A few days ago I told you that I was going to ask authors to write about the first page of their novels. Since Michael J. Sullivan is both a great friend a great writer, I asked him first. Theft of Swords is the first volume of his acclaimed Riyria Revelations fantasy series. The first page of this book is pictured above. As you’ll see in his generous guest post below, Michael is an extremely thoughtful storyteller.
Most of you won’t know me because you’re on a thriller author’s website and I’m a fantasy writer. I do those books with dwarves and wizards that only recently have been poisoning the waters by seeping into the mainstream via HBO and that crazy guy Peter Jackson. We fantasy and science fiction authors are like the thriller writer’s little brothers— “Aww Mom, do I have to take him? None of the hot paranormal romances will talk to me with him around. And all he’ll do is yak about elves and hobbits. It’s embarrassing!”
So why are you reading this post by a fantasy author on this site? Because Jeff Miller is a cool big brother, who doesn’t mind hearing about magic and castles while he’s researching how to disassemble a Glock 22. Actually, Jeff came up with this nifty idea of posting the first page of a book and having the author explain their thought process in writing it. I’m his first Guinea pig.
So shrinking it to an uncomfortable size like a pair of new cotton underwear in an overheated dryer, here’s my story…I wrote a six book fantasy series similar to the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and yet not at all like either—helpful I’m sure. I initially published the first book through a small press and later self-publish five of the six books when my original publisher ran into financial hard times. The books did phenomenally well, and recently Orbit Books, an imprint of big-six publisher Hachette Book Group, bought the series in a three-book, six-figure deal and re-publish the whole set, known collectively as The Riyria Revelations. The first book in the series, Theft of Swords, was released six months ago, and the last one, Heir of Novron, came out in late January 2012. The books have been (or are being) translated and published in twelve languages and are selling great, but not so good as to land a spot on the NYT bestseller’s list—yet. I deal in fantasy, remember?
So that’s who I am. Now if you want to know the secret formula for writing a killer first page that will not only get you published, but help you earn out your advance and maybe make the down payment on that Central Park West home…well, I suppose you can see now why Jeff invited me to post, as such a thing is also a fantasy. No one knows how to do this. We all have ideas, sure. Guesses and working theories, but no actual answers. Even a bestselling writer is never certain they can do it again. So I’ll tell you what I did, and why I did it. What you draw from that is up to you.
When Orbit Books agreed to publish my fantasy series, I was concerned that they might want extensive edits. Given these books had done remarkably well already—they had sold 70,000 copies by the time the Orbit books were released—I didn’t want people tinkering under the hood. Some authors embrace changes, but still I’ve heard horror stories about editors violating words they spent years nurturing. Sending a novel to a big six editor is like shipping your kid off to school, or the military, or maybe the Peace Corp. You have to wonder if they will come back…changed, and if so, you pray it’s for the better.
Mine came back with suggestions, but no changes. In other words, just things to think about, but nothing required. One of Orbit’s thoughts related to the way the story started. In the original, I began with a minor character who also happened to be a “bad guy.” Having already published the books, I knew from fan mail that a lot of people almost didn’t read them having been turned-off by who they assumed was the book’s main character—a sleazy, arrogant bastard, who the reader isn’t supposed to like. I had to guess that a lot of folks—those that didn’t send me fan mail—had similar feelings. Orbit thought that the story ought to start with the heroes.
I envisioned my original opening (not shown here) as the setup you might see at the start of a movie or TV show where you witness the crime and then later, after the credits, meet the sleuth who will solve it. In the case of Theft of Swords, you see the crime from the vantage of the victim and then meet the thieves. I thought this clever, particularly as the book ends with the same character and I enjoyed the symmetry of the work. In retrospect the opening should have been a prologue, but I hate prologues.
Orbit suggested I rewrite the theft from the vantage point of the thieves (my heroes.) But that didn’t work for me as the whole point was to see the magic trick first and then have the secret explained. Revealing the trick as it happens kills the awe, which was the whole point of the first chapter. What I came up with was to add a ten page scene in advance of the should-be-a-prologue-start in which I introduce the main characters en route to do the job. This was actually a modified version of a section I had written at the request of my wife for a another book in the series, which was later cut because it didn’t fit in that narrative (but that’s a whole ’nother story).
My intention with my new beginning was to encapsulate the characters and the flavor of the entire series in ten pages. Given my series is about 700,000 words long, that was no easy feat. I needed mystery, tension, suspense, humor, and an unexpected twist. I also needed to communicate the essence of the main characters and the general pace and flavor of the writing. You’re not going to see all that in this first page of course. In the first page all I wanted to do was get you to read the second.
I wanted to provide a compelling beginning. Most fantasy novels that I have read all start slow. They want to acquaint you with the world they’ve created, the races, religions, political factions, and all the funny new names they’ve given normal things. There is usually so much to explain—unlike real world stories where everyone knows which countries are which and what a car is—that the writers feel they have to educate the reader before they get the story started. How else will readers understand the importance of the exciting murder about to take place if they don’t understand the extensive political fallout it will cause? They usually start something like:
In the reign of King Gor’Ranath, seventh eye to the Vihasian Lords, when the old ones came out of their caves to speak of the darkness prophesied to blanket the realm of Hickom, Sar Jazzel was returning to the great fortress of Thar. He rode upon his wondrous Falifin steed breed for centuries by the Auk people of the south who…
And it would go on like this for about three pages before any hint of a story surfaced. This was why I stopped reading fantasy after I graduated high school. I was a teenager and didn’t need any help falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon. I also soon discovered other genres didn’t write this way. Instead authors worked hard to grab those brave enough to open their books with the first sentence, and then put them in a chokehold for the rest of the paragraph until you cried “I yield! I’ll read it! Just let me breath, will you?”
Thriller writers in particular understand the power of instantly establishing a compelling idea. This is what I wanted to emulate with my beginning. When a reader picked my book off a shelf at Barnes and Noble, if they went so far as to open the book and actually read that first sentence—like a magical tome of enchantment—I want a spell to bind them to that book demanding they never put it down again.
It took a while. I wanted to get the reader’s feet planted firmly in the story, and arouse their curiosity all in as few, and as simple, words as possible. I went through several versions. None worked how I wanted. This was my first try:
Royce and Hadrian drew their horses to a standstill in the middle of the narrow forest road where a pile of pine boughs blocked the way. (Nicely and explanatory, but boring.)
They were thieves. Hadrian knew this before he saw them. (Less boring, but too vague)
As they approached the pile of branches blocking the roadway, Hadrian was certain of two things—they were about to be robbed, and if they lived, he would never hear the end of it. (This wasn’t bad, but felt too long and weak. Not gripping enough, and no mystery.)
By the fourth I was starting to get somewhere with:
In the darkness of the forest, Hadrian could see little, but he could hear them—the snapping of twigs, the crush of leaves, and the brush of grass. There was more than one, more than three, and they were closing in. (The poetics of the two three-beat sentences sounded good, and it had a nice excitement as if you had been dropped into the middle of something intense.)
Then I tightened it up to what it finally became:
Hadrian could see little in the darkness, but he could hear them—the snapping of twigs, the crush of leaves, and the brush of grass. There was more than one, more than three, and they were closing in.
What I liked about this opening was that it set an instant mood of tension, it also created a little mystery by not saying what there was more than one of. People? Rats? Zombies? Dragons? What? It demanded you read more to find out what was happening and what was about to happen.
Then that’s it. No more description, no exposition, no crazy, unpronounceable names of places and people the reader doesn’t know. After those two sentences the story drops into dialog, and not the longwinded sort, just a brutish command.
“Don’t neither of you move,” a harsh voice ordered from out of the shadows. “We’ve got arrows aimed at your backs, and we’ll drop you in your saddles if you try to run.” The speaker was still in the dark eaves of the forest, just a vague sense of movement among the naked branches. “We’re just gonna lighten your load a bit. No one needs to get hurt. Do as I say and you’ll keep your lives. Don’t—and we’ll take those, too.”
This dialog establishes the situation mostly and also informs the reader the characters are on horseback. Add to that the fact they have arrows and we can assume this isn’t the new James Patterson, Stephen King, or Dan Brown novel. Already the reader should have a fair understanding of what’s happening. The scene is outside near a forest, and people keeping to the shadows are robbing two people—they know this because the thief said “neither of you move.”
So in just a few short sentences that can be read in seconds a scene should have already formed in the reader’s head. They ought to be able to see it happening, a little fuzzy still, but mostly there. Having kind of learned who the “more than three” are, the next mystery is what’s going to happen given the ultimatum. Will the victims give in, fight, or run?
Need to keep reading.
Hadrian felt his stomach sink knowing this was his fault. He glanced over at Royce who sat beside him on his dirty gray mare with his hood up, his face hidden. His friend’s head was bowed and shook slightly. Hadrian did not need to see his expression to know what it looked like.
“Sorry,” he offered.
Royce said nothing and just continued to shake his head.
These few sentences establish the main characters—Royce and Hadrian. There is a dash of sympathy. People who apologize must be nice. And the reader also gets the idea something has already transpired between them. This adds to the questions the reader might want answered and makes the scene feel more real. As in any point in time there is always the present, future and past. Even though the story starts here, it’s important to show this world and these people didn’t. But still I don’t want to bore the reader with lengthy descriptions, and of course two people being robbed aren’t going to chat much, which is why only one word is said.
Before them stood a wall of fresh cut brush blocking their way. Behind, lay the long moonlit corridor of empty road. Mist pooled in the dips and gullies and somewhere an unseen stream trickled over rocks. They were deep in the forest on the old southern road, engulfed in a long tunnel of oaks and ash whose slender branches reached out over the road quivering and clacking in the cold autumn wind. Almost a day’s ride from any town, Hadrian could not recall passing so much as a farmhouse in hours. They were on their own, in the middle of nowhere—the kind of place people never found bodies.
This pretty much completes the picture (except for a visual description of the thieves, which follows as they approach and leave the shadows behind.) This is the biggest hunk of description so far, but by now it is necessary. The reader already understands the situation and the players, now they need to be able to step back and see what’s happening. Still it does more than provide a simple visual. It sets a mood. I was aiming for the look and feel of a creepy Halloween night on a lonely road. I wanted to establish a sense of almost Lovecraftian country-lane-lonely. I also wanted to establish the time of day and year as well as the general location in terms the reader could understand. Almost a day’s ride from any town, is so much more useful than, on the outskirts of the Earldom of Chadwick near the northern border of Warric where it meets the Galewyr river and its neighbor kingdom of Melengar. Which I could also have said.
This then concludes the first page, and as you can see isn’t anything like what a fantasy novel “should be.” The language isn’t antiquated either. My characters speak modern American English. This also infuriates some traditionalists, but I just can’t read people speaking in a turgid sentences and not laugh with embarrassment. I just don’t think anyone ever actually spoke that way—wrote it sure—but when speaking with close friends? I also don’t like American movies set in other countries that are subtitled when everyone is speaking the same language. For me, doing so adds an artificial barrier between the audience and the story.
So there you have it, one man’s take on writing the first page of a novel. It’s not a silver bullet, not even an answer, just the thought process of one author. Hopefully Jeff will coerce a few more…maybe after he reassembles that Glock.
Thanks for the invitation to visit. And if you haven’t already, go pre-order Jeff’s new novel, The Bubble Gum Thief; I have, and I’ve already read it. It’s that good.