Conference Critique Workshop #2: Amazing manuscript first pages

Seeing how many of you are gearing up to submit your critique submissions for March’s conference, (at least I hope you are!) we are continuing with the critique workshop. Yesterday, we focused on creating first lines that raise story questions and hook the readers.

But that’s not enough, is it?

No, you need to reel the fish in with a powerful first page, keeping tension on the line and interest on the bait or you’re going to catch nothing but a rejection. And how many times have we heard that the first page needs to:

  1. Establish the setting.
  2. Introduce the main character’s tone and voice.
  3. Set the pace.
  4. Establish a sense of intrigue without confusing the readers by being too coy or vague and without overwhelming or boring them with too much back-story.
  5. Start with action and begin the story with a scene that shows conflict, or a discovery of something shocking, or an odd situation.
  6. Establish character sympathy and identification.

Seriously? That’s a lot of demands for one little page. Poor thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it crumples under the pressure and wants to tear itself in two.

So let’s save our darling first pages by examining the first page from one of yesterday’s examples, ROAD TO TATER HILL, by Edith Hemingway that shows how these demands can be met:

Chapter One

For months I had wished and wished the baby would be a girl, a little sister. Maybe I shouldn’t have wished so hard. A boy might have lived.

Weren’t wishes kind of like prayers? Maybe my wishing really did make things worse. I knew that didn’t make sense, but nothing in this whole terrible day made sense.

Grandma closed the front door with a bang, as if announcing the end of a chapter in a book about our lives. “What a day,” she said, dropping her purse to the floor. “I’m going to lie down. You should take a nap, too, Annie. None of us got much sleep last night.” Grandma headed to her room, not waiting for an answer.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As mentioned yesterday, Edie starts off by raising an intriguing story question in the first line. That question is answered in the third line, but she raises the stakes even higher, making the reader wonder: What happened to the sister? How did she die?

Edie also gets the reader to feel sympathy for her main character. We feel sorry for her pain, for the loss of her sister. Readers will also identify with the protagonist, especially those who have lost a sibling, and those who have ever felt guilt or regret for their actions—which is pretty much everyone.

From the words “closed the front door,” we get a sense of the setting, which is more than likely the main character’s home. Edie also continues to reel in the line by following the opening paragraphs with a scene between the main character and her grandmother. The reference to their “terrible day,” heightens the mystery, making us wonder again—what happened?” We are also given a taste of the grandmother’s character from her decision to lie down, leaving the room without waiting for an answer, without discussing it any further with Annie.

Did I want to keep reading?

You bet.

Let’s look at another example from yesterday’s post and examine the first page of SHADE, by Jeri Smith-Ready:

Chapter One

“You can hear me, can’t you?”

I punched the green print button on the copier to drown out the disembodied voice. Sometimes if I ignored them long enough, they went away—confused, discouraged, and lonelier than ever. Sometimes.

Okay, almost never. Usually they got louder.

No time to deal with it that day. Only one more set of legal briefs to unstaple, copy, and restaple, and then I could go home, trade this straitjacket and stockings for a T-shirt and jeans, and make it to Logan’s before practice. To tell him I’m sorry, that I’ve changed my mind, and this time I mean it. Really.

“I know you can hear me.” The old woman’s voice strengthened as it came closer. “You’re one of them.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Another excellent first page. It’s like one of those fancy fish baits with all these different hooks.

Who is the ghost? Why do they get louder? Why does the main character need to tell Logan she’s sorry, and what did she change her mind about?

How is she one of them?

And who is “them?”

We get a clear sense of the setting and the protagonist’s character. She works at a law firm, from the sound of it, which is interesting to me because I don’t know of any teens who work for lawyers. We are also introduced to the protagonist’s clear, distinct voice, especially from the words, “sometimes,” and “really.”

Jeri also starts with action, throwing us right in the scene without any back-story because that’s a big no-no, right? To never start with back-story?

Or . . . can you?

Take a look at the opening page of HOPE WAS HERE, by Joan Bauer.

(Click here to read.)

Did you notice how—in a way—Joan does start the novel with back-story? But, instead of just telling the reader how Hope first became a waitress, she shows it through a scene that is both interesting and informative.

So now it’s your turn.

Let’s have some fun and do an exercise, shall we? This one will take more time than yesterday’s and might be a bit intimidating, but YOU CAN DO IT, as long as you don’t obsess, don’t over-think, and don’t edit!

Just give yourself permission to let loose. 🙂

STEP ONE: Take a look at your first lines from yesterday and select your favorite.

Mine is, “It was Mama who told Jacob to take his gun.”

STEP TWO: Imagine what the book could be about.

What pops in your mind? And who could be your main character?

Very quickly—without obsessing—describe the potential book in one sentence. Keep it simple with sentences like, “Henry ran over his dog and felt bad,” or “A tornado destroys a town,” or let your hair down and be crazy with something like, “Katie becomes prom queen by kidnapping the most popular cheerleader.”

Here’s my sentence:

    A wimpy teenager named Jacob Johnson is being shoved by his overwhelming mother to kill his father.

Huh. Not bad. A little cliché, but that’s okay. And seeing I’m a plotter by nature, (and a major fan of The Snowflake Method,) I’m going to take this step further by thinking of the major turning points, the climax, and a resolution.

Turning point #1:

    Jacob listens to his mama and shoots his estranged father because she told him he’s a bad man.

Turning point #2:

      Jacob later realizes that he shot his father’s twin, not his father.

Turning point #3:

      Someone tipped the police off and now they are looking for Jacob.

Climax: Jacob’s father rescues him before he’s arrested and tells him how it was his mama who was bad, and not him.

Resolution: Jacob turns himself in and tells the truth about Mama.

Okay, the whole twin thing? It’s been done a billion times.

And I’m fairly certain that everyone could see right through bad ole’ Mama from the start. But that’s okay—this is just an exercise, so it doesn’t matter if my sentences are completely cliché or predictable because no one will ever see it.

Oh. Except for you. And everyone else reading this blog.

Hmm. Should I change it? Nah.

Now for the tricky part.

STEP THREE: Imagine different possible ways to start the story.

What scene could you start with that will instantly draw the reader in?

Don’t spend time analyzing this or over-thinking. Just close your eyes and imagine the book as a movie.

What do you see?

For mine, I wouldn’t want to start off with Jacob confronting his father. It would be too much—the reader wouldn’t understand why he’s doing it, so they’d feel no sympathy for him. In order for them to truly get a feel for Jacob’s situation, they need to meet his Mama.

Hmm . . . breakfast.

What about showing Mama serving Jacob a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs breakfast, so her baby boy has the energy for his big murdering day? Okay, I’m going with that . . . and I swear on my treasured collection of Dr. Seuss books that I’m doing this on the fly and I will not go back and edit it:

      It was Mama who told Jacob to take his gun.  After all, he’s now the man of the house. It’s his responsibility to protect. To take care of the women folk. To serve justice.“I made your favorite, Jacob,” Mama said as she set the plate on the kitchen table that was dinged and scratched from all the times his father slammed it. “Blueberry pancakes and over-easy eggs, yum-yum!”

Jacob picked up his fork and obediently began to eat, keeping his eyes glued to the clock. Only two more hours until it’s time.

“And you remember, Jacob, all the times your father has hurt me, don’t you, now?” Mama said, sitting down and sipping her coffee that smelled of pungent kerosene.

“Yes, Mama, I remember.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Okay, kind of interesting, although I’m not sure if tables are “dinged.” And coffee smelling like kerosene?  Ah, yeah, I couldn’t think of a better word to make it sound as though it’s laced with alcohol to show how Mama has some issues of her own.

And I can’t really see Mama ever saying, “Yum-yum.”

So if I were to pursue this novel—which I highly doubt—this first page would be changed. Again. And again. But what I’m hoping you accomplish from this exercise is to get your juices flowing, your creativity sparked, and geared up for your own manuscripts.

Now it’s time to look at your conference critique’s first page. Is it interesting? Does it pull the reader in?

Will it hook an editor or catch a rejection?

And not to sound like a broken record or anything, but for more information on establishing character sympathy and identification, see HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL, II, by James. N. Frey.

Here’s a great series of articles that I stumbled on while editing JUST FLIRT.

And another great one on flawed characters from my bookmarked list.

Tomorrow, we’re going to take a look at proper formatting.  Until then, happy writing!

Workshop #1:  Opening Lines

Workshop #2:  Amazing Manuscript First Pages

Workshop #3:  Formatting

Workshop #4:  Surviving Your First Critique

Workshop #5:  Perfecting Your Book Pitch

About Laura Bowers

Laura is a writer, runner, reader, runDisney addict, blogger/vlogger at Write, Run, Rejoice and Joyful Miles, mom of two awesome boys, wife of one fantastic husband, excellent chili maker, and obsessive list keeper. She loves run-on sentences and adverbs. She also still thinks Spice World was an awesome movie and feels no shame about that.
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13 Responses to Conference Critique Workshop #2: Amazing manuscript first pages

  1. You are writing fabulous posts, Laura. I know at some point you will need to get back to personal writing :-), but in the meantime please know how appreciated they are (even for a nf writer like me, who sees fiction and nf meshing more and more).

    • Laura Bowers says:

      Thanks, Mary! I’m still editing, but house cleaning? Eh, it can wait. 🙂 The next two installments aren’t as detailed or long and then it’s back to weekly posting for me. And you’re so right about nf/fiction meshing!

  2. Sonja Thomas says:

    I just wanted to second what M. Bowman stated – You are writing FABULOUS posts. And you’ve got me writing too! I had a blast coming up with first lines yesterday and will be using one for a novel in progress. And can’t wait to try out today’s exercises. Many thanks and keep the posts coming!

  3. Pingback: Conference Critique Workshop #3: Formatting « As the Eraser Burns

  4. Amazing! You deserve a BLOG award! Thanks for all you are doing for the region, Laura!

  5. Pingback: Tuesday This and Thats « As the Eraser Burns

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  7. Pingback: Conference Challenge #8: Prepare for a Successful Conference! « As the Eraser Burns

  8. Pingback: Conference Critique Workshop #5: Perfecting your book pitch! « As the Eraser Burns

  9. Reed says:

    Hello, I read your new stuff regularly. Your writing style is awesome, keep it up!

  10. Kristin says:

    Great Info. that I enjoyed from beginning to end. Oh yes..the first critique..just had mine with an author and all I can say is “Blah”. lol Paying for 15 minutes when the first 5 was used by the author telling me to read the notes she put on my manuscript. Then last 9 I was told only this, my story was not organic. That was it ladies and gentlemen. I got SOOOO excited for that? Such a shame but I did take something away from my first critique, Can anyone imagine what that was? The people at the conference were outstanding. I met the best people 🙂

    • Laura Bowers says:

      Sorry you didn’t have the best critique, Kristin! I can totally understand your frustration – over the years, I’ve received critiques that didn’t seem to benefit me much. I’ve also given critiques where it felt as though I wasn’t connecting with my author and afterwards, I agonize over whether or not I’ve helped or hurt them because I take my role as mentor very seriously.

      But for the most part, critiques have been a blessing for me, so I hope you’ll give it another try! You never know what it can lead to.

      Take care and I hope to see you at the conference!

  11. Hi there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after
    browsing through some of the post I realized it’s
    new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back frequently!

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