Jennifer Hillier was kind enough to agree to contribute to The First Page Project. The image above is the beginning of her first novel, CREEP. How good is CREEP?—well, Jeffery Deaver blurbed it, and Suspense magazine called it one of the best books of 2011. I loved CREEP, and can’t wait to find out what happens next. I won’t have to wait long. FREAK, the sequel, comes out on August 7.
Jennifer is represented by my agent, Victoria Skurnick. One of the reasons I signed with Victoria was that her authors, including Jennifer, had great things to say about her. After I signed with Victoria, Jennifer sent me a message welcoming me to the club. We’ve been internet friends ever since.
Jennifer writes about the first page of CREEP below.
- I suck at writing first pages.
- CREEP’s first page was workshopped eleventy billion times, long before the book got published.
Okay, maybe not quite eleventy billion, but I struggle with openings, and in every story I’ve written, whether short or long fiction, I’ve never ended up with remotely the same first page I started with. First pages are really difficult, and you can’t afford to screw them up. Which is why I was delighted when Jeff asked me to analyze why I wrote CREEP’s first page the way I did.
My main goal was to introduce my sex addicted psychology professor protagonist, Dr. Sheila Tao, in a way that showed the reader who she was immediately without grossing you out so badly that you stopped reading after the first paragraph. When I workshopped CREEP a couple of years ago, one of my fellow participants said he thought that Sheila was “gross and unappealing” and that “nobody would want to read a book about a female sex addict.”
Not that I agreed with him (I thought he was kind of mean), but it got me thinking that maybe my first line, “Sheila was a sex addict,” had to go.
I also wanted to introduce my villain, Ethan, in a way that showed you their relationship right away. Sheila was Ethan’s professor, and they were having an affair, and when she breaks off the relationship, he goes a little crazy. Okay, a lot crazy – and everything in the book rides on this. But again, I didn’t want to gross anyone out, so the sex scene in the first paragraph? Also had to go.
I decided to focus on two things: voice and tension.
I wanted the rhythm of the narrative to lull readers in, and in the first three paragraphs I kept my sentences as short as I could get away with, for maximum impact. I read the first page out loud several times (I actually did this with the whole book) to make sure it all “sounded” right. Through voice, my goal was to give the reader quick glimpses of Sheila and Ethan’s sordid three-month affair without info dumping.
Next, I purposely left out any kind of description about where they were. It’s hard to maintain tension when you’re describing surroundings, and to me, the setting wasn’t important on the first page, anyway. I wanted to get right to the conflict between the two main characters, because it’s their conflict that will drive readers to turn to page two.
In all, it probably took about fifty rewrites to get that first page right. Even when the book was completed, I was still tweaking that first page. Maybe it’s part of my process, because I’m pretty sure it will be like this with every book I write.
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.)
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.
The passage above comes from Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Highsmith’s recognition of the importance of the first page of a novel isn’t unique. In The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Publishing, David Morrell counsels:
Common sense tell us that the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page are the where a book makes its strongest impression.
Similarly, Literary Agent Janet Reid has said:
When I look at a book in a bookstore, I open it to the first page and read for maybe five seconds. If it doesn’t get me involved in that very short amount of time, I set it back down and look at something else.
But I think Mickey Spillane put it best:
The first page sells the book. The last page sells the next book.
There are 130 million books in this world. If you want someone to read yours, you’re going to have to grab them from the start.
I’m fascinated by first pages of novels—not just because of the work they have to do, but also because of what they tell us about the author. When you write a novel, you build a world. You can put a door to this world almost anywhere, but you only get to make one door. For a thriller, do you start with the protagonist? Do you start with the villain? Has the murder happened? Is it about to? Do we descend into the scene from above, or do we start with the hand that holds the gun. Whose head are we in? Whose voices do we hear? Are we disoriented, or is everything clear? Is it now, or later, or sometime long ago? The same story can start a million different ways.
Now that I write, I can’t read the first page of a novel without wondering why the story started where it did. But why wonder, when I could just ask? That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to ask writers I admire to explain why they started their stories where they did. If they respond, I’ll post it on this blog. I hope it will be as interesting to others as it is to me.
The first writer I’ve asked to participate is Michael J. Sullivan. Michael is a good friend of mine, and his advice to me over the last few years has been invaluable. He is the author of The Riyria Revelations, an acclaimed and popular six-book epic fantasy series. He’s been kind enough to draft a guest-post about the first page of first volume in the series, Theft of Swords. I’ll be posting it shortly.