t so bad, but the stink of the bodies, all sweating with the morning work, is enough to make milk curdle. The air shimmers with heat and humidity, and even the puddles from yesterday’s storm are hot, swirling with rainbow streaks of oil and grease.
Note that we are taking in the setting from the main character’s POV in the shade. And we know exactly what this character thinks of First Fridays. It’s ominous and slightly off-putting, and darn right fascinating.
So, first pages. Once again…
That Opening Line…
The Atlantic did a fantastic article about Stephen King entitled, “Why Stephen King ‘Spends Months, Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences,” where he calls opening lines like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.
I love that.
So why? Why do we care? Because, quite simply, the opening is both the hook and the bait for your readers, but especially the agents and editors that are making quick thinking decisions in the querying process.
It also immediately defines the voice–and we all know that you need to LIKE an author’s voice if you are going to go on that ride with their story.
But how to do it? I believe that there is no magic bullet besides simply putting yourself through the process of contemplating what’s best in this critical spot of your book.
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B White: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
Now this is a classic first line that you often hear people who talk about first lines sharing. Why? It’s pretty darn direct.
- Now how about George Orwell’s 1984? This is one of my favorites! “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
What? You immediately are placed within the setting of this dystopian world.
- So how about a new book? My friend, YA writer Kim Savage, released Beautiful Broken Girls with FSG/Macmillan. Listen to this: “When they found Mira Cilla at the bottom of the quarry lake, her fingers were shot through the loose weave of her sister Francesca’s sweater, at the neck”
Immediately, this line screams dark thriller… and it is.
- Okay, let’s move back over to adult fiction. Here we’ve got Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”
This one is great. You know where he is. You know something happened to his mother. The melancholy drips through.
Hey picture book writers!
I’m so pleased that you’re here. I wanted to reach out to you specifically because I’m thinking that you all might need to think of the first page as the first “chunk” of your story.
So feel free to think of this like a manuscript that you’d send to an agent, where the first page may actually represent multiple pages. And that’s okay!
Please note, that I didn’t actually use picture books in my examples of work–but I trust that you all can make the transition for each of our mini-lessons.
Best of luck!