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,

The VRW Awards Luncheon

13437205_505607996290794_2014791379_n(1)Guys, I got invited to a tea party.

A real life tea party!

The Virginia Romance Writers throw a luncheon for the Finalists of the HOLT and the Fool For Love contest every year. My novel The Seductress made the finals! It’s the first event of this type  close enough for me to make, so  I was ecstatic.

 

13398640_1573136029656913_1584713122_nI got to dress up, eat amazing food, and listen to some really great advice from Cynthia Holt Johnson and Carolyn Greene.  I had the pleasure of sitting at their table during this event, and I am so glad I got to know them.

Cynthia is full of bubbly energy. She radiates an enigmatic aura, and has a style that simply defines her. Her impressive history with the RWA includes a seat on the national RWA board of Directors and several terms as the President of the Virginia Romance Writers . She is working on a book set in the same area of Florida I was born in. I am  looking forward to it’s release.

Carolyn is so kind and insightful. Conversation with her is a treat. She is a two time HOLT winner, a Rita finalist, and has published multiple romance novels with several publishers, including Harlequin.

These amazing women are best friends, the kind that makes other girls envious, and both of them gave me advice I hope to live by- Be Audacious!

Thank you ladies. I plan to be.

My first audacious move is to brag about myself. I know, I know, it sounds so bad doesn’t it? But I am going to be a go-getter, so here it goes.

The Seductress won the Fools For Love Paranormal Division!

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I am so grateful and flabbergasted my novel was awarded first place. Thank you to the VRW for putting on this event, and to the women who organize the contest. You are appreciated, and the party was excellent!

I was fortunate enough to receive a full manuscript request, which lit a fire under my little butt to get this novel polished up and completed. I can’t wait to see where The Seductress goes. No matter where it ends up I plan to make the ride quite enjoyable.

Congratulations to all the other winners of the 2016 Fools for Love Contest and Holt Medallion! You guys are incredible!

Until next time,

jessica grace kelleyt signature

 

Fool For Love Winner Logo

 

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.

 

 

 

The Publishing Industry is Subjective

If you are a writer who’s ever pitched a novel, or simply googled insight into the publishing industry, chances are you’ve heard this before.

I know I’ve heard it. I’ve experienced it. I’ve even accepted it. But it wasn’t until this past week I truly understood it. The following experience gave me a different view on those words.

About a month ago, I was given the opportunity to judge the first round of a writing contest. It was a simple “answer these questions, see if you qualify, and you can judge” sort of thing, but I was still looking forward to it. I couldn’t wait to see what the contest process was like from the other side! I opened the entries with excitement, read through them, made notes, and instantly attached to a certain story.  A week later I reread my samples, focusing on the technicalities and quality of writing. I carefully considered, tried to provide helpful feedback, and sent my judged files back to the contest coordinator with a sense of satisfaction. My judgments were fair. Every score I gave could be justified (at least by me!).

But here’s the crazy thing-

I didn’t give my favorite story the highest score.

Why? Because technically, it wasn’t the best. The highest scoring story flowed better. The sample was flawless. There were no mistakes, no awkward phrasing, and no grammatical errors (that I picked up on). It was simply  well written.

However, something about the second ranking sample spoke to me. The characters grabbed me, and the story drew me in. I wanted to read it.

What’s really puzzling is if I were to summarize the story lines, the highest ranking book had a better plot. More happened. It moved at a quick pace. But there was something about the second place book I loved. I don’t know what it was. I can’t explain it. It simply connected with me.

As I ponder this experience  I’m blasted with an understanding I thought I previously grasped, but obviously didn’t.

The love of a book is subjective.859697

My judging experience opened
my eyes to a new side of things. I’ll probably need to reread this post in the future to remind myself, but I finally understand. If  I were an agent, I wouldn’t have requested a full for an arguably well written book, simply because it didn’t speak to me.

This taught me how important it is to find people who connect with your work.  If my writing is good, and I constantly strive to improve my craft, eventually I will find the right people to help me get my book out there. A big part of success is commitment.

At least, that’s what I tell myself. jessica grace kelleyt signature

Until then, I’ll keep writing