If I’m going to ask other authors to provide the thoughts behind the first page of their novels, it’s only fair that I do the same. You’ll find the first page of The Bubble Gum Thief above. Now mind you, it’s only my draft—it hasn’t gone through the publisher’s editing yet. What you see above may change for the better.
A few years ago, it occurred to me that most thrillers start with a murder, and then there are more murders, generally similar to the first one in manner and scope. I decided that if I were going to be a villain, I’d want to work my way up to murder. I’d want to start small—very small. And so I had this idea: what if I wrote a book about a man who started with the smallest crime possible, and worked his way toward the biggest one possible. That was the idea for the book. The Bubble Gum Thief became more than just this idea, but that’s where I started.
The problem with the idea is that I start with an extremely trivial crime—the theft of a single pack of gum. Thriller readers expect more, so I needed to promise them more. That’s why the first line is “Sometimes, big things start small.” That’s my solemn word to the reader—this story is going to get bigger.
The rest of the page is designed to ratchet up the same kind of suspense for a gum theft that I would for a murder. So I put the reader in the mind of a teen manning the register of a very small convenience store. Everything about the situation is uncomfortable. It is extremely hot inside, and extremely cold outside. The place smells like cigarettes, and the light above flickers. The boy is alone. And then a man comes in, dressed something like that sketch of the Unabomber. That’s the first page. Nothing really happens, except that this man walks into the store. But I hope it’s enough to make you want to find out who he is.
This wasn’t how I originally began the book. In the first draft of the novel, I started right with the action. Here’s the original first paragraph:
It sounded like a gun shot. Crosby Waller heard it from the back room. He set down the box of Super Gulp cups and dropped to the floor. His heart was racing. He should have been at Suzy Fenner’s New Years’ Day party, but instead, he was going to be shot at Waller’s Food Mart. At least his parents would feel guilty for making him work today.
Exciting, right? A lot more exciting than the first page in the picture above. But by starting with this action, I lost the chance to create anticipation. The reader didn’t get to know Crosby, or feel what it was like to be in the store, or meet the mysterious man who gave the book its name. So I decided to back up the story a bit.
It took a lot of tries to rebuild the first chapter. I spent hours writing things like:
From the front door, it was five steps to the magazine shelf, twelve to the candy, fifteen to the hot dog rack, and eighteen to the milk behind the glass at the back of the store.
I had endless versions of something like this. Sometimes I’d throw in some cans of Dinty Moore. For a long time, I was sure that there was some magical variation that would give you the layout and size of the store. But none of it really mattered, so I cut it. I wanted the reader to identify with the teen, not the store.
I spent a lot of time on the description of the man who walked into the store. Dialogue is fun to write; description is not. Just ordering the sentences was a lot of work. A paragraph seems clumsy to me if too many of the sentences begin with the same words. When you’re spending a paragraph describing a man, it’s hard not to have series of sentences that start with “He.” So I end up with “He wore black jeans …” followed by “The big, orange lenses … ” and then “White gloves—not winter … .” Writing like this is a lot harder than it looks, because every time you invert the natural order of a sentence, it wants to sound unnatural. Plus, you’re trying to avoid passive voice.
We don’t meet FBI Agent Dagny Gray in the first chapter of The Bubble Gum Thief, even though she’s the star of the book. That’s okay, because I keep Chapter 1 short, and she gets Chapters 2 and 3. If you’re writing a thriller, your first chapter ought to be short. Just give the reader a little. Make them need to find out more. A lot of aspiring thriller writers give the reader way too much information at the start. Only dole out what is absolutely necessary. If you write well and your story is interesting, readers will keep reading even if they don’t understand everything. In fact, they’ll keep reading because they don’t understand everything.
(Looking at the image above, you can tell how long ago I started the novel; I had Shaquille O’Neal on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It’s funny how passage of time can change the meaning of things you’ve written. When I wrote this, a teen in a three-year-old Arcade Fire T-shirt was pretty hip. Now, maybe less so. And that’s okay. He isn’t exactly the same kid that I wrote about back then, but he’s just as interesting to me.)