Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Turn the page already!

A very literate and intelligent friend who is not a professional writer recently sent me a proposed opening to a novel set in the early nineteenth century. It probably would have been a fine opening in the nineteenth century, when longer was better and readers were willing to start out with huge globs of family history. But it won't fly now.

An “explanation” followed:

"I figure the first chapter is to lay the groundwork for why these characters are all improbably in X’s estate …."

No, no, NO! That’s NOT what the first chapter is for. The first chapter is for engaging your reader’s interest, because if you don’t do that, they’ll never see the second chapter!

And the job of the opening page is to get your reader to turn that page, which is what I’m going to be discussing today.

I don't claim to be the world’s expert on openings; I've got enough published books out there where I later realized the story really started in Chapter 3. Or in Chapter -1, which I didn’t even write. And I usually spend hours staring at my current WIP and wondering why anybody would care enough about the first page to look at the second page.

Fortunately there are lots of good examples to learn from. Consider these three very different openings, from books of three different genres:

Russ Van Alstyne had just gotten a tug on his line when he saw the old lady get up from between the headstones she had been trimming, lay down her gardening tools, and walk into the reservoir. She had been tidying up a tiny plot, four moldering grave markers tucked under the towering black pines, so close to the edge of Stewart’s Pond Reservoir that a good motorboat wake could have kicked spray over the stones. She had appeared at some point after he and Shaun had launched their rowboat, and he had noted her, now and then, while they had drifted in the sunshine.

That’s the start of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Out of the Deep I Cry. Granted, mystery writers have a built-in advantage with openings; all they have to do is move some violence to the front. To play fair, I eliminated books that begin with somebody getting shot or waking up tied hand and foot in a scary location. You couldn’t exactly call someone voluntarily walking into a reservoir violence, could you? But it sure captures my attention. Yes, I want to know who she is and why she did it. But what makes me want to read on is: Does Russ fish her out of the reservoir before she drowns?

The author of this next one has a somewhat more challenging problem:

"All right, add your luggage to the pile, including all comms, computers, or recording equipment, and check in so we know who is or isn't here . . ." The man at the desk finally glanced up and trailed off with his mouth open.
"Paer. Medic." Paer smiled hopefully. She'd deliberately dressed in field khakis, trying to look serious, and hopefully wouldn't be too underdressed for the occasion.
An organizational meeting for a camp across. Across, as through a trans-dimensional gate to a world on the other side. The young man got his mouth shut and looked down at his list. "Right." A bit breathless. Swallow. "I didn't realize they meant the Paer."
Paer winced. "Don't worry, I'm just a medic, now. Nothing special." Please just pretend I'm not the daughter of the President of the Empire of the One.

For a good time, try orienting the new reader while starting the Nth book in a long science fiction series: this is Pam Uphoff’s Surveillance. Look how much she’s telling us here:

Paer is going on a trip.
She’s probably a new hire, young, and a bit insecure, considering how she’s worried about being appropriately dressed.
Whee – the “trip” may involve trans-dimensional travel, whatever that is. To a “world on the other side.”
And this Paer is a VIP who really wants to blend in with her colleagues and not to be treated like a celebrity.

That’s a lot of information in 140 words. The line about “trans-dimensional travel” both gives us a cue that this is science fiction, and promises exotic worlds coming up. The fact that the other three bits of information are about Paer suggests that this is going to be a character-centered story, and her youth and insecurity suggest it may be a YA novel. What's the page-turner here? I've been promised that Paer's new job comes with both other-worldly travel and social pitfalls, and I want to see how that works out. A promise of interesting stuff ahead is as good as suspense for keeping a reader in the story.

Finally, a more leisurely opening – in fact, so leisurely that I’m cutting a whole paragraph about the hardships of the march through Europe. So this is just part of the first page:

We mutinied when we reached the ocean.

We’d been riding for fifty-one days, three companies of us with half a legion and two troops of Roman auxiliaries to guard us….

Then one afternoon, just before the middle of September, we were starting down from the hills when we saw it: the ocean. It had rained all that morning, but the rain had stopped about midday, and now the sky was clear. The clouds parted and let down a watery light westward beyond us, and we looked up and saw a huge gray plain turn suddenly and impossibly blue.

We had never seen the sea. We reined in our horses and stopped in the road, staring at it. The sun shimmered on the waves as far out as our eyes could see: no shadow of land darkened even the farthest limit of the horizon.

“It’s the end of the world!” whispered Arshak.

That’s from Gillian Bradshaw’s Island of Ghosts, a historical novel about some Sarmatians who were sent to Britain as auxiliaries to the Roman army. This little bit of military history is not exactly common knowledge, so she has to feed a lot of background information to readers (apart from the First Reader, who knows, dammit, absolutely everything connected with military history.) The trick is to do it in small bits. When I started reading I had never even heard of Sarmatians, but that wasn't important; she never even uses the name on this page. But by the bottom of the page I knew enough to be going on with. I knew that the narrator's guys were being commanded by Romans who didn’t trust them, and I surmised they were steppe nomads since they’d never seen the sea, and I knew for sure that it was going to be a job and a half getting them onto boats to cross the Channel. I wasn't about to stop reading until I found out how this impasse is resolved.

Now go forth and figure out why readers will turn the first page of your WIP, and be sure to put that page-turner in there if it's not there already.

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