Saturday, August 18, 2012

Some Lists about First Pages

A few months ago, I helped judge a contest where I read a bunch of first pages for YA novels all in one sitting -- about forty of them in the course of three hours. And by the end of it, I have to say, I had seen quite a lot of:

Contemporary first-person protagonists:

  1. Who are cynical or world-weary (especially evinced by rolling their eyes, and/or sarcastic remarks to whatever parent is present)
  2. Who blame themselves for something that happened in the past (often an accident)
  3. Who are outcasts and either (a) proud of it or (b) self-loathing for it
  4. All of the above
With parents: 
  1. Who are goofy-quirky
  3. Who are dying of some disease
  4. Who are already dead (often thanks to some accident or other circumstances the protagonist didn't prevent; see #2 above)
Or who:
  1. Live in a land ravaged by war or ecological disaster (post-apocalyptic)
  2. Have some kind of paranormal magical power, often involving death 
  3. Both
All of these things are perfectly fine elements in fiction, actually. . . . I could rattle off YA novels I love that have each of these things. I only object to them when these elements are broadcast (as they often were in these contest entries) on the first page, often in the first paragraph--like a mini-synopsis right at the very beginning:
"Periana!" I heard my mother call as I fled into the woods.
I threw back my head and screamed "LEAVE ME ALONE!"
"I hate her," I whined to myself. She was such a harpy! Ever since my stepfather, Varrow Rai, became High Archon of Columbakron, she had been on my back for me to stumble into his archenemy, the beautiful Archoniess Velatrinia, and step on her foot with my deadly poisonous left toe. I knew my real father would never ask me to do anything so degrading--if only my mother would tell me where he was.
To enumerate the faults here (and I made that example up, in case you couldn't tell):
  1. Chiefly, this demonstrates what I think of as "conceptitis" -- a common ailment among first pages, where the writer is so excited about the concept of the novel that s/he gives that concept away on page 1. 
  2. Or in this case, a whole mess of concepts:  conflict with the mother, high and deadly politics in the fantasy world of Columbakron, a missing father, an unlikely assassin. It's hard for me to have a sense of where the story is going because there are so many stories on the page right here, so, as a reader, I feel more confused than drawn in.
  3. Periana is also starting us off with her emotional volume already at 11--screaming at her mother as she runs away. Because I as a reader haven't seen any of the circumstances that led to this screaming and running, I feel more alienated from her than connected to her. It's usually better to start softer and give your protagonist some emotional room to play with.
    1. I was talking to a writer earlier this year about my exhaustion with first-person teen or preteen protagonists who are angry or whine all the time, and she said, "But that's how my kids talk to me, so that's an authentic teen voice, isn't it?"And that is true--it's authentic to one of the voices and emotional registers that teenagers often use. But it's hardly their most attractive voice, quite often, especially if it involves constant conflict or whining; and it's one that's really hard to connect with, I think, especially if there's no charm or truth or humor to the whininess. 
    2. So really, I don't want to read a teen voice that echoes how your kids talk to you--I want to read one that sounds like how your kids talk to their friends, with that honesty and humanity and a wider range of emotion than you parents might see from them. Actually, I even want to see how you (the writer/parent) talked to your friends when you were a teenager--omitting the slang of the period, maybe, but with that same emotional authenticity.
  4. Protagonists should never, ever whine unless they know they're doing it and they're aware that it's bad behavior. (This might be just my pet peeve, but lord, I hate whiners.)
  5. Elbow-jogging the reader with as-yet-unnecessary details that clog up the storytelling, like the stepfather's name and the beauty of Velatrinia.
  6. The deadly poisonous left toe is clearly ridiculous, but some days it feels like the only paranormal ability someone has not yet written about.
  7. And the "real father" gambit is so common that it makes me roll my eyes a little. Which is not to say it's not true or believable or a necessary element in many stories--the search to know oneself by knowing one's family; only that because it's so common, I wouldn't lead with it on page 1. Hook the reader with some other elements first.
I understand that writers are told over and over again to capture a reader on Page 1; I've probably given that advice myself at some point. But I believe that the number-one thing that hooks readers is authority, by which I mean a sense that this writer is in control of the story and how it's being told. An author with authority isn't in a rush to give away the central plotline of the book, because s/he knows that plot is going to be good, and so s/he can afford to take her time getting there, and to do it right. Nor is s/he sucking up or desperate to attract the reader, which is often how a case of conceptitis comes off, and which often loses my respect in turn. Rather, s/he can offer little details, hints, shafts of light illuminating the characters and world that's about to unfold for us, and help us get anchored within that world, so once the action truly begins, we readers have an emotional relationship of some kind with the place and the characters.

The author can take that time because s/he still makes all of this backstory build up steadily to the Inciting Incident, which happens by the end of the first chapter if not earlier -- and s/he knows it's a good Incident, an event that's not only interesting and noteworthy all on its own, but one that sets up clear lines of action and/or questions that will follow out of it, so there's more story there that I want to know about. And s/he has good, strong, confident prose that draws me in by showing me the protagonist and world. This formula describes:
  • The Golden Compass
    • Intriguing hint in the first line: Mention of "daemons," with no explanation of what they are (ever, really; Philip Pullman is like the honey badger and doesn't care if you keep up)
    • Getting to know the world and character:  Lyra is in a clearly alternate Oxford, and she dares to both explore forbidden territory and hide in a wardrobe to eavesdrop.
    • Inciting Incident in first chapter:  The arrival of Lord Asriel, and the attempt on his life
  • The Hunger Games
    • Intriguing hint in the first paragraph:  Katniss's obvious love for her sister, who needs comfort, because "This is the day of the reaping."
    • Getting to know the world and character:  District 12 is poor, and Katniss needs and likes to hunt
    • Inciting Incident: The reaping
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
    • Intriguing hint in the first line:  The phrase "perfectly normal, thank you very much"
    • Getting to know the world and character:  the contrast between the Dursleys and the Potters and their respective worlds
    • Inciting Incident:  Hagrid's delivery of Harry to the Dursleys via Dumbledore
  • The Fault in Our Stars
    • Intriguing hint in the first line: The disjunction between Hazel's behavior and the fact that she implicitly asserts she is not depressed; also, the specificity with which she lists those symptoms
    • Getting to know the world and character:  observations of her Support Group
    • Inciting Incident:  Hazel meets Augustus
  •  Stealing Air (by Trent Reedy, forthcoming in October; I know Trent will be embarrassed to be included in this company, but his first chapter works for exactly the same reasons these others do)
    • Intriguing hint in the first line: "Great success through great risk"
    • Getting to know the character and world:  Brian does take a risk in stepping up to try to make friends, and we get a good sense of layout of this small town as he later tries to escape the park
    • Inciting Incident:  Fight with Frankie, and Max's rocketbike
Study those models; take your time; show us the character and world; have a good Inciting Incident; and finally claim your authority, and readers will follow. I've said it before and will say it again:  Write your novel like you're performing a striptease, not going to a nude beach.


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  1. Thank you for this, Cheryl! I learned the "whiny lesson" after writing my second ms. After getting a lot of feedback on it (including a fabulous editor), many just couldn't connect with my mc because she was down on herself all the time and it was difficult to connect with her. I'm glad I've learned this lesson because after finishing my newest work, I'm realizing how much more in love I am with it! And I'm VERY thankful to those who were honest with me and took the time to give me that feedback. I also love the idea of striptease writing--brilliant!

  2. This is fabulous advice. Though I don't write for this age group, I'm in critique groups with writers that do write for older readers and have their characters whining at times. Now I can pass on your wisdom. Thanks for all you do for the writing community.

  3. Excellent advice. I really think having your MC talk as s/he would to friends rather than to the parents is invaluable. Thanks.

  4. I really like this advice. It's more nuanced than the advice I typically run into about starting off in the middle of things to hook the reader. It fits better with what I actually see in the books I enjoy.

  5. Great points. I wish there were also fewer YA books with YA narrators. All the YA I read as a kid rarely featured kids (dragon lance for instance). Perhaps the whole concept of what YA should be reading has evolve as well as what they are demanding to read.

  6. You summed up the problem with whiny narrators perfectly. I can't stand whiners (I had a little trouble with Harry in book four for this reason). Also, teenagers are more likely to identify whining in someone outside themselves (self weakness blindness). So they probably won't relate to it as a primary character trait.

  7. Great advice for first pages, applicable to all types of manuscripts and genres I'm sure. Thank you.