Friday, May 28, 2010

Do You Have What It Takes to Hook a Reader?

We’ve talked on this blog many times about that all-important first page - the one that will hook an agent or publisher and have her begging for more. Yes, a query is your foot in the door, but as I do my researching for the next batch of agents I would love to represent me, I’m noticing more and more are asking to see pages with that query (pasted into the body of the query, people – don’t attach it for goodness sakes). The standard seems to be five pages, but from all I’ve read and heard (at conference) if that first page doesn’t stand up, the agent’s not going to read any more.

So, let’s have fun today and make this an interactive blogpost! First, I’ll highlight the important information you should think about having on that first page. The items that clue your reader into the story they are about to read.

1. Setting! Is it evident? Does your reader (in this case, Ms. Agent or Ms. Publisher) get a clue as to where this story is set?

2. Genre! Have you included clues within your setting information that allows the reader to understand they are reading the beginning of a Science Fiction novel? Or a medieval romance?

3. Main Characters! Introduce them, please. Or allude to them. Notice I said ‘main’, not the whole company. And make them interesting to your reader right from the get-go.

4. Plot or Theme! There has to be something for the reader to be interested in – and an idea of where the story is going. Now, Bob Mayer in The Novel Writer’s Toolkit suggests you either have plot/theme or main character – you don’t need both. But you do want to hook the reader, so a hint of what’s to come might just get that reader to turn the page (request more).

Easy as pie! And there are the ingredients. So, onto the second part of the post. A little critique session here on The Prairies. In the comment section, if you care to play along, post your first page (in manuscript form, a first page is only 16 lines, around 175 words, but for this exercise you can post a full page, 250 words). I know a lot of us are working on re-writes and revisions; so this might be a great opportunity to throw that first page out there and see how it stands.

Readers – your job is to comment on whether or not the writer has covered her bases. In other words – DID IT HOOK YOU? We’re not looking for a full critique, only whether or not you would turn that page if you were given a book with that first page.

And because I’m struggling with the beginning of Lady Bells, I turn to that again (sorry – getting tired of hearing about it, yet?).


If not for the tiny bells sewn to the end of her girdle ties jangling and tinkling with every determined stride, Willamena Ffenwyck would have taken the group of men gathered in the inner bailey by surprise. Instead, they turned to face her. Then stepped out of her way when it was evident she was not stopping. Not until she stood toe to toe with her brother.

"I thought you told me he was nothing like Lord Lecherous."

"And ‘tis good to see you, my sister." Robert gripped her elbow and led her away from the men. "And a little respect for our dear stepfather, please."

Willamena yanked her arm away, then jabbed her finger into Robert’s mail clad chest. "You gave me your word you would find someone decent."

"You have yet to meet him, but you judge him indecent? What gossip have you been listening to? Or better yet, where were you hidden and what did you overhear?"

She glanced down, but could muster no false shame. She lifted her chin. "He speaks of a serving wench he met last summer. He asks of her whereabouts, not mine. I will not marry a man who negotiates a covenant in one breath, then attempts to kiss a stranger in the next."

She spun on her heel, but failed to take a step as Robert’s hand grasped her shoulder. "Kiss what stranger?"

"Me. He tried to kiss me."


I’d love for you to play along, People of Blogland. Your first 250 words in the comment section – and we’ll comment! And don’t forget to come back and check out other snippets – I know I learn a lot from reading other people’s writing, including how to work that first page.



Silver James said...

Dang, everyone must have taken off for the weekend! First, here's my first page. Then I'll comment again on Lady Belles, Janet:

Season of the Witch, Chapter 1 - Charlie Foxtrot

Sade leaned against the wall of the airport concourse at Chicago O'Hare as the passengers who'd deplaned with her surged forward. Just beyond the security gate, a crowd waited to meet their parties. The sign wasn't hard to miss. Neither was the rookie holding it. Marquis D. Sade. Her lip curled, more snarl than smile. This whole trip was shaping up to be a Charlie Foxtrot. She waited for the tide to ebb before striding through the narrowed chute formed by the barrier set up to isolate the TSA checkpoint on the other side of the concourse. She stopped right in front of the kid.
“You!” Sade stabbed her finger at the red-head holding the cardboard sign. He glanced around, blinking rapidly as his prominent Adam's apple bobbed convulsively. “Yeah, you. Richie Cunningham.”
“My name isn't Richie,” he stammered, still swallowing hard.
“Could of fooled me.” She rolled her eyes. Five hours ago, she'd been sitting across the desk from the Director of the FBI. On the flight from D.C. to Chicago, she was crammed between the used car salesman from hell—figuratively, not literally—and the little old lady from Pasadena returning from a visit with her 2.5 perfect grandchildren. She was not in the mood for fun and games and Sade had played this game before. Some poor rookie agent drew the short straw and was sentenced to chauffeur duty. She had a reputation in the Bureau and with a name like hers, the pranksters just couldn't resist.

Silver James said...

I still want to read the whole MS for Lady Belles! Yes, you conveyed all of the above quite well. You've set time and place very subtlely (and well!) and you've given us a real sense of your heroine.

A couple of things--and take all of this with a grain of salt because ever reader is different.In the first paragraph, you have a few sentence fragments that disrupt the flow rather than enhance it.

Instead, they turned to face her. Then stepped out of her way when it was evident she was not stopping. Not until she stood toe to toe with her brother.

The last fragment works. It's the middle sentence that needs to either be strengthened or attached to the first sentence.

Robert starting both of his statements with "And..."

"And ‘tis good to see you, my sister." Robert gripped her elbow and led her away from the men. "And a little respect for our dear stepfather, please."

Perhaps word the second sentence: "Pray, have a bit of respect for our dear stepfather."

I love Willamena's feisty streak! Because this is a medieval and the language is a tad more formal and stilted, I'd rewrite this sentence:
What gossip have you been listening to? like this: "To what gossip have you been listening?"

Your hook sentence is outstanding! I love it. :D

"Me. He tried to kiss me."

Janet said...

Hey, Silver - thanks for playing along! Not sure where everyone is, but someone will turn up sooner or later.

Love this opening - for all I know of SOTW, I have never seen the opening! Gives setting, genre is somewhat obvious (only because I know there's some paranormal and nothing is referenced in this snippet (but with the title, I don't think you have to go there). Main character is introduced very well - gives us a glimpse into her work, her history (with the FBI) and her less than civil outlook. Also gives us a hint as to what's to come - Sade having been selected for a case.

And you voice - rings through loud and clear. (I love the airplane sandwich - salesman and little old lady from Pasadena).

My only comment would be "The sign wasn't hard to miss. Neither was the rookie holding it. Marquis D. Sade." - thought that was referencing the rookie. Perhaps: "The sign wasn't hard to miss. Marquis D. Sade. Neither was the rookie holding it."

As for Lady Bells - well, I'm still working on that opening. Thanks for the critique - I'll add them to the first page for when I go back to it (still not sure if that's where I want to start).

As always, glad to see you here, Silver ;)

Silver James said...

Oooh! Good idea. I'm fixing that now. :D Thanks!

Janet said...

Great! That's why I love critique sessions - always something to share/learn!

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hey Janet,
I'll post my first page, but I'm a little afraid because it's gone through so many changes (again). Oh well, here it is. I'll stop by later to read through Lady Belles, I have to get through this synopsis first, even if it kills me!

It was like someone had dug into my brain and plucked out my personal version of the perfect guy – and here he stood right in front of me. He lounged against the wall with his arms crossed over a chest the size of Seattle, his hulking size taking over the tiny school main office. The lazy smile on his lips and quirked brow told me he was amused by the gossiping secretaries. He definitely wasn’t a local, because I knew everybody in town. It had to be him - the newest Elwood Eagles hockey player that everyone was talking about.

I stopped dead in my tracks as a blast of adrenaline sliced through me. His head jerked my way at the abrupt movement. His mouth dropped open as sapphire-blue eyes seemed to look right into me.

The fluorescents overhead dimmed as their usual buzzing cut in and out like a dying little bee. The dimming turned to a strobe-like flickering until everything in the school went black. The whine of computers powering down filled the atmosphere around me, followed by a waft of burning electrical wire. Then all I could hear was the sound of my own shallow breathing in the darkness.

“What in the world?” A secretary said with a shriek.


Had someone whispered my name? I shivered.

Everything re-animated – the lights, computers and even the secretaries.

He was still looking at me.

I felt unnerved by his expression, his mouth partially open and his eyes widened, almost surprised, or...awed. I felt overcome with the absurd feeling of turning into a Jell-o pudding pop.

He reminded me of cover models for “Men’s Health” magazine – lean and muscular in his black leather jacket. The thick black hair and sexy lips did nothing to remind me I had a boyfriend.

I concentrated my mind on picking up his feelings, but he wasn’t like other people whose feelings seemed to bleed into me, whether I liked it or not. It was like he had a block up, and I could hardly penetrate it at all. What I did get from him felt fuzzy and indistinct - a dark, conflicted sensation that bit into me and created an almost painful ache in my chest. But one feeling came through loud and clear, the sense of ripe lust that lingered on the fringes of that dark, unfathomable hurt that he seemed to be working so hard at covering up.

Jana Richards said...

Wow, these are three great opening pages! I'll comment first and then hopefully come back later to post something of my own.

Janet, I really like this new opening of "Lady Bells". It cuts to the chase and gets us right into the story. The problem with previous opening is that so much happened before the story actually began that it was difficult to know where to start the story and how much to tell right at the beginning without bogging down the reader in backstory. But I think you've done it here. We learn about her betrothal, her letherous stepfather, her distrust of her new fiance, her habit of eavesdropping, her feisty nature, all in these few lines. Well done!

Silver, this is a great opening as well. I really get a strong picture of this character. I'm guessing she gets teased a lot about her name (do you pronounce it Shaday like the singer, or Sod like Marquis de Sade?) and she's pretty much lost all sense of humour about it. She's a tough cookie and I like her already and want to read more of her story!

Joanne, this is wonderful opening. I like the way an ordinary day at school with a girl oogling the new hockey player suddenly turns into a paranormal event. I like the idea that this girl has found her paranormal match with this guy. You've definately introduced conflict here. Obviously, there is something about Sarah that affects this boy/man deeply, and she senses the pain in his past. Add to that the fact that she already has a boyfriend and things could blow up quite nicely. The opening makes me want to know what's going on with both characters. I want to read more.

There is a point where you say he put a block up so she couldn't read him. It made me think of a firewall. The word "firewall" seems a stronger description than block. Just a thought.

One suggestion I might make is about this paragraph: "He reminded me of cover models for “Men’s Health” magazine – lean and muscular in his black leather jacket. The thick black hair and sexy lips did nothing to remind me I had a boyfriend." This comes after the electrical meltdown, and after he's looking at her with that awed expression. This physical description seems out of place right here. I think it would belong closer to the beginning of the piece where she gives him the once over. Where it is located now breaks up the emotional impact that they seem to have on each other. I want an emotional description here rather than a physical one. Does that make sense? Call me if you don't get what I mean.

Is this aimed at YA? I know nothing of the genre, but this seems quite adult in tone to me. You know, all this talk about lust and all. I'm curious as to where you would market this.

These are three great openings. Well done ladies!


Janet said...

Great opening, Joanne - like Jana says, you have everything bundled in that 250 word snippet (genre - YA paranormal, she's in school and there's definitely some 'ghostbuster' activity going on; setting - as above, school; main character, Sarah and her amazing abilities, which we discover she is aware of and alludes to how she is affected; and the conflict, hot young man with abilities and internal conflict and a boyfriend Sarah seems to have forgotten all about). Well done!

I'd just suggest (other that agreeing with Jana about the description coming sooner) that you start your first sentence with more strength (lose the 'It was', not deep enough in Sarah's POV):

Someone had dug into my brain and plucked out my personal version of the perfect guy because here he stood, right in front of me. (Just my opinion, remember :)

Janet said...

Thanks, Jana - your insights are always welcome (you make a great CP). I think you touch on a real problem I'm having with Lady Bells - there is so much backstory with both characters that I can't seem to ignore it. I'm going to try and remember what you've pointed out here as I go about reworking those first all important pages.

I hope you come back and post a first page, but if time gets away from you we understand.

Karyn Good said...

It has been a CRAA-ZEE day here at the Good fortress!

I hope to get back here tomorrow leave a comment.

Kudos to the three brave writers for sharing their first page with us today!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I think you've intimidated everyone with your first page, Janet. I second Jana's assessment of it, very clear, not too much context needed, lots of little bits that give us information though, and an excellent last line. The only thought I'd add is that if I didn't know some of the context from your previous drafts, I don't think I'd see what the wench last summer has to do with their betrothal/kissing a stranger. I read it as negotiating for marriage, and then during the visit seeing her and going "Hey baby" without realizing who she is, which then makes me wonder where the wench from the summer fits into all this.

Just an impression. I know how hard it is to separate the information we already know from what someone would glean on a first reading.

Silver, I remember this entry from the beta blog, her character comes across so well. I agree with Janet's suggestion for the sign, definitely helps! The only thing I'm a little lost on is the Charlie Foxtrot. I read it as alpha codes (alpha, tango, charlie, etc) but I'm failing to come up with an acronym for CF. Am I just failing right now? :)

Joanne, the new intro is really inrriguing, especially the lines: "Sarah. Did someone just say my name?" Loved it. I'm intrigued on so many levels, and would turn the page simply to find out more of his reaction (ie: we get her emotion for the unexpected event, and now I'm dying to get some hints of what he's thinking of it) I'll wait on any suggestions, if you're still going to send me the trimmed MS :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

My first page hasn't changed at all, but I'll throw it up so we can get some more people playing along :) Besides, impressions are always good, especially when they'll get to congeal until I finish the draft. I refuse to touch this bastard again until then :p

Eventide's Veil

Jereman was dead.
Shouts followed on my heels as I crashed through the busy square.
Jereman was dead and now they’d found me.
Over my shoulder I glimpsed Lorahn’s rat’s nest of hair bobbing through the crowd. I elbowed between a pair of dockworkers, putting the jangle of bells and pattering applause farther behind. I’d be Lady-damned before I let that dog make a clipped coin off my hide.
Of my Guild-mates—former Guild-mates—Lorahn was the least of my concerns, but if he knew where I was, then so did—
I swallowed back panic and fought through the last straggling spectators, perched on upended barrels to view the traveling show. Beyond them and down an alley, reedy air swirled off the lake, buffeting me. The stars long out, no one lingered near the freight when ale waited elsewhere. I dropped from the walkway and sprinted across the dock.
That’s what they called me. Two years lifting coin on my own and now someone in Blacklake had gotten it into his head that I owed them. Two years of lost profits, so they stuck a price on the girl-thief’s head and sent Lorahn to sniff her out.
Jereman wouldn’t have done it, but Jereman had been voted out of power by a knife in the back.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
This is such a great opening. We feel her fear and panic and anger as well. I especially love the last line: Jereman wouldn’t have done it, but Jereman had been voted out of power by a knife in the back.

Great stuff.


Jana Richards said...

I decided to be brave and post the opening of my WIP "Welcome to Paradise." I welcome any comments.


It was official. She’d just hit rock bottom.

Bridget Grant sighed as she wiped the sticky remains of spilled beer and nacho cheese sauce from one of the tables. Is this what her life had come down to? Serving wench in her mother’s bar?

Bridget lifted her head and caught several patrons staring at her. They quickly looked away when she stared back with all the haughty pride she could muster. Less then a day in Paradise and she was already the talk of the town. She felt naked in the small town fishbowl that was her hometown.

Paradise, Saskatchewan, population seven hundred fifty. Never had a town been so erroneously named. She’d known twenty years ago she didn’t belong here, but here she was, back where she started. Everything she’d worked for, all her dreams for herself and her family were gone. Anger and despair rose inside her as she swiped blindly at the dirty table.

Suck it up, Bridget.

Bridget took a calming breath as she straightened her shoulders and gave herself a mental shake. It didn’t matter what she did for a living or what anyone thought of her. As long as her daughter stayed out of trouble she’d gladly sling beer and wipe sticky tables.

Janet said...

Yikes, Karyn - hopefully things settle down at the fortress (and did you get your synopsis written? Yes, I read Joanne's blog).

I look forward to your comments and possibly a first page from you tomorrow :)

Janet said...

Thanks, Hayley - I think that's why I'm having such a difficult time with this opening. The stuff I know versus the stuff the reader doesn't know - that and backstory, of course. I'll look at your comments and the wench situation tomorrow and see if I can clarify/tweak accordingly!

And thanks for offering insight into the other first pages. Hey, we're all in this together, opinion and comments mean a lot to all writers (and insights into the vast differences in our readers - and agents).

You already know how much I love this opening - and today proves that when you read something more than once, different ideas/thoughs come to mind. Today I realized how much tension you've created over and above the actual chase. The clipped sentences, the jangle of thoughts - all lead to that heart-pounding fear of someone being chased. Well done, Hayley.

Good for you for not touching 'that bastard' until you're finished. Move through to the end - then go back and revisit (notice I didn't say rewrite - I think this opening has it all).

Thanks for playing!!

Janet said...

So glad you came back, Jana - and posted the opening to one of your stories that I'm dying to see you finish and get published!

Like I said to Hayley - even after you've read something many times over, there are still things that jump out at you. And I guess that's a good lesson in itself - you can rewrite and tweak until the cow's come home, and beyond, and you'll still find stuff to agonize over.

I am going to say the same thing as I said to Joanne - the opening with 'It was...' could be stronger. Perhaps 'She had just hit rock bottom, officially!' As always, my opinion.

This part jumped out at me, so perhaps it should be your start:

Paradise, Saskatchewan, population seven hundred fifty. Never had a town been so erroneously named. And Bridget Jones had officially hit rock bottom...

K, something along those lines.

I love the ending, the hook, because that sets up the entire book - internal and external conflict tied up nicely in that last line.

Well done, Jana - can't wait to hear you've finished and have started submissions on this puppy :)

Silver James said...

Finally made it back to catch up. Joanne, I think Janet is right about your first sentence and agree with she and Jana about putting his description earlier makes sense. I'm not a big YA reader but I'd pick this up and would certainly turn the page.

Jana, her name is actually pronounced Sadie. Her sense of humor is rather droll and wry. As Janet will tell you, Sade is very near and dear to my heart. I just chopped about 6 chapters of backstory in this revision so I very much know where she's coming from on Lady Belles.

Thanks, Hayley. to explain Charlie Foxtrot is a term used by military, cops and firefighters. It's sort of like SNAFU and/or FUBAR--if you are familiar with those? Charlie stands for Cluster and Foxtrot for...well...I leave that to your imagination. FYI? You are dead on with this opening. I get chills every time I read it!

Jana, I get a real sense of the quiet desperation in your heroine. I didn't much sense of time period until your heroine gives herself advice, but I don't have a problem with that. One again, contemporaries aren't really my genre (even though I just wrote a contemporary novella), but this reminds me of Linda Lael Miller's writing and I'd turn the page!

Okay. I think I managed to get everyone in one comment. If not, somebody throw a shoe at me. :D I'll keep checking back for more "entries." Have a great weekend, y'all.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Thanks Janet, it's helpful (even though you actually said nothing about it, that's the point) to hear the opening isn't disorienting. As I keep questioning how much knowledge I have vs. the new reader, I scrutinize everything and keep wondering lately if I should wind the opening back a half scene or something. That it hasn't come up is a good reminder to leave it alone.

I finally slapped a pitch together for a small writers' get-together (for Surrey), so I'll be able to poke at it long term until I go, rather than scramble. I like it, but it's painfully plotty right now. If you have time, I might fire it your way for some perspective, since you know my characters, but have not read the whole thing, but do know how it starts vs. what the pitch implies.

Silver, I figured it was something like that (cops in the family, so the alpha language instantly suggested it to me). I think it had me looking for two separate words, whereas I'd probably type that (and of course it's just my own interpretation) with a hyphen, a cluster-.., or Charlie-Foxtrot. I'm curious now how, or if ever, you drop hints for context on that one :)

Jana, I will come back later to give your opening a proper read-through. For now, my tea has long boiled and I'm officially into putting-off-writing mode!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I'm just checking in before I hit the hay. I agree that my opening line isn't as strong as I'd like it to be. I'll definitely take a look at your suggestion and see if I can make it stronger.

Nighty night.

Janet said...

Silver, Hayley and Jana - thanks for coming back! Loved reading your comments and suggestions - like I said, I learn a lot from this type of activity :)

Hayley - whenever you want to send something my way, I'd be happy to have a look-see.