How to Write a Story’s First Page

Beginnings. They can be the easiest part of writing a new story, or they can be hardest. And there are so many incredible first pages out there. What makes those first few pages so compelling?

I’ve thought about this often, especially since I teach a class called “Great Beginnings” at the Muse Writer’s Center. In fact, I’ve studied the concept of beginnings extensively, pouring over craft books, going to conferences, and spending hours tucked between my library’s shelves, opening book after book to read the first few pages. After more hours of study than I can count, I’ve learned that almost every great beginning has four specific things in common.

  • A hook (especially if you’re a new, unestablished writer)
  • Setting to ground the reader
  • Introduction to a Main Character (note the word Introduce)
  • Clues to the story’ genre and theme
  • A story problem with an emotional impact

It sounds simple until you need to squeeze all four factors into one page. One page is about 250 words. Around 75 sentences. Three, four paragraphs tops. How do you do this in a few paragraphs? After numerous blunders and a few successes, I’ve come up with a formula for a solid first page.

first line hook+ interesting world detail + character introduction + instant emotional distress.

I know, it sounds mean, instant emotional distress. But it works.

The first line hook is simple: write a single line that demands readers’ attention.

Subtle world building is important too, especially in fantasy, which tends to be where my work lands. No matter what genre your story is, it’s important to remember what makes world details important at this stage of the story. It isn’t the world details themselves, but how the main character views those world details.

The character’s voice has it’s moment to shine in a first chapter. Readers learn about characters based on what type of words they use and what they talk or think about. An adult will think about different things than a child will, and someone from the 1880’s will speak with very different phrasing than someone might today. Clues to what kind of story your telling can be given through word choice and tone, which can establish a creepy/funny story. A comedy probably won’t start on a dark, rainy night, but a scary story might. A middle grade comedy might start in a treehouse on a summer afternoon. It’s incredible how powerful word choice can be.

The backbone of this formula is the emotional distress. What does the character want, and why can’t they have it. What do they want to protect, or save, or gain, and what do they have to loose.

It’s easy to jump in to the “big” story problem, but in those first pages it’s best to use what I call a “perspective” problem. Something that matters to the main character on a small scale. Something that allows readers to get to know your awesome MC (main character) while also giving the reader time to care about what happens to the MC.

This “perspective” problem happens in so many books I couldn’t possibly name them all. In Harry potter, Harry is mistreated by his caretakers. Wizardry is non existent until Hagrid shows up. In the Hate You Give, Starr is regretting going to a party and worried about her social place in the world. A friend getting shot by the police isn’t a flicker in her mind. If we didn’t have those first chapters to get to know these two incredible characters, what happens to them later wouldn’t have as much impact.

That’s the magic of incredible beginnings–making the ordinary extraordinary, and the extraordinary relatable.

Hope this helps someone as much as it’s helped me. I’d love to hear other takes on great beginnings too!

Keep writing everyone,

Big Book News: I Have an Agent!

GUESS WHAT: I Signed with Christa Heschke at McIntosh & Otis!!!!!!!

*TEARS OF JOY*

Christa loved my latest crossover fantasy, HEX OF THE KILLING CROWN, with its morally grey characters, complicated sibling relationships, enemies to lovers romance, and twists galore.

This journey has been one heck of a ride, and it’s just beginning. I’ll share the full story of how I got my agent very soon, but for now, I’m going to celebrate.

Keep writing everyone,

How to Show Emotion on the Page: The Cheat Sheets

Feelings are hard, in both reality and writing. This isn’t a ground-breaking concept, but stay with me.

Characterization is heavily rooted in emotion. Physical traits and personal history can help mold a vivid depiction for a reader, but what really tells an audience about a story’s protagonist and counterparts is how individuals react to situations. Those reactions are portrayed through emotion.

See? I have a point.

Characterization is only one aspect of what makes emotional reaction so key to the creation of a good story. If you ask someone, “what makes a good book?” how the book made them feel is probably going to be embedded in the response you receive.  In order to achieve this connection, the feelings of a novel’s cast need to transfer from paper to the reader. When your protagonist cries, readers need to feel pain. When your antagonist triumphs, readers should have an overwhelming desire to punch the jerk in the face (or make out with said person, depending on your writing style. I lean toward the latter).

All this mumbo-jumbo above is great to know, but how do you achieve it? That’s a question with a mile long answer. There are books written on the subject (check out a few here.) I’ve read one or two, but  when it comes time to write I’m not going to dig out my copy of Emotion, Tension & Conflict and look up the best way to convey “She felt sad”.

Warning: “She felt sad” is the worst route to take. Avoid at all costs. Please.

This leads me to the purpose of this post.  I have a confession. I’m a cheater.

I don’t take the time to dive into another book while writing my own. I use cheat sheets. These sites below help pinpoint frequent mishaps writers make, and help spark ideas.

Cheat Sheet For Writing Emotion

This is a fantastic list of emotional actions. One of the best lists I’ve found.

37 Ways To Write About Anger

Spoiler alert! This one focuses on the infuriating side of things!  Still, a great resource for when your character’s are feeling furious.

The Wheel of Emotions

(I’ll just stick it here to make things simple.)wheel-of-emotions

 

100 Words For Facial Expressions

Because you can only use “She grinned mischievously” so many times. Or not at all. In fact, don’t use it, use this list instead.

Tips On Effectively Conveying Character Emotion

This article does an incredible job of demonstrating how to put all of the above charts and tips to use. Show versus tell in reality! Woohoo!

I hope these links help you as much as they’ve helped me. Feel free to other links in the comments below. In fact, I encourage it. Thanks for sticking with me through this surprisingly long post (it’s like I’m a writer or something).

Until next time,

#Pitchwars isn’t a contest, it’s an opportunity

I’m not an exceptionally experienced writer. I have one manuscript under my belt and two halvsies. But I’m fairly experienced when it comes to contests. I’ve entered a few.

In fact,  I’ve entered 12 writing contests in the past year. They’re usually run by the RWA but I’ve entered three that were on a worldwide level ( Myslexia, A Woman’s Write, and Ya.Authors.me). They have a few differences, but they all have one thing in common. There is a distinct winner.

“That’s how a contest works,” you say, and ready yourself to move on.

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You don’t need to waste your time reading things you already understand.

BUT WAIT! I have a point, I swear!!!!

Guys, #Pitchwars isn’t that type of contest. Pitchwars is an opportunity. If you play your cards right, you will walk away with something beneficial, even if you don’t get picked by a mentor. That is always a win.

So, let’s list a few of the benefits of this contest, besides the ever- envied Mentor.

  1. A Beta Reader.
  2. A Critique Partner
  3. Query Edits
  4. AUTHOR SUPPORT
  5. The experience of rejection
  6. The experience of acceptance
  7. A measurement of how far you’re willing to go

Guys, this industry is rejection. It will only make you stronger.

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Okay, that’s a little bit of stretch, but you get the idea.

As an author, you’re setting yourself up for failure. That’s part of the deal. I learned that lesson very quickly when I lost my first contest. I didn’t even make it to through the first round, and I got a nasty critique letter that didn’t sugar coat the truth. It was painful, but you know what? It was the best thing that ever happened to my writing. I will forever thank the judge who took the time to be brutally honest, and for adding that the reason she was so harsh was because she saw unstructured talent.

I took the advice and rewrote, and things started changing for me. My first final was elating, but the truth is my biggest win was that first loss. Without that failure, I would never have learned the value of a negative critique. It taught me to look at my writing with a critical eye; there is always room for improvement. It taught me to straighten up and deal with the tough stuff because no one is going to hand me a map that leads to greatness. If  I want this, I’m going to earn some scars, which is okay because they make my skin thicker.

When I entered #Pitchwars, I didn’t see it as a contest. Pitchwars was a giant vat of opportunity I could submerge my writing into if I was willing to get the pages of my manuscript wet. The ink might run, and some lines might be lost, but the pretty skeleton of the story would remain.

So I threw myself in. It’s a little deeper than  I anticipated and the water is rough, but there are plenty of fellow writers around me and we are swimming together.

I’ve found a critique partner or two, possibly three! I’ve had my query ripped up in the best way. New sets of eyes showed me flaws I could never see, and now I have the ability to patch up the issues. All in all, I’ve gotten better.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that is a win.

I hope you all find your win, too.

Keep writing,

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Guilt

Tighten your lips
Tighten your belt

Tighten your stitches-

But don’t bleed.

 

Beg for your wants

Beg for your hopes

Beg on your knees-

But don’t need.

 

Heighten your goals

Heighten your dreams

Heighten your ambitions-

but don’t fall.

 

So we sew,

And we staple,

And we burn when we’re able,

And it cauterizes into scars we are sure no one can see.

 

One more layer,

A lying smile,

A lying laugh to hide a thought

That hides the track lines from a past we never get to leave.

 

But we all have them

Running up our arms,

Buried beneath skin,

Under sleeves of lovely silk.

 

The Winners have their losses.

The Triumphs have their falls.

The Saviors have their sacrifice

The Survivors have their guilt.