Friday, April 15, 2011

Writing 101: On First Pages and Hooks

Today's post will be a short one.

If there's anything agents like talking about, it's hooks and first pages. I saw this post over on PubRants today, where Agent Kristen Nelson shares what makes her stop reading a manuscript. Here are the culprits:
1. Telling instead of showing.
2. Including unnecessary back story.
3. Loose sentence structure that could easily be tightened
4. The use of passive sentence construction.
5. Awkward introduction of character appearance.
6. Awkward descriptions/overly flowery language to depict.
7. Starting the story in the wrong place.
8. Not quite nailing voice in the opening.
9. Dialog that didn’t quite work as hard as it should.
10. A lack of scene tension even if the opening was suppose to be dramatic.
For beginners, this is great advice. But for established writers, you can take it or leave it. Rules were meant to be broken. As long as you have a great voice, it doesn't really matter. However, some of these rules should be followed no matter what.

Bottom line: It can't be boring.

These rules are for newbies who don't understand that the first page must be interesting. If it isn't....well, I'm not going to read on. And you can bet that an agent won't read on. If your critique partners say that your intro isn't quite working, go over this list. Maybe you need to trim something.

Here are some examples of first pages that work for me:

Looking for Alaska by John Green

The Astonishing Adventure of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga
What Would Emma Do? by Eileen Cook
Each of these is humorous and tells us a little bit about the protagonist and their environment. Remember, every part of your novel should build to the climax. Filler must go. You aren't writing for Shonen Jump.

Bonus Time

Now I'll post the first page of my manuscript before I sent it to a critique partner. Then I'll post it after I took her advice. I'm not a great writer, but I think this is decent. You tell me which is better.

Before:


Chapter 1
 
          If Rachel is my first love, band is my second. I'm first chair clarinet, I placed second in three regional piano recitals, and I used to play violin. Or course that isn't good enough for my mother, but it makes my dad proud. He hangs all of my awards in his office. They're right next to Zach's honor roll ribbons, his academic medals, and his national merit award. But I don’t let it get to me; I have my music, he has everything else.
I was a stuttering idiot in middle school. I couldn't talk to girls without making an idiot out of myself. Guys didn't want to be seen with a dweeb like me. My best friend, Jamie, didn't even talk to me at school. High School was like a second chance, even if it took a whole year to make friends. As a freshman, I was practically non-existent. As a sophomore, life was easier. I wasn't the weird Asian kid with braces. I was the weird Asian band geek with braces. Not much better, but it was a start.
I hate talking to people. I always feel like I'll screw up and say something offensive. I joined band in 10th grade, hoping to meet people who were as socially awkward as me. The first day, I sat in the back of the room. I didn't want to draw attention to myself. I'd had private lessons my whole life, so I wasn't used to playing with other people. Everything would be ok if minded my own business. I was wrong.
I'd been sitting for no longer than two minutes, when a guy sat down right in front of me. He was a freshman. I'd seen him before, hanging out with Rachel. I'd overheard her telling my brother that he was annoying. She was right.
He stuck out a hand and said, “Shaun Lee. Are you Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese?”
I shook his hand. “I'm Japanese. My name is Joey. Joey Amasawa.”
I thought you looked familiar. Are you related to Zach Amasawa? The one that dates Rachel Thomas?”
They aren't dating. And yeah, he's my brother I guess.”
I wish I had a twin. It must be fun right? You guys get to switch places and stuff. Play pranks on people. And you'd get to make-out with each others girlfriends. That has to be awesome.”
I hate my brother.”

After: 
 
Chapter One

           I'm first chair clarinet, I placed second in three regional piano recitals, and I used to play violin. Or course that isn't good enough for my mother, but it makes my dad proud. He hangs all of my awards in his office. They're right next to Zach's honor roll ribbons, his academic medals, and his national merit award.
           I joined band in 10th grade. The first day, I sat in the back of the room. I didn't want to draw attention to myself. I'd had private lessons my whole life, so I wasn't used to playing with other people. Everything would be ok if minded my own business.
           I'd been sitting for no longer than two minutes, when a guy sat down right in front of me. He was a freshman. I'd seen him before, hanging out with Rachel. I'd overheard her telling my brother that he was annoying. She was right.
           He stuck out a hand and said, “Shaun Lee. Are you Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese?”
           I shook his hand. “I'm Japanese. My name is Joey. Joey Amasawa.”
           “I thought you looked familiar. Are you related to Zach Amasawa? The one that dates Rachel Thomas?”
           “They aren't dating. And yeah, he's my brother I guess.”
           “I wish I had a twin. It must be fun right? You guys get to switch places and stuff. Play pranks on people. And you'd get to make-out with each others girlfriends. That has to be awesome.”
           “I hate my brother.”
           “Oh, just saying. It would be cool. You ever try to come on to his girlfriend. You think she'd notice?”
 
Can you tell the difference? 
 

12 comments:

  1. Have you read "Hooked" by Les Edgerton? It says basically the same things, but it puts a lot of emphasis on story-worthy problems and enthicing incident. I think you might like it a lot.

    But great post. It points out some of the things that are generally problematic with novels.

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  2. I love that you have an Eileen Cook example on here. I adore her and her work! :)

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  3. Second page is definitely stronger, HOWEVER, your original opening line (" If Rachel is my first love, band is my second.") was killer. Please put it back in.

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  4. I'll definitely check it out. I'm a big fan of books that deal with the writing process. Right now I'm reading Save the Cat and Write Like the Masters.

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  5. I like the line too. It's nice to have a third perspective on it.

    It's funny, because I like editing more than I like the actual writing process.

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  6. I've never even read the whole book. I was just browsing on Amazon a few weeks ago, and it caught my eye. The intro has been on my mind for a while.

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  7. That first line is great in the first one, but the second has more momentum. I'm curious to read more, that's for sure.

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  8. Another vote for keeping the first line. I really liked that.

    One thing that struck me as strange: Shaun asks if Joey is related to Zach, then, upon finding out they're brothers, he seems to automatically assume they're twins. That would make me pause in the story and go back to see if I'd missed something.

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  9. Oh, cannot resist feedback...

    "You ever try to come on to his girlfriend. You think she'd notice?”

    Very powerful line. I'd start with that and intersperse resentful inner monologue with oblivious Shaun's tactless comments. [And change that full stop to a question mark.]

    "Shaun Lee. Are you Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese?”

    Any particular contextual reason he chose only those four options? I was expecting a flat "I'm Thai" (or other).

    Anyway, I do agree the second version is better than the first.

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  10. I liked the bits of information about Joey's previous years in school but I guess it is better not to dump all of them in the first paragraphs so I guess the second page makes more sense.

    But the first sentence was the one that hooked me, I vote for it to come back! :D

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  11. Honestly, the first one hooked me a lot more. The second one zipped along faster but it lacked the killer first line and following setup that made me invested in the character. The voice just feels stronger in the first one.

    Of course, that's the worst thing about feedback, the thing that TOTALLY KILLS ME when trying to figure out what's right. Different people like different things.

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  12. I definitely think the manuscript has improved, but KEEP THE FIRST LINE! It's got an awesome voice!

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