Thursday, September 23, 2010

The First 250 Words of Your Manuscript

Grab their attention right away
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The first page of your manuscript is critical for more than just grabbing an agent's attention. When readers go to the bookstore, a book catches their eye, they read the cover blurb, and if they're still interested, they'll often read the first page or so. If those pages grab them, they'll buy the book. If not, they'll put it back on the shelf.

This is why agents and editors are so hard on those opening pages. They know this is how a lot of readers buy books. Those first 250 words need to grab the reader. As a professional writer, you need to be able to do that.

And you do that by giving readers questions they want answers to. Why are the characters doing X? Who is following them? What's the deal with these two people? It can be anything as long as it's not "What's going on?" A vague opening that confuses is not the type of question you want readers asking.

The adage is "start with action" but that doesn't mean blow up a car or rob a bank. It means start with something in the process of X. X can be something going wrong, (my personal favorite), something revealed, something denied, etc. But there's a sense that something is about to happen, and that it won't be good for somebody.

Let's look at four common opening killers. Agent Kristin Nelson said 90% of submissions don't get beyond the first two pages for these reasons.

1. Opening pages that are nothing but backstory and explanation.
This is an easy fix. Cut out the backstory and explanation. "But the reader needs to know that to get the story!" you say? No, the really don't. Until they care about what's happening, they don't care about the history of the people it's happening to.

2. Opening pages with scenes that only do one thing (like have action but no character development or any other components that are essential to strong writing).
This is why "action" scenes often fail. Action (in the movie-action sense) is pretty much a bunch of description. Stuff is going on, but there's no story yet because there's no character with a goal who's in trouble. If your opening is a lot of this kind of action, add in why the action matters and give readers a character with a clear problem they can care about and connect with. If there's no action, then give your character something to do that could go wrong or cause a problem at any moment.

3. Problems with sentence structure, misuse or overuse of description, and basic grammar snafus.
If you haven't developed your writing skills yet, dig in and learn your craft. You might be a great writer in the making, but we all have to know how to write at a professional level to make it in this biz. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by trying to publish before you're ready.

4. Prologues (or chapter one) that sets up a faux conflict to “hook” the reader but then has very little connection to the following chapter—in tone, in the characters that are then introduced, in plot that unfolds immediately in the next chapter.
I see this all the time on the forums. "What of I start with something cool to hook the reader, then go back to my story?" Often this includes a fast forward to an "exciting" scene later in the book. This isn't as effective as you'd think. (usually for reason #2) Readers buy your book because they liked what they saw in the opening. If you lie to them, or trick them and change the book on them, there's a good chance you'll just piss them off. They might finish the book because they bought it, but the odds of them picking up another of your books, or recommending you to their friends is low.

Start with the story. Have enough faith in that story to trust it can stand on its own (and if it can't, make it so it can) and hook a reader. It takes just as much effort to fake an "exciting" opening as it does to fix a real opening. And since a fake opening is bound to be flat anyway, and only seem exciting to someone who already knows the story, it's often a wasted effort.

Because I know examples are worth more than explanations, below are the first 250-ish words of The Shifter. This opening didn't change much from first draft to final book. You'll notice there is zero backstory or explanation. More than one thing is going on and it dives right into a problem with no tricks and no prologue to set it up. Something is happening, things are going wrong, but there's no actual "action" until right at the end. Most of this opening is internalization from the protagonist.

What it does most, is give readers a character they can like, connect with, and hopefully care about to see what happens next.

The First 250 Words (okay, 264) of The Shifter

Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible. Right away something is happening. A girl is stealing eggs, and there's a risk if the chicken wakes and starts pecking and fussing. This seems like a minor stake, but for someone committing a robbery, anything that calls attention to that can get them in a lot of trouble. Readers also aren't asking for the world to end on page one. Give them a hint of risk, and they're happy to see where it goes. Just give a sense that it's going somewhere.

The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out. She's self-depreciating here, which hopefully makes her likable. You also might be wondering why she's stealing eggs and not the whole chicken. You might even be curious what happened those other times before she learned this trick. All good things to make you want to read on.

“Good morning little hen,” I sang softly. The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. She didn’t get to squawking, just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, and she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week. Adding in the unloading fish detail gives a sense that the protagonist doesn't always steal, which should increase curiosity about why she's stealing now. It's also something she overheard, not was told, which should give a small insight into her character. She wasn't friends or coworkers with these boys, she was just there with them. How might a girl find herself in that situation?

A voice came from beside me. “Don’t move.” Now things have gone wrong. This is 161 words into the book and already I've thrown Nya into trouble. If I've done my job well, you already like my egg-stealing protagonist and are worried about her getting away. Do you care about where she grew up?
Is not knowing her past interfering at all with what's going on in this scene and keeping you from enjoying it? Do you care about her past in any other way than maybe how she came to be stealing eggs this night? Probably not.

Two words I didn’t want to hear with someone else’s chicken under my arm.
Again, more humor and a sense of who this girl is. I need you to like her so you want to read about her, and getting to know her a little is a great way to do that.

I froze. The chicken didn’t. Her scaly feet flailed toward the eggs that should have been my breakfast. Now we finally get some motivation, small as it is. She's there to steal eggs for breakfast. But I don't go into why she has to steal. I don't explain how she's an orphan living on the streets, that her parents were killed in a civil war. I don't even mention that she has a magical ability yet, because none of that matters right now. It's all about making readers like her enough to care about a situation that's about to go very badly. I looked up at a cute night guard not much older than me, perhaps sixteen. The night was more humid than usual, but a slight breeze blew his sand-pale hair. A soldier’s cut, but a month or two grown out. Here I actually do a little description, and you'll notice aside from a word here and there (like scaly feet and said softly) it's the first time I describe anything. I didn't describe the setting, didn't do any setup. I waited until I (hopefully) had the reader hooked with my protagonist's problem. But this boy is important and she needs to notice him. It's also a way to show more about her by what she notices about this boy.

Stay calm, stay alert. As Grannyma used to say, if you’re caught with the cake, you might as well offer them a piece. Not sure how that applied to chickens though. And here she immediately has a plan (such as it is). She's acting, not being passive and waiting for other characters to do something. The story is moving ahead, even if those moves are small and subtle. There's no "big action" here, but stuff is happening. You can probably make a few assumptions about Nya and her situation, you feel you know her a little and might even get a sense of the world she's living in. All in 264 words.


Openings are vital to getting someone to read your book, especially agents. A reader might give you some time since they paid for the book (I usually read three chapters to hook me if it starts slow, but if you haven't grabbed me by then, it goes back on the shelf no matter how much I may love that author's past works), but an agent has hundreds of other books on their desk that might grab from page one. Their job is to find books they can sell. Your job is to give them a book they can sell, and that means a great opening that hooks readers right away.

Don't waste those 250 chances. Use them to show how good a writer you really are.

32 comments:

  1. Another great post, Janice. I also posted on Inkwell.ning.com with link back to here.

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  2. Great post, and a fresh but important take on why your opening is so important.

    And love your opening - in fact I read that first line on a blog ages ago and it really stuck with me. I've always enjoyed your blog and now I find you wrote that unforgettable line!

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  3. This is an excellent post! Thank you for using your own first 264 words so that we can see your thought process! I'm tweeting this AND bookmarking it for reference later ;-)

    Amanda
    @AmandaLBurford

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  4. Another possible opening to one of my stories popped into my head while reading this. It might actually work to hook the reader as well as fit the pacing I want to use. I love the reassurance that a story doesn't have jump in with a bang to grab attention as long as we make the reader want to learn more.

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  5. More great info. You are just full of it, in a good way!

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  6. I don't know if my opening classifies as "backstory" or not. It starts with the conflict, but it happened when the main character was a kid and jumps to his adulthood in the next chapter. So I guess what I'm asking is, if the prologue is the beginning, should we start there or not?

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  7. Great post. And I love Kristen Nelson's blog. It always has such good advice.

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  8. Really useful post. The link to Livia's post on Chuck's blog is great too. Everybody should read these over and then go tackle their first pages again.

    Amazing how much bad stuff we do (like "trick" prologues) because we see it in popular books. I think that kind of prologue was in fashion 20-30 years ago, and we're still doing it because we're still reading those books.

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  9. Story Weaver, there's nothing inherently wrong with that type of opening as long as the childhood event does all the things a good opening should do. But if it's there mostly because we need to know that event "to understand the protag" then there's a good chance it's unneeded backstory. Hook the reader first, then let them know why the protag is the way they are.

    But if the childhood event has a problem to solve, a character to be intrigued by, and a reason to see what happens next, then it can work just fine.

    Most prologues are unnecessary. You'd have to look hard at yours and decide if it's working or not. A big clue, is to ask yourself if the prologue conveys info that could used to hook the reader and make them wonder about the protag (and thus up the tension). If this secret could be revealed later for more punch, then it can probably go. But if this info really sets up the whole problem, it might be fine.

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  10. This was such an excellent post. I should go back and analyze my first 250 words in such detail.

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  11. Great post!! I know for a fact as a reader you need that pull or the person will stop reading the book!! There are books that pull me in and some take pages to do so...you can tell cause I choose to either stop reading or read so slow I forget about them and never finish.

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  12. This post is GREAT! (I can't stress how great it really is!) The only hidden side effect this had was now I want to go & buy your book so I can see why she was stealing chickens, who the boy was & why he was important, and what's going on! LOL The main effect has been to make me take a much harder look at what I've written in my current work in progress to see if I've followed your formula (applying it to my situation of course) and whether or not it would get read or rejected the R's of this industry. Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge!

    Moni~!

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  13. Monica: Thanks! It's been both fun and educational for me too, breaking my own work down like this. It really makes you look at what you do and why.

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  14. Hi Janice! First of all, I love your blog and have found the detailed posts and the recommended exercises very helpful, so thank you!

    My question is this - I have two main characters, a couple, so two protagonists. However, I am focusing more on the woman as the primary protagonist, and I wonder if it is bad form for the opening to be primarily about the man? I don't think it's misleading, exactly, but do you think that is an inherently bad idea, or could it work if it were followed soon after with a return to her perspective?

    Thanks for any advice you can give!

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  15. I thin it depends on how you approach it. If the readers knows going n that the woman is the MC, but that the man is also important, it'll probably be fine. Stories don't always start with the MC, especially in multiple POV.

    If the book reads as if the MC is the man, and then it cuts to the woman and follows her, you risk confusing or annoying the reader. I read a book where the author kept changing the POV character every chapter, and just as I got into that person's story they died. Drove me nuts and I put down the book.

    If you opened with the man and then switched to the woman next chapter, you're probably fine. If the first quarter of the book is the man, then the rest is the woman, you'd probably have a problem. It's more about how those early man chapters set up the story and reader expectations.

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  16. Janice,
    I loved your character's introduction. Would definitely want to know more. I shared a link to this post on my Tumblr account.
    http://www.tumblr.com/tumblelog/kayelleallen Thanks for the insight.

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  17. Janice, I am quite in love for Stardust, by Neil Gaiman and he starts the book as a teller, explaining the place, the character. The first pages are about backstory. Would you say it is an exception?

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  18. Excellent post!

    You're one the of very few, if not the only, instructors who actually show a live example.

    Such a refreshing change from reading just abstract concepts.

    Thank you.

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  19. Priscila, yes. Stardust was written in 1998, and styles change in writing. Neil Gaiman can get away with things other writers can't :) It also depends on how something is done. If the backstory is told with a great voice, character, and what's happening is compelling, it'll work. The problem with most backstory setup chapters is that they don't offer the reader anything to keep them reading. It's just information to prepare them for the actual story.

    Writer Road, I find examples help me and I get things so much easier when I can see them in practice. That frustration with abstract concepts is one of the reasons I started this blog.

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  20. So glad I've been trawling back through your old posts, Janice. This one is a real treasure especially that you've used your story, The Shifter to show what you mean precisely.
    Thank you. :)

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  21. Sheryl g, me too! I try to make it easy to find things, and Tweet older posts as well. Makes more sense than writing a new post on the same topic :)

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  22. This is a fantastic article! Thanks for the insight. It is always tricky for the first page or so to pop. For me, I love to have the first line to surprise them a bit. Thanks for sharing!

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  23. Thoughtonplot, me too. I'll spend weeks (or months) on a first line.

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  24. GREAT advice. I load my kindle with free books each day. Lots of them are Indies, which I'm a big fan of because I'm an Indie. BUT, I read very few of them because they don't grab me from the get-go. Readers WANT to like your book. They do! They WANT a great compelling story, but if you don't start it out that way, they'll never dig in further to see if it gets better. Thanks for sharing on this topic. I'm so tired of trying to find a good book :)

    Blessings,
    Mel
    Please feel free to stop by: Trailing After God

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  25. Thanks Mel! Samples (be in excerpts, look inside, or free books) are great ways to see what works and what doesn't in a first page. If you don't want to read on, you know they're not doping their job. They book you want to buy or download are doing it right.

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  26. Great post. I need these reminders. Especially after being out of my writing for a few years (warning: politics will eat your life). I'll be sure to hang out here more often.

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  27. Ron, thanks! That's one of the reason I love reader other writing blogs, because they remind me of things I might not be paying attention to anymore. Sounds like you've been busy! But good to have you here :)

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  28. So I realize I'm super late on this, but thanks so much for this post! I sat down to do revisions today on a novel I hope to pitch in the near future, and found that my original 250 words were useless--laden with descriptions and purple prose and pretty sentences. I chopped that crap up, moved it around, and repurposed the beginning. Hopefully it does me good! As far as I can tell, it makes the start more interesting, but I'll have to ask some beta buddies...again, thanks! :)

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    1. Better late than never, and I see comments on old posts, so no worries there. I'm glad this was helpful, and hope your new beginning grabs those beta readers!

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