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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Importance of the First Page

The goal of the first page of a manuscript is to engage your reader. It’s that simple. So who is your reader? If you’re entering the GH, your audience is threefold--the reader who judges your entry and most likely knows the ins and outs of the business, the editor judge (if you make it into the finals), and the reader you pictured in your head when you first set out to write your novel. You should keep all three in mind.

Besides enjoying your subgenre, what does this three-headed audience have in common?
1. They love to read about people falling in love. Are you truly writing romance or a novel with romantic elements? That may change how you approach the first page.
2. Your audience is familiar with your subgenre’s conventions. So you’d better know those conventions as well, especially relating to page one. Read opening pages for the books currently filling the shelves in your entry’s subgenre. Glean information from them. Study them for trends. Where does your opening fit in the current market? Can it hold its own against the competition?

Other Questions to Keep In Mind When Analyzing Your Opening Page:

Does your audience have any sensitivities? For example, if you are writing an inspirational romance, opening with your heroine spewing expletives, while granted, would grab the reader’s attention. Using expletives in this case flies against the subgenre’s standard conventions. Here’s an inspirational opening that does work from Noodler Merrilllee Whren. Note that she includes a reference to God and that she piques our curiosity about the hero with her opening line. We want to know why Wade reacts with a frown to the kids’ laughter. We also want to know what happened in the past to make him feel glad to be alive. We’re curious about these battles he engaged in during the past year.

Shrieks of childish laughter pierced the air, and Wade Dalton frowned. So much for the peace and quiet he’d been expecting on Florida’s Amelia Island. He surveyed the expanse of sand dunes swaying with sea oats. Too tired to get up from his lounge chair and check out the source of the laughter, he leaned back on the cushion and closed his eyes. The late-morning sun, warming his face, reminded him that he should be glad he was alive. After the battles of the past year, a little unplanned noise shouldn’t bother him. God must have a purpose for his life.

Merrillee Whren, Four Little Blessings, Harlequin Love Inspired,

What does your audience value? Historical readers tend to value accuracy in historical detail, so it’s best not play fast and loose with the facts or ignore them. Regency readers in particular are known to be sticklers for accuracy. Furthermore, historical readers want to be swept away to a different time and place. Make absolutely certain the setting and dialogue transport your reader. The following is Noodler Diane Gaston’s opening. Note the language “took no heed” “leave me this instant” “release me”. In a modern setting, we might use “paid no attention” “get away,” “let go.”

“Leave me this instant!”
A woman’s voice.
Adrian Pomroy, the new Viscount Cavanley, barely heard her as he rounded the corner onto John Street. Not even halfway down the block he saw the woman stride away from a man. The man hurried after her. They were mere silhouettes in the waning light of this November evening and they took no heed of him.
Adrian paused to make sense of this little drama. It was most likely a lover’s quarrel, and, if so, he’d backtrack to avoid landing in the middle of it.
“One moment.” The man kept his voice down, as if fearing to be overheard. “Please!” He seized her arm.
“Release me!” The woman struggled frantically to pull away.
Lover’s quarrel or not, Adrian could not allow a woman to be treated so roughly. He sprinted forward. “Unhand her! What is this?”

Diane Gaston Scandalizing the Ton, Harlequin Historical (on sale Oct 2008).

Does your audience have any pacing preferences? Have you fulfilled them? Suspense novels tend to begin with a bang--Perhaps a hero or heroine in peril, an explosion, or maybe even a dead body. Readers who like suspense want you to make their pulse quicken. They like a fast pace. Series Contemporary romances often put the hero and heroine together on page one. If not on page one, then somewhere close in to the first chapter. When you have a page count on the lower end, you have to get to the romance faster. Noodler Terry McLaughlin knows this. Note how we’re deep in the hero’s head and we’re getting his first impression of the heroine. She’s angry; the audience wants to know why.

Jack Maguire wouldn’t be needing a second look to confirm the rumor: Charlie Keene was a woman who could give a man hell. She stood a dozen yards away, her muddy boots planted at the edge of Earl Sawyer’s gravel yard, flaring up like a pint-size serpent to poke a pointy finger at his gut. And if that image wasn’t enough of a giveaway, all a guy had to do was listen. She hissed and spat in a fire-and-brimstone vocabulary, providing Sawyer with an impressive preview of everlasting damnation.

Terry McLaughlin, Small-Town Temptation, Harlequin Superromance,

What gets your attention on an opening page? Does page one of your manuscript engage?

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At 8:37 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Great blog, Maureen! And you hit it right on the head when you ask, "What does your audience value?" And then you did a great job show showing us the difference with the 3 openings. In other words, don't beat around the bush before announcing what kind of book the judge is reading. If it's a paranormal, better show me something paranormal FAST. Good message!

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Glad the advice rang true, Norah!

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great openings and great advice, Mo! Love these examples. They're all so different and yet I can't wait to read every single one! Thanks!

At 1:33 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Thanks so much for featuring Scandalizing the Ton, Mo!

I think it is very important for the first page of a GH entry to grab the reader's attention. The most common mistake I see in contest entries is to start in backstory. The advice to "start where the action is" works for me!

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Prisakiss said...

I have a tendency to "info dump" in the opening chapter. A big no-no, yet hard for me to avoid.

Great suggestion, Mo, about reading the opening chapters to multiple books in the line I'm targeting.

I have some of my favorites on my shelf at home. Guess I know what I'll be reading in my free time this week. If they're my favorites, their openings must have grabbed me.

Anyone care to share some of their common missteps or concerns with their opening pages? I'm sure our Noodlers will have more great advice for you.


At 8:54 PM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Wow, great information, Maureen!

I loved the examples and it gives me a much better feel for what a great opening should be.

My current WIP which I HOPE to finish in time to enter the Golden Heart is a Gothic Regency with a paranormal twist. How on earth do I get all of that on the first page???

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Merrillee said...

The example Maureen gave from Diane's book shows how you can make the setting say Regency. I think you can do that as well with the Gothic element, and you can just hint at the paranormal. I always think Gothics have that other world feeling anyway.

And thanks, Maureen, for featuring my book.

At 10:44 PM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Here is the opening of The Raven's Heart. What do you think?

Suffolk Coast, 1812

“There’s something wrong at the house.”

Now that was an understatement if ever there was one.

Ravencrest Hall sat on the edge of crumbling cliffs, a stone gargoyle clinging to the land like some dying beast spat out of the sea. It devoured all who entered and sucked the last drop of joy, laughter, and life out of them as surely as the worms in the grave. She hated the place.

Madeline Carston glanced up from her seat on the rickety gig and realized the old Welsh groom was right. The ancient mansion was monstrous enough in its normal darkened state. As it stood now, candlelight aglow in every window, it took on the aspect of a smiling, hungry demon.

At 7:34 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Ooh, Louisa, I'd say you SCORED with that opening. IMO, you got the Gothic Regency part, and with the mood you set, paranormal happenings wouldn't seem like a stretch. Well done!

At 9:45 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

“There’s something wrong at the house.”

Now that was an understatement if ever there was one.

Louisa, you know how picky I am. I would suggest that you could do a bit better with these two beginning sentences to, as Maureen suggested, immediately give the reader an historical feel. These could be contemporary people speaking as easily as Regency people.

My suggestion:
"Something is amiss at the Hall"

or "Something is amiss at Ravencrest Hall"


Surely that is an understatement, should ever there be one.

or Surely that is an understatement if ever there be one.

or Surely that understates the matter, if it is possible to do so.

or something like that.

On this sentence Madeline Carston glanced up from her seat on the rickety gig and realized the old Welsh groom was right.

I'd change "right" to "correct" - sounds more historical

Just tweak a little bit. Channel your inner Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer. And as you go through your entry, ask yourself if the dialogue sounds "historical" enough.

I totally agree with Norah that you've nailed that gothic feel. One instantly feels this could be a new Victoria Holt.

At 12:48 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Louise, wonderful opening and I think Diane's changes will give it that extra punch!

Looks like you'll be a 2009 finalist for sure!

At 1:18 PM, Blogger Prisakiss said...

I know this is yesterday's blog and we're on to today's, but I just wanted to comment on Diane's excellent advice (the "understatement" sentence didn't quite sound regency to me, either) and Louise's fabulous opening page!!!

You definitely captured the gothic "feel". The image of the Hall as a hungry demon was perfectly created. I can "see" it in my mind.

Diane's suggestions are spot on, and will help you truly capture the Regency mood/language/etc.

Best of luck. You are definitely on the right track!


At 2:36 PM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Thank you, O Divine One! Once again, you are my guardian angel!! I agree completely with your comments and I will be on the lookout for more "modernisms" in this one. Fabulous catches, as usual!

At 8:31 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

If you make those changes Diane suggested, I think you'll have a winner! It's amazing how little tweaks make such a difference.


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