A lot of the talks at the conference had to do with improving your writing, imagine that? In this post I’ll breakdown Paula’s talk on really making your first ten pages hook your readers.
The First Ten Pages – Paula Munier
That opening scene has to grab your reader’s attention, if it doesn’t they won’t keep reading. We also need to think about how books are bought, if it’s not word of mouth, and it usually is, typically the cover, the back of the book, and the first few lines are what sell. Agents, editors, and publishers also tend to look at the first 140-250 characters which is only 1-2 sentences before deciding that your work interesting or passing on it.
Paula also said that agents will skip the query and only come back to it if the sample catches their interest. So how do you make those first ten pages pop and come to life?
- Something has to happen, the story must begin
- It has to be unique, either in voice, content or style while also being familiar enough that the reader can relate and has some idea what to expect
- All fiction should be written with a strong voice which inspires confidence. This helps the reader connect with the characters and tells them what kind of story they’re getting into.
- Dialogue should be realistic, if it comes out as unbelievable you’ll lose the reader
- There should be emotional content, you want to evoke emotion in your readers
- It should be edited for grammar, punctuation and spelling. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but a sloppy manuscript makes a reader’s job more difficult which is the opposite of what a good writer does.
- Your prose should be clean, clear and concise
Let’s talk about the action. Your first ten pages needs to have something happen and that something should be interesting. No one wants to read ten pages where the character gets out of bed, makes coffee, eats breakfast and goes to work. Action provides the narrative thrust, it’s the engine that drives your story forward. Cause and effect are powerful here and really that’s the basis of every good story. A causes B but then C happens which leads us to D which pushes us to E, etc.
We also need to see the premise of your story in the first ten pages, the premise sets the foundation and explains to the reader what the story is about. It’s the ground on which you build the rest of your story.
Paula also said it’s important to have a big idea, this could be a theme or angle that is unique to your work, the sooner you introduce that, the better.
Then we talked about USP – Unique Selling Proposition, this is what makes your story yours. It can be explained in a logline, a one or two sentence summary, or it can be a comparison of your work to another title(s). This answers the question what is your book about and hints at the content.
- Seaquest was Star Trek in the oceans
- Games of Thrones is basically War of the Roses in a fantasy setting
Basically, what makes your book stand out? It can be your voice as a narrator or the point-of-view: The Lovely Bones (2002) as an example, is narrated by a young woman who was raped and murdered as she watches her family struggle to move on.
- Setting can be unique, a place we’ve never been or a familiar place with a new twist
- Characters that you love to follow, whether you like them or hate them
Action, conflict, and dialogue work together to drive a story forward and keep the reader invested so how do you keep the reader reading?
- Structure: each scene has to have an arc
- Present your theme early on, either in the first line or in the first few pages
- Avoid starting with the weather unless it’s bad and challenges or hinders the hero
- Avoid prologues unless it’s super critical and informs the main action. If you go with a prologue, don’t call it a prologue. You can use a time/place instead or simply state ‘Before’ or ‘Yesterday’
- Don’t open with a dream, it’s cliche
- Don’t start with them alone unless they’re doing something compelling
- Show your hero in ACTION
- No opening phone calls, text messages, skype calls, etc.
Given all that, it’s fine to break any of the rules but when you do there must be a point to it. It’s better for debut authors to follow them. We also want to leave out anything boring that the reader may be tempted to skip.
Lastly, Paula suggested we clean up:
- Overwriting – “kill your darlings”
- Interior monologues – make them concise and poignant
- Cliches – best way to knock your reader out of the spell of your text
- Weak verbs
- Dialogue tags
- POV changes
You want to make things easy on the reader and you want to keep them enthralled with your text. The object is to keep them turning the page. If you can do that for the first ten pages, you can likely keep it up for the rest of your novel.