Perfecting Your Novel’s Opening Page: Advice from Novelist Emma Rea

I’m very pleased to welcome Emma Rea, author of Top Dog, who has some really helpful advice on perfecting your novel’s opening page with the help of a little x-ray vision.

Last Minute X-Ray Vision

Top_DogThe importance of the first page can’t be over-emphasised. For the rest of the novel, you can just tell your story. On the first page, however, you not only have to get your story off to a roaring start, but you have ‘admin’ jobs to do, by which I mean establishing things like age, setting, character – and you have to slip these in so the reader has the information they need without feeling as if they’ve been clobbered over the head with it. I rewrote the first chapter of Top Dog countless times, feeling as if I was coming at it from different angles, chipping away until I found the clearest, simplest start. Here’s an early version:

‘Dylan shoved his hands into his pockets and sauntered out of the Year Six classroom as if this was just another ordinary day. His blood was fizzing around his body like a bottle of shaken up coke with the lid half undone, but he ambled with deliberate slowness across the playground. While Matt and the others were yelling and jumping around Dylan fixed his eyes instead on the school gates, where his headmistress, a knobbly great stick insect disguised in old ladies’ clothes, stood guard. She was trilling goodbye to everyone in Year Six as they left, snatching at an unlucky girl with quick, spindly arms and fussing with her uniform.’

All I really needed to do in the first paragraph was establish Dylan’s age and his excitement about his plans for his summer holiday – and create curiosity in my young reader about what those plans might be. Nothing else. Someone asked me if the headmistress was going to feature again in the story, which of course she wasn’t. So my description of her was redundant. It didn’t matter how clever I thought it was, it had to go. So I tried again.

‘The last few seconds of the last minute of the very last day of Year 6 were ticking to an end with every step Dylan took. And the first summer holiday without a reading list and a threat that his life would not be worth living if he did not mutter his times tables hourly was rushing towards him. Dylan had had enough of school rules. He’d had enough of standing in line. He’d had more than enough of wearing a tie. Six free weeks stretched out in front of him and he knew exactly how he was going to use every minute of it.’

It was only at the final edit, days before the story went to print, that the first page came into clear focus. A strange, x-ray vision made it easy to see every extraneous word. Let me show you what the final edit produced:

‘The last few seconds of the last minute of the very last day of Year 6 were ticking to an end. With every step Dylan took, the first summer holiday free from times tables came rushing towards him.

Dylan had had enough of school rules.

He’d had enough of standing in line.

He’d had more than enough of wearing a tie. Six free weeks stretched out in front of him and he knew exactly how he was going to use every minute.’

Now we’re ready to get on with the story and the stick insect headmistress is free to go off and join another novel where she has a decent role to play.

About the Author

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Top Dog, set over one summer in a Welsh village, is a story of intrigue and youthful determination among a group of boys. Emma Rea lives in London and Wales with her husband and three children. This is her first novel.

Click here to buy from Amazon

emma-rea.weebly.com

Twitter: @emmarea8

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Bad Beginnings from Sarah Naughton

I’m very happy to welcome Sarah Naughton back to the blog, as she has some useful insights into that difficult first page.

Bad Beginnings

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.

Sarah Naughton The Hanged Man Rises cover

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

SarahNaughton          BloodList-singlecover copy

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.

How To Get Your Story Started: Theresa Breslin Shares Her Expertise

It never ceases to amaze me how kind and generous writers are. Even though they’re extremely busy people they still find time to share their knowledge and experience with other writers on blogs like this one.  When I asked Theresa Breslin, who has a plethora of awards to her name including the Carnegie medal, if she would like to contribute she was gracious enough to agree.

Here’s what she has to say about starting stories…. Continue reading

Cutting Trolls to Size with Katherine Langrish

I’m delighted today to welcome the lovely Katherine Langrish to the blog, who has kindly offered to share some insights about how she tackles the tricky subject of narrative pacing.

Pacing your Narrative: Speeding Up and Going Slow Continue reading

Tricks to Engage your Readers from Janet Foxley

I’m delighted to welcome Janet Foxley to the blog, who has some great tips on getting the most out of your story’s opening lines.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

We all know how important the beginning of a book is. If it starts too slowly, the browsing book-buyer will put it back on the shelf; but much worse, as far as would-be published authors are concerned, the weary slush pile reader will stuff it into the stamped addressed envelope enclosed.

Some people advise you to introduce your protagonist and engage the reader’s sympathy for him by the end of the first chapter; others say by the end of the first page; still others say by the end of the first sentence.

So how do you plunge into your story really quickly, without getting bogged down in back story or description? How do you introduce a character the reader is going to care about, and set up a narrative that is going to keep him turning the pages, in just one sentence? Continue reading