I’m very happy to welcome Sarah Naughton back to the blog, as she has some useful insights into that difficult first page.
I’ve been known to ditch a book after the first page. There are too many fabulous books in the world to waste any time at all on a dud. So, from an author’s point of view, you’ve got to get it bang-on straightaway. Hook people on the first page: better still the first paragraph: or best of all, the first line. Plenty of authors do entire workshops around first lines.
See if you can guess where these come from: ‘Call me Ishmael’: ‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen’: ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.’: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’: ‘If you are interested in stories with happy endings you would be better off reading some other book.’*
These are rightly famous openers. Some equally good books start off with less of a bang. Twilight’s Bella Swan describes the outfit she’s wearing to get on a plane. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe begins with a long description of the professor and his servants. You may need a slightly longer span of attention, but within a couple of lines the story’s revving up.
When I first started writing the book that was to become The Hanged Man Rises it began like this:
‘The pie was the size of his fist and heavy as a brick. Now that the feeling had returned to his frozen fingers Titus had to juggle it from hand to hand while it cooled. On its lid was a golden bird, wings spread in flight. The bird’s breast had been pierced by the prongs of a fork and from these holes coiled threads of steam.’
It’s not a bad description. The problem is it doesn’t lead anywhere exciting. The pie doesn’t explode in his face. Maggots don’t come crawling out of it. It’s not snatched from his hand by a ferocious giant (yes, I write for children). Plus, whilst we learn a lot about the pie, we don’t learn much about Titus.
This is the way the actual book begins
‘The boy sat on the jetty, skimming oyster shells across the water. It was too choppy to get many bounces but occasionally a shell would strike the dredger, moored further out, with a satisfying clang. He didn’t even bother to prise open the next one before he threw it. The thought of slurping out its slick grey innards, still quivering, made him queasy.’
It’s still descriptive, but as the paragraph proceeds we find out that the boy is alone in the smog and night is falling, and then the Wigman comes for him…
Much more exciting. The pie got binned.
Some writing tips are very hard to follow (I’ve always found stripping my adjectives down whilst maintaining atmosphere to be particularly tricky), but I think this one’s fairly straightforward. Get into the action quickly. Reveal something about your character. Create a mood. That’s what will hook your reader (and of course, potential agents and commissioning editors).
Then all you have to do is keep them hooked for the next 300 pages. Simple.
*Moby Dick, 1984, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Peter Pan, The Bad Beginning
About the Author
The Hanged Man Rises, Sarah Naughton’s debut novel for young adults, was published by Simon and Schuster last February. Her second book, The Blood List is now out. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.