Getting started on your novel can bring equal parts joy and terror. You’ve got the skeleton of a great story in your brain and you’ve been knocking it around in your subconscious for weeks, maybe years. Now is the time to start actually putting it down on paper … or more likely into a word document.
Those first couple of pages are absolutely crucial to your success for a number of reasons. Many book buyers turn immediately to the first page and start skimming to decide if this is the book on which to spend their hard earned dollars. If those first couple of pages are complete yawners, filled with unnecessary backstory and character development, they’re going to put the book back on the shelves.
Similarly, when you submit your finished manuscript to an agent or a publisher – if those first few pages, heck – first few paragraphs – don’t grab their attention, your work goes back into the slush pile and they pick up someone else’s dream.
Books about writing will frequently tell you that you have to really know your own characters before you start writing about them. Decide what they like to eat, what sports they play, what their family is like, whether they tend to be lazy or are type A personalities… The mistake that many beginning writers make is that they think they need to put all of that information in right at the start of their manuscript so that the readers know it too.
That can put your reader to sleep. If it’s really important to the story that your character started his day with a bowl of oatmeal, include that information in the line when he is running away from the guy with a gun.
Larry had a decent head start on the guy, but that extra bowl of oatmeal from breakfast was starting to feel like a brick in his stomach.
This reads better than a lengthy paragraph about Larry getting out of bed, throwing on some jeans, dragging himself downstairs, fixing himself a bowl of oatmeal … pardon my yawn.
Oh sure, go ahead and write an entire chapter that sets up the scene, the characters, the circumstances, the date and time – – – and then when you confront your character with a disaster in chapter two simply delete the entire first chapter.
Begin your story where the action starts. Make sure your reader (and before that the agent) is drawn to page two because something really interesting has happened on page one. Or at the very least, create such an interesting setting on page one that the reader can’t help but want to know what happens in such a place.
Nelson Demille does this brilliantly in all of his books. The first paragraph from The Lion’s Game really draws you in:
You’d think that anyone who’d been shot three times and almost become an organ donor would try to avoid dangerous situations in the future. But, no, I must have this unconscious wish to take myself out of the gene pool or something.
The Mephisto Club, by Tess Gerritsen, begins with a scene that leaves you wondering about who these people are and what is happening here:
They looked like the perfect family. This was what the boy thought as he stood beside his father’s open grave, as he listened to the hired minister read platitudes from the Bible. Only a small group had gathered on that warm and buggy June day to mourn the passing of Montague Saul, no more than a dozen people, many of whom the boy had just met. … Most of them did not interest him in the least.
But his uncle’s family – they interested him very much. They were worth studying.
Another example, this one from John Grisham’s The King of Torts:
The shots that fired the bullets that entered Pumpkin’s head were heard by no less than eight people. Three instinctively closed their windows, checked their door locks, and withdrew to the safety, or at least the seclusion, of their small apartments. Two others, each with experience in such matters, ran from the vicinity as fast if not faster than the gunman himself. …
We’ve all had to sit and listen to an Uncle Ned who is incapable of telling a story without including every unimportant detail about what led up to the day he got his foot stepped on by a cow. Don’t do that to your readers. Introduce them to the wild-eyed cow first. Tell us about Uncle Ned’s second cup of coffee later, if it matters.