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
The 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
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.
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