The Curse of the First Page

My story has changed drastically over the past few years, and with it, there have been three separate drafts of the first chapter. Each has its merits and its downfalls, and of course, I’m nowhere near finished with it. But for the meantime, a look into the writer’s conundrum:

Zora was getting impatient.

She glanced around her surroundings – a uniform hall of white walls and metal floors, washed in artificial light. Three men stood to the side, two of them rigid and quietly conversing, as they had been for hours already. These two were clearly high ranking officials: glistening uniforms of silver and blue, stern, impenetrable faces. One, a stout, balding man, maybe in his forties, Zora estimated, was known to her as “the Magistrate.” A visiting officer, no doubt. His short height and rotund build set him out from the battle-leaned, genetically-pruned population of her home compound.

Problems: Nothing is happening. She’s just describing her surroundings, and there’s no hook.

Screams. Gunfire. Bones crushing, soldiers pleading, a symphony of war pounding at every angle.

Zora’s eyes opened. Her pistol jerked up in her grip as she fired and ducked down. The muffled blast of her shots rang against the opponent’s, distancing the battle’s noise. She swung her leg out, her focus trained on a single point, and she rammed into the opponent’s calves. He staggered, his gunshots ricocheting off the steel wall as she grabbed the barrel, wrenching the weapon away. She rushed forward and knocked him to the ground, pinning him down by her forearm with her pistol set against his forehead.

Problem: Action scenes are hard to pull off early on. We don’t know the character well, so we’re not invested in the action. It’s also difficult to orient the reader when the scene’s in chaos. Most importantly, though, this particular scene turns out to be a simulation. Don’t trick your reader unless you have an awesome punchline.

There was no such thing as silence to an agent.

Zora drew shallow breaths, tuning into the finger drumming of the lieutenant at her right – the impatient one two, one two, ingrained in their biology.

An equipment bag shuffled at her left as a technician pushed the air in front of him, staring at the sheen of opaque red that met his fingertips. The color scattered to reveal the sound- and bulletproof force field surrounding them. The lieutenant spared him amused glances between tapping sequences, but Zora kept her gaze on the countdown clock before them. “3:31 MINUTES TO DEPARTURE.”

Problem: (I submitted this first page to Ellen Brock  as part of Novel Boot Camp and this is her critique along with my thoughts) I was trying to build atmosphere around the silence, but there’s really no hook here. Every time I try to be vague by focusing on details, the words stretch out and can quickly bore the reader. In her words, ” I don’t know anything about Zora, where she is, or what she wants. There is not enough context and no real hook.”

The solution?

Focus on what makes your writing unique. What’s interesting about your book? For me, the character dynamic and emotion keep me tied to the story.

So showcase it.

Let your voice and style sing. If you’re skilled with magnificent descriptions and scene-building, do it. If you’re good with witty dialogue, do it. If you can pull off these atmosphere or action techniques without tricking/confusing the reader, go for it. It all depends on the writer.

And of course, this is more difficult than these words would have us believe. To my fellow young writers (and all writers for that matter), don’t let frustration get to you. If need be, move on and write the rest of the book before coming back to the beginning. The first page is meant to hook readers in so that they can experience the rest of your book, whether that be your friends, a beta reader, an agent or a publisher. Don’t get caught up in the criticism. Just ask: what makes this interesting, how can I display it, and how can I introduce and orient the reader in this world?

Good luck. See you four drafts later.

– N

(As posted on The Writer Person)


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