In the beginning, there were … 250 words

I’m gonna state right up front that I hesitate to post a blog about how to write a first page. I am certainly NOT a paragon of great writing, and I make ALL the mistakes when I start a new work in progress. I have to let myself make them because words must litter the page before I can begin to sculpt them into something. It takes time to mold poop into art, and I’m the first to admit I leave a lot of stinky turds behind in the process.

Also, I’m going to announce my own hypocrisy as a contest judge. When I was entering contests, I always grumbled about whittling my first page down to 250 words. Why? Because I’m a reader, and I know that not every book shoots out the gate in the first four paragraphs. There are prologues. There are quiet openings. There are descriptive passages that go nowhere fast. So I’ve always rebelled a little before contests because MY first page is just fine, thank you very much. You just have to keep reading to get to the good stuff. I *need* that long introduction. Really. I’m special. Stupid contests.

But after I kicked the wall a few times, I realized I’d have to capitulate to the rules of the game if I wanted a chance to play. “Fine!” I’d revise my 250 to make it contest ready. It hurt, but I cut the words. I moved closer to the start of my action. I showed things happening.

And damnit! Every single time, I ended up replacing the start of my book with the new 250 words. Because every single time, the new opening was more engaging than what I’d started with.

So you might feel like it’s unfair to judge YOUR book by only 250 words because it takes time for your precious story to settle in. But then maybe your book isn’t the best fit for a contest, or maybe you’re in a state of self-denial. Possibly both.

There’s a whole lot more to writing a successful first page than can be boiled down to a checklist. What makes for great writing is something every author has to figure out on their own. But that won’t stop me from gathering together some thoughts based on comments I’ve read or written over and over while reading through submissions to contests. Bear in mind, some GREAT first pages might have had a few of these issues.

1. Make sure your passage is clear and logical. Doesn’t matter how well you write, if I’m lost, I’m done. I don’t have enough brain cells left from all the partying I did in my youth to spend them deciphering half-baked openings. Don’t jump around all over the place. Don’t throw a dozen characters at me. Don’t come in halfway through a conversation and then backtrack to catch me up. Don’t drop me into an unfamiliar world and throw a ton of weird words at me. Take my hand and lead me across your first page. I thank you.

2. Start your story in the right place. I love good writing. Really I do. But there’s a LOT of well-written pages to compete against in contests. If you send in three gorgeous paragraphs of detailed world building or thoughtful set up, I may be impressed with your skills, but probably not with your story. Here are some things to look for:

a) Does your character do nothing but muse over info you want the reader to know? Is he maybe doing something irrelevant to the story to mask the info dumping? Maybe he’s staring at the clock, waiting for a friend, baking a cake… but really just thinking about the thing that might eventually lead to story. That isn’t story.

I tie my shoe, thinking, “Gee, life was better before mom died.”

The light turns green. I jog along the street past the bakery where the oven exploded. Bits of mom will always cling to that building. Literally.

I pick up my pace and wonder if Sandy has come back to work yet. She was my mom’s best friend.

Back story. Stop that.

b) Do you have a dialogue between two people that is nothing but them remembering things that the reader needs to know? Take care. It’s not natural for people to talk about things they already know. And generally, people talking about set up is not story.

Sandy stands outside the bakery and waves me over. “I sure bet you wish your mom was here so you wouldn’t have to sell your kidney to pay off all those debts amassed in that venture capital investment that folded suspiciously when the terrorists moved in.”

Info dump. Don’t do that.

c) Do you have three paragraphs describing the colors of the stone paving the glorious courtyard of your magnificent villa nestled in the polka-dotted landscape of vineyards that reflect the gold-glint hues of the twilit sky? That’s not story.

Figure out where your story starts, and start there. And then, later, weave all of that back story and information in, gradually, naturally. You’re right in saying we need that information. We just don’t need it all at once.

3. Dialogue tags are evil*. I love great dialogue. It can serve so many purposes at once. It’s active. Done right, it shows me more than tells me who people are and what they want. It’s immediate. If I’m reading dialogue, most likely I’m in the present moment. All good stuff. Until I hit the dialogue tag.

“Martin’s mad,” I mused nervously….

Blurg.

If you have to use a dialogue tag, almost always stick with “said” or possibly “asked.” You can get away with “replied/responded.” Do not ever “sigh” dialogue. You can sigh, and then say something. You can’t sigh something.

But instead of dialogue tags consider using beats. Beats are little actions you give your characters to do before, after, or sometimes during dialogue. And they do two things at once (I love multi-tasking!). First – they can tell you who’s talking, so you don’t need the dialogue tag at all. Second – they ground the reader in place and time. They show us your character in motion. They keep tabs on what’s going on.

Instead of:
“Martin’s mad,” I mused nervously.
Consider:
“Martin’s mad.” I forced my shaking hands to relax before I crushed a hole in the Styrofoam coffee cup. All I needed today was an unexplained brown stain all over my lab coat.

*A commenter correctly disagreed with my assessment that all dialogue tags are evil. It’s true. They are one more tool in the arsenal. I’m warring against their overuse. In 250 words, there’s no reason for “she said” or a variant to crop up six times.

4. Close the distance by showing. Eliminate filters and telling. Filter words — see, hear, look at, watch — take us a step away from the MC and toward the world of the narrator or author. Get closer.

Instead of:
I heard screams.
consider:
Screams ripped the night.

Instead of:
I felt nervous.
consider:
My tongue stuck to the roof of my paper dry mouth, all the moisture emigrating south to my palms.

Let us experience everything with your MC instead of telling us what s/he experienced.

5. Ditch the cliche. You want to infuse your writing with voice? The best place to start is by looking for ways to say the same old, tired things in a new way. That new way will probably sound uniquely like you. And when things sound uniquely like you? That’s your voice. Be aware that it is possible to have TOO much voice. So don’t go all crazy. But those surprise turns of phrase or concocted mutations of hybrid descriptions can make a reader smile for no obvious reason. Just from the pleasure of words on the page. Do this.

6. Use strong verbs. You’ll never weed out every single use of “to be” from your writing. But try highlighting “was” sometime. You may be shocked to find that every single sentence in a paragraph begins with “Subject + was.” Some of those will reveal passive writing. (If your sentence makes sense when you stick “by zombies” at the end, you’ve got a passive voice.) Some of them result from laziness and will give you an opportunity to liven up the language. Take care not to force this part or you may end up with stilted writing. But wherever you can, try to find a better way to write a sentence than with weak verbs.

7. Proof your page for mechanics. If you don’t know when to use a comma before “and” and when not to, you’re not alone. But there are countless websites devoted to explaining grammar rules. I reference them continually when I’m writing because I often forget. It’s not a sin to have issues with grammar, but it is a bad idea to send your work in to contests or, worse, to agents if you have obvious grammar flaws, spelling errors, typos, or other issues caught by copy editing. If you really can’t deal with that, find a good critique partner (free!) or hire an editor.

8. And one last bit of advice when emailing your words off into the nether. Make sure your formatting is going across as you hope. Try emailing to yourself. I now understand why agents bitch so much about font size and paragraph formatting. It only hurts your chances if I want to stab you for destroying my eyes.

Most of the advice above is about ALL writing, not just the first page. And there are always many, many more tips to learn. But once you’re done cleaning up the first 250, tighten, polish, and infuse the rest of your manuscript.

5 Responses

  1. Sarah
    Sarah April 8, 2015 at 5:29 pm | | Reply

    The only thing I disagree with is the dialogue tag part. They aren’t evil, people just misuse them. I think instead of telling people to cut them out entirely, teach them the right time to use them.

    That’s all 🙂

    Great post otherwise.

  2. Bronwyn Deaver
    Bronwyn Deaver April 8, 2015 at 5:41 pm | | Reply

    Thanks for this! Very clear and helpful input.

  3. Bitty Martin
    Bitty Martin April 13, 2015 at 11:58 am | | Reply

    I copy and pasted this – for keeps – to guide me on my rewrite. Thx so much!

  4. Emily Penrose
    Emily Penrose August 7, 2018 at 1:12 am | | Reply

    You can sigh dialogue (“I guess…” he sighed). The question you need to ask yourself is does saying this outright serve you stylistically? Is it creating a clear and vivid mental picture or is it distracting? Is the emotion true? There are other ways to convey the same idea–is it worth the word count to go into more detail or should you summarize?

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