Friday, July 13, 2012

First Pages - Make Them Count

Every now and then, I enjoy reading the first few pages of published books. I love that I can try before I buy, and when I find something that grabs me, I add it to my wishlist.

However, not all first pages flash the all-important "buy me" marquee. Many, in fact, do the exact opposite. I'm sad to say the majority of the false starts I've found are indie books by self-published authors. I'm not saying self-pubbed books are all bad, but I think the biggest problem is most of these books were never given the chance to reach their full potential. They're only a few drafts away from being ready. These authors have failed to take the necessary steps to polish their work.

I won't name names or book titles because I'm not a reviewer and never want to be one, but I would like to address some of these issues that writers may want to think about as they work on their own book projects.

The pages I read today were technically well written. Punctuation was spot on, syntax impeccable, the style clean and sharp, and the voice so-so. The author had a good idea starting in the middle of the action, but I thought it was poorly executed. Why? Because the reader is dropped into the middle of things without knowing who these people are or why they're doing what they're doing, and those actions contradict the danger they're in.

The idea behind starting a book in media res is to engage the reader by instilling a sense or urgency. In this case it's a hurricane. That's dramatic, to have a hurricane pounding on your door as it tries to blow off your roof. But there are characters in the house who pass each other enigmatic glances as they silently angst over the mystery that separated them years ago. Personally, I have a problem with that. I want answers, not veiled hints. Give me a reason to care. This couple leisurely entertains partial questions about each other while a full scale hurricane alert is in effect, and they should be getting the hell out of the house. Why can't they do both?

These pages could work really well if they were finished, but they're not. The author is trying to imbue mystery and intrigue to hook the reader, and while she successfully presents a dilemma the characters need to overcome quickly, the meandering slow actions of the characters contradict the danger lurking outside. Why aren't they in a hurry to evacuate? Why would they rather ponder the past instead of ensuring they lived long enough to ponder a future? I don't know.

It wouldn't take much to fix this. Good critique partners could have spotted these issues. What I think this beginning needs is clear motivation and for the characters to react to the danger, save their navel-gazing for after the danger has passed. You can have calm before the storm, but calm during the storm? That's a stretch.


SC Author said...

My first page was HORRENDOUSLY HARD. I went through about.... 12 complete rewrites for the first chapter. And rewrites means I change up the plot, the scene, even the planet... some of them don't sound remotely clost to what I have now. I had about 30 people look at it, and still to no use.

Then I went in this little marathon thing where they FORCE you to fix it. SO, after getting my page torn apart, I went and did some word-building with google images about underwater worlds, and bam! My problem was fixed :)

Carolee Laughton said...

One of the writers groups I used to belong to used to bring books with good opening lines and read them to the group. We all wanted to get what I call "the oooooo factor." I like a lot of action and mystery. Even though the group has been defunct since the early 90's, I still remember one of the lines: "It wasn't your usual kind of knife."

Diana Mcc. said...

I agree with you Karen and Carolee. The first line, pages and chapters have got to be memorable and well written. This is what will pull your readers in and keep them buying and reading. 1st line, "With a husky groan he continued to feed" :))

Diana Mcc. said...

My quote was from Marie Harte "Blackthorne's Light".