Friday, March 27, 2009

The First Page Fairy Godmother...

My eyeballs were drier than elephant skin. I had been staring at my computer for hours and I wanted out of first page hell. Pictures of my dog flashed over and over again as my screen saver kicked in. I folded my hands in my lap and wished for a miracle.

"What are you doing?"

I blinked. "Muse?"

"Muse and EE left an hour ago. They were tired of the dog and, well, dog show."

A short, feminine vision floated next to me. Sparkly and bright, she held a wand that she jabbed toward my computer screen. "Is that it?"

"Who are you?"

"I’m your First Page Fairy Godmother." She touched my laptop and it spit out a printed page. "Let’s have a looky-see."

I rubbed my eyes. There had been tea after supper, no wine, but here I was hallucinating.

"We may have a problem."

My body jerked in response. "What?"

She shook her wand and sparkles fell like big, fat snowflakes over my computer and me. "You already know that this page has to hook an agent. And Hon, a first page in manuscript submission form is only 16 lines, not 250 words."

"But a manuscript page is 250 words." I had done my research.

"Are you questioning my authority?" She began to fold my paper in half.

"No." This was the miracle I had asked for; I would defer and check her accuracy once she left. "Please, go ahead."

The bottom third of paper was ripped off and drifted to the floor. "There. Now, where was I? Sixteen lines – check. In media res – check."

"Pardon me?"

She spun to face me, waving her wand in fat figure eighths. "Latin for the middle of affairs, believed to have originated from the oral tradition of the epic poem. Action whets the appetite of your reader, pulls them into the story immediately and, if you work your 16 lines perfectly, forces them to turn the page to find out what happens next."

"And I’ve got that?" I craned my neck to read over her shoulder. Her presence rose out of range and I slumped back into my chair.

"Not too bad." She went back to the piece of paper, this time twirling the wand handle between her thumb and fingers. The movement was hypnotizing.

She smacked me on the head. "Pay attention. Starting in the middle of action does not necessarily make it a hook. And you shouldn’t start with your character waking up, looking in a mirror, or dreaming."

"I don’t"

"Yes, well, she is eavesdropping. A close call." She tapped her wand against the side of her head giving her more brilliance than she had originally started with. I squinted up at her.

"There are other things to remember as you craft your 16 lines."

I scrambled for a pen and paper, ready to take notes in case this was a one time only visit. "I’m ready."

"A clue to the genre. If it’s Science Fiction, there should be world building, some ‘out of this world’ technology, and perhaps an unusual character name. Fantasy, again world building and the tone of the language should suggest an element of the imagined and unique. The words you employ are very important. You have medieval names for your characters and you mention a solar, although most readers might not know what that is. Hmm."

"Should I change it?"

"Let’s just note that. Introduces main character – check. Your reader does come to love," she glanced down at the paper, "Willamena?"

"I think so. Those who’ve read it, do."

"Good, because as a story teller, you’re going to put your protagonist in peril, take her to the edge so she can grow, change, and become a better person. And gets what she most desires. Your readers won’t give a fairy’s tinkerbell that she nearly dies if they haven’t come to care for her. Your goal is to get them to cheer her on, stand in her corner, and bite their nails when she is poised on that edge and appears to be falling. So, you need to begin that relationship at the beginning. Introduce your main character and show your reader that this imagined person is interesting enough to follow for 400 pages, give or take."

A bell chimed in the distance. "What was that?"

"Another writer. Did you hear what I just said?"

I consulted my notes. "Yes. Introduce the character in a way that the reader begins to care for them immediately." As I spoke the wand danced in the air to the beat of my syllables. It stopped mid-air a second after I did.

My First Page Fairy Godmother stared at me and made a disappointed tut-tut sound. "And?"

That’s all I had written. I shrugged.

A short exhalation emphasized her annoyance. "What’s at stake? What did Willamena set out to get at the beginning of the story? You need to at least hint at her goal, establish a sliver of tension."

A chorus of tinkling bells filled the air. She rolled her eyes. "Must be a secret agent contest coming up on Miss Snark’s First Victim blog again. My beeper goes haywire when 70 plus aspiring authors start wishing for assistance on their first pages. I really need to hire some minions."

She stuffed my first page into the handle of the wand. The bells chimed again. "I’m coming!"

The wand undulated in front of my face. "The most important thing to remember is that the first page is a promise. A promise of a story filled with engaging, though somewhat flawed, characters. A promise of a story with action and adventure, that will take the reader to someplace different, someplace great. A promise of a desire fulfilled."

I closed my eyes, the sparkly wand too bright and too close for comfort. When I opened them, I was alone. My computer screen continued to scroll through pictures of Taz. That was the strangest dream I had ever had and I vowed to lay off caffeine. I touched the mouse to reactivate the word document, ready to tackle this re-write one more time.

Something nagged at the back of my brain. My fingers slid into place on home row just as the light reflected off a sparkle. Could it be? I re-read my first page. Of course, it was so obvious. Thank goodness for First Page Fairy Godmothers.

Janet (who’s looking for other pearls of wisdom on writing that first page…)


Helena said...

Janet, I didn't stay up just to read your post, but I have to say I'm glad I checked it out before I put my head on my pillow.

Enjoyed it SO much!! I would read any first page you care to write. And now I won't whine anymore about "what's this 16-lines thing all about?" because you have made it abundantly clear.

Only problem is -- now I want to revise my 'first page' to be a 16-liner just to see what I can make of it. Stay tuned ...

Captain Hook said...

*curls up in a ball and starts to whimper*

That's just not fair!!!! I want a full 250. How can they get away with lying to us like that?

Janet C. said...

Good morning, Helena! And thank you for the kind words on the post. I had a lot of fun writing it.

I think that if you revise your first page and repost it over on the SRW blog, we would all love to read it. I know I would love to see how you handle "the hook" and how it would change your intent. Karen has posted her revisions and it's been fun to read the comments - I'm learning lots just from that :)

See you tomorrow.


Janet C. said...

Cap't Hook - great to see you. I had no intention for anyone to curl up in a ball and whimper when I wrote this post.

It really isn't fair, is it. But according to Ray over on Flogging the Quill, a first page properly formatted will end up being 16 lines. I've used that as a guideline when submitting to agents (crossing all my Ts, etc). I don't know how picky agents are on that item - I'm sure if you sent in 250 words and left them with a hook so they are compelled to turn the page, then you've succeeded. It would be great to have others weigh in on this.


Karen said...

Hey Janet,
I love your line "the first page is a promise". Or a hint, it can't be more then that because it's only the first 16 lines. I try to think of those first 16 lines as a moment, a very specific moment, in time. I started with a sense of the immediate, the now, a gut instinct, followed by the promise of trouble or conflict.

And then I needed feedback to see how I was doing. You can't craft the perfect first 16 lines without help. I've learned a lot from the feedback I got on the SRW site and from giving feedback to others. And, Hazel, I'll be tuning in.

Another great post, Janet. Send a little of that sparkle dust my way, will you?

(Pst... My screensaver is Jensen Ackles)

ban said...

great read janet - loved the snarky reference :D if your first page is half as enjoyable as this post ... you've got nothing to worry about !

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I love your Friday morning posts. Always fun and imaginative.

I have to admit that I'm not great at first pages. I always want to cram in a lot of backstory. I have to fight my instinct to do an information dump right at the beginning of the story. It will be more interesting to readers if I sprinkle this information as needed throughout the story.

Have fun with your Fairy Godmother. Send her my way when you're done with her.


Janet C. said...

Hey, Karen - I loved the way you summed up your first page tactics. That's a great way to approach it :)

As for your 16 lines - you're doing great. And isn't it amazing how much we learn from others. I don't often crit over on MSFV, but I always read both the entry and the comments. You're right - writing is a solitary occupation, but as a community, we become better writers.

How lame am I? I had to go look up Jensen Ackles! Very cute, he would a lovely screen saver :) Is he an image for a future hero? Or is that Chase?


Janet C. said...

Thank you for the kind words, Ban. Yeah, I couldn't write the First Page Fairy Godmother tale without some kind of shout out to Miss Snark's First Victim. Her Secret Agent and Drop the Needle Contests are fabulous - as I said to Karen, I learn so much from those posts.


Janet C. said...

Afternoon, Jana!

I, too, am a backstory dumper. Got to get it out there ASAP. I'm slowly learning that there are better ways to inform the reader of stuff that happened in the past, that's relevant to the story, of course. I also tend to rely on the cliche - dreaming, waking, 'eavesdropping'. It's just so damn hard to figure out where to start.

I'll let my fairy godmother know that you're looking for a consultation - and Karen, I'll package up some sparkle dust for you :)


Karen said...

Funny you should ask because, strangely, Chase and Jensen Ackles are practically identical.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Janet, I love the way you teach us by telling a story. Very effective and entertaining to boot.

One of my CP's just told me the other day that I should end with a hook on the first and third page. I'd never heard that before. I knew you had to hook from the beginning, but to be so scientific as to say the end of page 1 and 3?
And you just confirmed it.

And exactly 16 lines?

Wow, the things I learn on this blog. Thank goodness we have this blog otherwise I'd be months and possibly years behind everybody else. Not a happy thought.

Thanks, Janet. You're always a bright spot to my week.

ban said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ban said...

karen - Jensen Ackles was on dark angel with jessica alba ! good choice for chase :D

Karen said...

Okay, did I miss something? Hook at the end of the third page?

Karen said...

Hey ban,
On my way to check out Dark Angel.

Janet C. said...

Hey, Anita - glad you enjoyed my post. Must be that teacher in me who wants to present something in an unusual way in order for retention :)

I've never heard of hooking at the end of the third page. Like Karen, I'm going to go and do some research on that pearl of wisdom. I have heard of ending with a hook as you wrap up chapter three - again, most agents, editors when they request a partial will ask for the first three chapters. Same principle applies - get them to turn the page and then scour your package for more, compell them to e-mail or, better yet, phone and ask for the full.

I'll be back if I find something about that third page...


Tara Maya said...

My first page wants to go to the ball too First Page Fairy Godmother! I just hope my Second Page doesn't turn out to be a pumpkin.

Janet C. said...

Pumpkin :)

I hear you, Tara. I have the exact same worry. Then the second page, then the third - will it ever end?

I'll let the Fairy Godmother know that you'd like a visit.


Molli said...

Hi Janet. I never know what you're going to come up with, but I know I'm going to enjoy it, and I did! I love the way your mind works: you've captured a number of elements succinctly in an engaging, memorable fashion.

The 16 lines is new to me (been awhile since I researched format) so you've given me something to think about. The idea of a promise is interesting too. It reminded me of something else I've read/heard in workshops: you set the tone of the book in the beginning--or you should. For example, if you start with humour that should follow through in the rest of the story--not to say you shouldn't include serious elements, but if you start out say, like Jennifer Cruisie, then make sure you don't start using a Stephen King style later on. For me it's important to go back to those first few pages after I'm into the story and make sure the style I start with continues on.

Now, line Helena, I'm going to take the Fairy Godmother's words to heart and have another look at my first 16 lines (after I, too, do a search for Jensen Ackles--wouldn't like to think I'm missing something. Can I find him on

Janet C. said...

Hey, Molli! Your thoughts on creating a certain tone to your novel right from the first page is noted. And you're right, you don't want to write a suspenseful first page when the story is more a romantic comedy - no matter how much you think the suspense makes a better hook for the reader.

I bow down to you for being able to go back to your first page while you're still in the midst of your story. I have to have the whole thing finished - and even then it takes forever to get that first page right.

I advise you to go here for a lovely introduction to Mr. Jensen Ackles :)


Janet C. said...

And excuse my excitement - but I just posted that comment with a hotlink to a very long web address. Woo hoo - learned my 'something new' today :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Excellent post Janet, another great read. I've been meaning to comment all day, and it just hasn't happened!

While at the end of the process, you want your first 16 lines to kick butt in a submission, I think 250 words is a more precise target (given margins, fonts, etc) for our group critiques, so it's a good choice. The hook shouldn't just be at the end of the first page anyway. The first paragraph (ideally first sentence) should interest and intrigue the reader, and then the first paragraph gives a bit more, and then a bit more down the way, and a reason for sticking around by the bottom of the first page. I see it a little like trying to talk to someone who's walking away from you, and you're pulling everything you can out of your pockets to make them stay... without seeming desperate at the same time ;) Give em the guns, and then relax once you know they're going to stay.

Anita's mention of the 3rd page hook is another good suggestion. I hadn't thought of being so precise, but it makes sense. I know following FtQ and the like, I've seen some excellent first pages go up, but learned that things began to flag shortly after, perhaps feeling that once that first hook is in, the reader will stay.

Great tidbits to keep in mind... and your mention of beginning in medias res reminds me of a topic note I have stuffed away somewhere to blog on. 'Formulaic' fiction vs. classical works. Bill Shakespeare, bring it on!

And since it's already late, looking forward to seeing everyone tomorrow!

Janet C. said...

Thanks, Hayley - wondered where you had got yourself to today :)

Your analogy is perfect. You want your reader to stick around - after the first sentence, after the first paragraph, after the first page, after the first chapter. As a reader who 'abandons' with no remorse whatsoever (it's taken me years to finally do that), an author better keep me excited, entranced, and eager from page to page to page.

Looking forward to your future post - formula versus the Bard, hmmm? Can I guess which way the scales will tip?

See you tomorrow.

Silver James said...

I feel like the White Rabbit today--I'm late, I'm late, I'm late for a very important date! And it's really late but I'm finally back to comment. I am SO stealing your Fairy Godmother, Janet! I shall ply her with all sorts of goodies to keep her peering over my shoulder. Great post today!

Janet C. said...

Hey, Silver - better late than never :) Glad to see you over on The Prairies.

I believe I'll have a very big problem when First Page Fairy Godmother sees the Saturday buffets - no plying will be necessary, she'll be yours forever.

I'll have to find someway to blindfold her before I let you 'borrow' her.

See you tomorrow - I think I'll have a mimosa, yum.

connie said...

hi janet,
excellent blog. great way to teach. where were you when mr. king was my english teacher for a year. dear man but stultifying.
what do you think about this first line? would you read on if she takes awhile to walk through the woods to the murder site?
"She couldn't know that death lay just ahead."