The first page of your novel or memoir has to do some very specific things; it can’t just ‘be’ your first page. You are introducing your story. Remember: when you submit your query and sample pages for an agent to view, that first page could make or break you. Hell, that first paragraph.
The truth is, yes, you have to HOOK the reader. I know, I know: A lot of English Lit teachers of the classics will tell you this is some bullshit commercial gimmick to capture the reader and produce the effect in them to want to keep reading; that, in other words, it’s almost like a trap. But so what? The publishing climate in 2015 is insane. In order to rise above the constant buzz of submissions, you absolutely HAVE to create a strong hook. When you go fishing, you add attractive, colorful bait, right? Same deal here.
Here’s an example of hooking a reader with a first sentence. “Going to Mexico was a bad idea and my roommate and I knew it.” That’s the first line of my short story called, ‘Tightrope,’ published at Alfie Dog Press online. See how it hooks you in? A good first line sentence not only offers an intriguing plot possibility (letting the reader know there will be fun/entertainment to be had), it also asks questions. What’s going to happen in Mexico? Who is this narrator? Who is this roommate? Is this narrator reliable or not? WHY is going to Mexico a bad idea? Are drugs or alcohol involved? Youth? Corruption? All these things can be considered just from a good first line. (And I know I am shamelessly promoting myself here.)
The next thing your first page needs to do is give us at least a basic idea of setting. Who is it, where are we, what is it, when is it happening, and why? Remember: just a taste. And not necessarily all at once. At least let us know who the protagonist is and where we are, and maybe a little TASTE of what his/her journey will be. Don’t make us guess or make us feel like this character is living in a vacuum/cipher/void. Give us a time and a place. Ground us in setting. When we’re grounded in a clear setting we feel more settled as readers; more comfortable. It allows us to then focus on the actual STORY.
Next we need at least a whiff, even on the first page, of the stakes. What is going to happen and how serious is it? Whether physical, psychological, emotional, or some other type of ‘death,’ we need a whiff of this on page one. Let me be clear. A WHIFF. Don’t try to cram the stakes, direction, setting, and hook sentence ALL on page one. Overload. But give us a taste. We’re talking 250-300 words on the computer page here; not a lot to work with. And yet, good writers can achieve a lot with that amount of space. And hey, your query letter is the same length, so you might as well get good at this now.
And, lastly, you need to clearly demonstrate your voice. This is what, whether they realize this or not, readers are really looking for in your novel. Sure, they need plot. That’s essential. Some books are more character driven, some more plot. But today, in general, for a debut author, you need at least SOME plot. And you need stakes and direction and setting, etc. But if a reader—or an agent—can’t fully connect with your narrative voice on page one, they will usually reject. Agents see red flags all over the place when this happens because they know that fundamental rule: readers connect with an author’s voice. That’s what they are subconsciously searching for; that voice that will speak directly to them, privately. The plot and character development are profoundly important—and if you lack these you’ll likely not get published—but you GOTTA have voice. A-number one.
So my advice would be to really hone that page one, get it tight, and make sure that the rest of your book continues in the same vein. The first three chapters are always the hardest. And they’re the first thing that an agent will read. And if you DO get published, when a potential reader opens your book, they’ll often read the first page at the bookstore, before they buy. If that voice doesn’t connect right away, it’s likely they’ll put the book back on the shelf. You just lost a sale.
But it’s not just about sales, right? You’re a writer. You should want to truly and vulnerably connect with your readers. You do that, starting on page one, with voice.
Have a novel or memoir you need edited? I do developmental editing for a reasonable rate. Email me your first chapter to: firstname.lastname@example.org. My turnaround right now is August/September, due to demand!
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Also, check out my client Christian Picciolini’s book: “Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead.” True tale of a neo-Nazi who got out and became an activist for love and positive change. Great read. Buy it on Amazon (click here). Christian's website: www.christianpicciolini.com.