Writing First Pages That Work for Readers

Mentoring graphic.

I’ll admit, it was hard to make the changes. For a number of years, I’ve held a clear vision of the protagonists in my fantasy book. Clear to me. Most clear was the mother character—purposeful, cold, disintegrating, at her end, about to blow away into the endlessness of universes.

And the reader says, hold on a minute! Where are we? What are you talking about?

The first book is like boot camp.

I’d just finished writing my first cozy mystery, Blood on the Bridal Wreath. It was so much fun to write after writing the intense drama, Saving the Ghost. The characters in both books were also clear to me.

                Blood on the Bridal Wreath image.Saving the Ghost book cover graphic.

While writing Saving the Ghost, it took a while for the real story to get through my preconceived ideas. I started with one story that changed as the characters revealed themselves. The first novel is like boot camp. A writer learns the fundamentals over the course of the writing. The time it takes to craft the first book can be a decade or more (or less).

In the first paragraph of Saving the Ghost, the reader knows where they are and has a sense of the character and her mood. You can’t quite see her yet, but you can feel her.

     “Before sunrise, I leave for Capitol, steeling myself for the two-and-a-half-hour drive ahead. Puffed-up red-tailed hawks perch on tree limbs and power lines, waiting to snatch unlucky field mice and voles from their foraging. The images of meaty deer cadavers, bloated and ravaged by crows and eagles, linger, accompanied by the rhythmic road noise of tire on tar, a steady beat that measures my time. Off the main highway, rough and broken pavement takes me into Capitol. The pines, deep in snow, are near enough to brush the car as I pass. Their fragrance is intoxicating. I should have brought some gin.”

In the original draft from 2016, the first paragraph was written about someone other than the protagonist:

     “Matthew Elias McInnis was a tall man, a strong man, from farming for three decades, since he was eight years old. He was a funny man and smart but a bad, bad man when he was drunk and this night he’d been drinking since dinner.”

The first chapter goes on to tell the story of this man and a night of violence which factors into the finished book but does not take center stage.

Narrative versus scene.

Narrative prose is passive. You’ve heard the phrase: show the reader, don’t tell them. In the first example, we’re riding along with the character, seeing what she’s seeing, feeling what she’s feeling. By the end of the paragraph, we’re reaching for a gin and tonic!

In the second example, we have a description and a possible foreshadowing of things to come. We are at an observable distance from the character but we are not standing in his shoes.

The second book is like refresher boot camp.

In Blood on the Bridal Wreath, I knew I wanted to try my hand at comedy mixed with mystery. In this novel, the characters still drive the story, but at a speedy pace to keep them moving along. After the year of COVID-19 shocks and surprises, I returned to a daily writing schedule. I wrote a chapter every morning. (I keep my chapters to about 2k words.)

The first chapter rolled off my keyboard with barely an edit. This time I knew what I wanted to write and what I wanted readers to experience straight away.

     “A basket of freshly harvested, young and tender turnip greens at her feet, Mrs. Julian Stanche stood to stretch. “Oh, my achin’, achin’,” she mumbled to no one, except maybe The Cat. The Cat was a nine-year-old striped tabby, always underfoot. Mrs. Julian Stanche—or Justy as she was called by the more informal types about town—stepped on The Cat’s tail at the height of her stretch. Both parties screamed. The Cat, with claws extended, etched deep grooves into the flesh of Mrs. Stanche’s shapely left leg, drawing blood. “Oh, Lordy,” she exclaimed, thinking instead what she would never utter aloud, Damnable cat! The Cat launched itself off her leg to race toward a nearby bridal wreath bush in full bloom.”

In this scene (action) the character is not described to us but we know things about her and we are curious about her cat!

I forgot some of the fundamentals as I wrote the second book, but my monthly writing group kept me alert to missteps.  This was like refresher boot camp, not as rigorous or frustrating as the first round. Blood on the Bridal Wreath was a fun book to write, and I can’t wait to get to the second novel in the series.

Silencing the noise. Don’t lose your readers in the first sentences!

I imagine that my fantasy writing mentor, Lyda Morehouse, thinks she didn’t charge me enough! She’s been trying to guide me into a more concrete reader experience. I’ve had a heck of a time unleashing myself from my original vision.

     “AnneLeah was always in the heart of the fray, whether as the first cell to divide or the first to cool to stone when thrust from a volcanic inferno. As an amphibian, flea, or bear, she led the way to disenchantment, discouragement, pain, and rejection. Once human on Earth, she built empires on the backs of others, enslaved and tortured the helpless. She burned villages, stole from the poor and hungry. A siren, she lured sailors to their death at sea. AnneLeah created the forces of destruction, devastation, and the urges to fiendish desires. She was one of only a few like that, but it only took a few to create hell on earth.”

I believed Morehouse when she told me that this was too much. I was so attached to what was in my head that I couldn’t get out of the wordy mess I’d made. It was an act of will, I tell you, to keep chipping away until I got to this point:

     “AnneLeah cannot remember how she got here. She was gathering herbs in a meadow with her daughter. The sun was hot, and the girl was tired. In the tall grasses, they lay side-by-side, hand-in-hand. She whispered to the child, “Stretch!”

“Like this, mamma?”

But there is no meadow here in this ancient village, though there is a woman hanging herbs to dry. Perhaps the meadow is nearby. For a moment she lets herself feel her young daughter’s distress. That does not matter now. The child will find her way without a mother.

She’s shifted again. Her people could be anywhere. They will do anything to stop her from ending their world. They don’t understand her purpose. There’s no talking to them. She will remain invisible to others until it’s safe.”

Now the reader has a sense of place, a sense of AnneLeah’s character, an idea that she’s magical, and on a mission. Good start!

Kill your darlings.

A famous quote by Stephen King, “kill your darlings,” applies not only to your characters. Sometimes the darlings are your notions of how you want to tell your story. In the end, if it doesn’t work for the reader, it doesn’t work for the writer.

Edit, edit, edit.

As I’m working on the fantasy novel I’m also learning the art of abstract and collage painting. Writing is an exact process and it’s not easy to write a book, not if you want to do a good job. As I’m learning to clear the chaos from my writing, I’m trying to learn to bring chaos to my painting. I guess it’s the same thing really. First, get it all down in its wildest form then edit, edit, edit. I talk about this in my most recent journal entry at mefullerart.com.

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