Writing the First Page – Character

Each week for as long as it takes, I’m going to discuss an important craft element an author should consider on the first page of every story. As always, I hope the posts will help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

Like I said last week, the first page has a rotten job. Partly, it can get it done by shunting some of its work onto a character. It’s hard to get a reader to love a page. It’s a lot easier to get them to love a character. People are hard-wired to care about other people.

How do you take advantage of that? By focusing your first page on a character that a.) your readers will be likely to care about immediately and b.) your readers will continue to care about throughout your opening chapters.

Most authors, even when they’re just starting out, seem to know this intuitively. It’s pretty rare to see a first-page attempt that doesn’t feature a character at all. But I often see authors fail in the execution. They start with a minor character involved in a major plot episode, or they try to emulate TV and movies by starting with a minor or throwaway character who sets the stage for the grand dramatic entrance of the major character on page ten. Or they use the first page of their novel for a prologue that introduces an important plot element that creates a mystery (they’re commonly murders or other crimes, a stranger coming to town, or an Important Thing being broken or going missing). All of these approaches to first pages can work on a limited basis for certain types of stories, but you run some serious risks when you attempt them. To wit:

– Your writing may not be good enough. In order to pull off the “mysterious thing” opening, you need to have a flawless command of pacing and a heck of a mystery or high concept to introduce. You need to know exactly how much information to give the reader to get them hooked and then get the hell out of the way so that you can introduce them to a character as quickly as possible. This is not an easy structure to make work, so if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing with it, you’re probably better off going with a simpler opening.

– Your writing may be too good. If, in your “mysterious thing” opening, you introduce a character that the reader cares about too much, only to kill him or her immediately or never show him or her to the reader again, the reader may be very disappointed, possibly to the point of giving up on the book entirely. Even great books can run into this problem; I put off reading A Game of Thrones for years because of its prologue.

– You may create frustrated expectations. Really, this is another flavor of the “your writing may be too good” problem. Another fantasy mainstay, The Eye of the World, falls afoul of this. If you open with a scene that’s so far removed from your main narrative that the reader won’t understand its relevance until they’re a hundred pages into the book, why are you starting your book there at all? Unless the scene’s relevance is shown quickly, many readers will either forget about the scene or become frustrated by it, and either way you’ll be counting on something else to carry them through the first hundred pages. In most cases, you ought to start with whatever that is.

– Your reader can leave too easily. I apply this warning to any attempt to emulate TV or movies. Writers for broadcast television (less so today than they once could, but it still applies) and writers for movies can get away with things that writers of books can’t. They have tricks that we don’t (like actors and soundtracks—my god the things they get away with because of soundtracks) and their media are stickier. When was the last time you walked out of a movie theater partway through a film? When was the last time you flipped the channel away from a broadcast show without at least waiting for the first commercial break? TV and movie viewers have already bought the content when they start it. Readers haven’t. When was the last time you put a book down before getting to the end of the first page? Probably the last time you went browsing for books—reading the first page is part of how readers determine what to buy.

So, deviation over, why should you start your story with a major sympathetic character? Because so many readers read stories for the characters. If you’ve written a great book, you have a great character somewhere inside it. Don’t be coy with that character—give them to the reader immediately so that the reader can fall in love and decide to read your book.

You’ll get readers who care most about your world and you’ll get readers who care most about your plot, but a significant chunk of your readership is likely to come, and stay, for the characters you write. Give them what they want. The longer you wait to offer your reader a character they can care about for the long haul, the greater the risk you run of that reader bouncing off your story.

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Writing the First Page – Voice

Each week for as long as it takes, I’m going to discuss a craft element every author should consider on the first page of every story. As always, I hope the posts will help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it.

The first page has a rotten job; it must convince a stranger that it’s worth their time, and it must do it in the blink of an eye. Imagine if that was your job, all day, every day. “Love me! Look how compelling I am! Don’t you want to come inside and see what else this book has to offer?”

Pretty rough, right? It’s the literary equivalent of getting into a sandwich suit and dancing at an intersection with a big sign.

Luckily, you can equip your first pages with tools that make their job a lot easier. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to go over a number of those tools, and I’m starting with the most important one today: on your first page, you must establish a voice for the novel.

Voice is one of the hardest aspects of craft to define, but I’ll do my best for you here. When I say voice, I mean which words you use to tell the story and what promises those words make to the reader.

One of my favorite first pages is that of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. Really, you should read the whole first chapter (hell, the whole book) if you want to study voice, but I’ll pluck out a line to pick apart for you. It’s the third paragraph of the book, the eighth line (moving down vertically), the twelfth and thirteenth sentences. In short, it comes very early.

“There was a spear coming at him. A cruel-looking spear, coming at him fast with a Shanka on the other end of it.”

That line does a great job of establishing voice. It promises the reader a number of things:

  • This will be a stylistically rendered novel (Look at the repetition—not strictly necessary but used to artistic effect).
  • This will be a humorous novel (Look at the way this information is delivered—cleverly and with a hint of sarcasm: “Yep, there’s a spear coming…oh, and it has an effing monster attached to one end.” Abercrombie could have written, “A Shanka threw a cruel-looking spear at him,” but that would be a very different voice).
  • This will be a novel where the language is sometimes plain, sometimes beautiful. (Roll the words “cruel-looking spear” around in your mouth. There’s poetry there; that’s one reason the repetition works. Then look at “There was a spear coming at him.” Much more journalism than poetry there.)
  • This will be a novel in which the characters tell the story in their own words (This is an assumption made by the reader at this point based upon the idiosyncrasy of the language; it won’t be confirmed until we get another point of view and it uses a different voice).
  • This will be a novel in which the author knows what the heck he’s doing (This is the cumulative effect of all of the above, plus the other things happening on the page).

All of those promises are important. They give the reader information necessary to decide whether to keep reading or not, and they offer a vision of the book to come that many readers find compelling.

Voice is the vehicle for many of the promises the first page delivers, and it delivers them at a level that’s often beneath the reader’s consciousness. Most readers don’t pick the technical elements of a page apart. They may not be able to tell you why they kept reading one book and didn’t keep reading another, but you may hear this a lot: “I just like the way he/she writes.” or “I was three pages in before I realized it.” Those are signs that the author’s voice is working.

So when you’re revising your first page, ask yourself the following questions related to voice:

  • What promises am I making to the reader with my language, and do I keep them in the rest of the novel?
  • What stylistic elements (sentence fragments; witty dialogue; long descriptive passages; short, snappy sentences; humor; wordplay; onomatopoeia; cursing; sarcasm; direct address; internal monologue; poetic descriptions; journalistic descriptions; strange typography or formatting; etc., etc., etc.) appear frequently enough in the novel that I should show them to the reader right away so that they can decide whether or not they want more?
  • Does one character have a stronger voice than the others, and if so, am I leading with their point of view?
  • Does the narrator of my first page sound like she’s a good storyteller? If not, why not, and how can I get her there?

If you can answer those questions in a way that satisfies you, chances are you’re well on your way to having strong voice on your first page.

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Notes from the Reading – Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Every so often, I post a few editorial thoughts about a traditionally published book I’m reading—what I see working and what I see as problematic. Hopefully, it will give you a chance to learn a few things, both about what I see as an editor and about what to look for when you’re evaluating your work. I’ll stick to books that are by big-name authors and popular—books I don’t think I can hurt when I talk about what I see as their flaws.

This week’s book is Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Nebula winner from 1993. The book describes the colonization of Mars in pretty granular detail. It focuses on the lives of Mars’ first hundred colonists during their journey to Mars, then during the building of the first colony, then as they adapt to the arrival of additional colonists.

It’s fascinating to read today, because while I have it on good authority that the science Robinson used to write the novel was state-of-the-art at the time, things have progressed. A particularly ambitious book club could get a ton of mileage out of reading this and The Martian in the same month.

I enjoyed it a lot. The book’s pretty long, but I always looked forward to settling down to read it.

Of course, I also have some things to talk about.

What’s working:

– Character choice. This is a book of ideas, but ideas alone don’t make a story; sci-fi has to be grounded in characters—that’s what makes it juicy rather than dry. Robinson has done a masterful job of choosing the right character to guide us through each of several phases of colonization. Political operator Frank tells the story of political upheaval. Mission leader and emotional hothead Maya tells the story of interpersonal relations on the journey to Mars. Hard-nosed engineer Nadia tells the story of building the first colony, etc. Each character is interesting on their own, but they’re made even more interesting by the way they harmonize with the situations we follow them through.

– Pacing. This came up recently in a sample edit I did, so it’s fresh in my mind. Long books have a tougher time getting away with slow pacing than short books do. Some readers will tolerate a little wandering, a slow setup, or authorial indulgence in a novella. In a book that’s 200,000 words long, the author tends to get less leeway. Red Mars handles its pacing and its length excellently. It’s a long book, but no sentence seems wasted, so the length feels earned and exciting rather than frustrating.

– Resonance. One of the things I love most in a book—it’s not necessary for it to be a good book, but it always elevates its status as far as I’m concerned—is when there’s a resonant moment near the end. I love to see the tangled threads of the narrative come together, the clouds open, and the book take on a crystal-clear meaning. This book has that moment, on page 556 of 572:

Late in this quiet meal Ann looked around curiously at her companions, suddenly awed by the spectacle of human adaptability. Here they were eating their dinner, talking over the low boom from the north, in a perfect illusion of dining-room conviviality; it might have been anywhere anytime, and their tired faces bright with some collective success, or merely with the pleasure of eating together—while just outside their chamber the broken world roared, and rockfall could annihilate them at any instant. And it came to her that the pleasure and stability of dining rooms had always occurred against such a backdrop, against the catastrophic background of universal chaos; such moments of calm were things as fragile and transitory as soap bubbles, destined to burst almost as soon as they blew into existence. Groups of friends, rooms, streets, years, none of them would last. The illusion of stability was created by a concerted effort to ignore the chaos they were imbedded in. And so they ate, and talked, and enjoyed each other’s company; this was the way it had been in the caves, on the savannah, in the tenements and the trenches and the cities huddling under bombardment.

That’s what this book is about, over and above all the dozens of smaller stories it tells, and it’s a brilliant piece of art that can create that moment of revelation.

What isn’t working:

– Technology overreach. There is some seriously cool technology at play in Red Mars, and a lot of it makes sense. Watching people invent fantastical new ways to deal with the necessities of Mars feels believable, particularly when it’s mixed with strong characterization and what looks like solid research. But there’s one area of science where the advances in the book left me scratching my head. There’s some very important biotech being invented on Mars that has nothing to do with the Martian environment. As the book goes on, more and more of the plot hinges on the invention of this technology. It was really the only way in which the book disappointed me, and it left a bad taste in my mouth as I enjoyed everything else.

– Character creep. One of book’s biggest strengths is its characters, but partway through, two of them begin to melt together. There are, I think, a few potential narrative explanations for this. The two have a very close relationship, and there’s been a major recent sea-change in it that could conceivably lead one of them to start becoming like the other without realizing it. But that’s left undeveloped—if it’s intended, it may be a bit too subtle, and either way, the ramifications of that sea-change moment didn’t feel fully explored to me.

That’s it! Small-potatoes stuff, as you’d expect with a bestselling, award-winning novel, but it was there nonetheless. And you know what? I bet both of these things came up during edits, and at some point both author and editor said, “It’s working well enough, let’s get it out the door.” That’s how the process often works; you can keep tinkering and tinkering searching for perfection and never find it, or you can settle for “great” and then go write the next book.

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