Cahpter 01: A Novel’s First Page. Or, ‘What the heck am I doing?’

One of my writing friends recommended iwriterly. A channel on Youtube where literary agents discuss various aspects of writing and look at texts, assess them, and tell the viewer whether or not they would pick the text. They use a bell, signaling the moment they stop reading a sample.

I watched the episode on First Pages, genre: Fantasy. Even though some viewers criticized the show, I thought the feedback was valid and to the point. But I was also shocked. I have become obsessed with writing a story’s beginning over the last year. And you should become obsessed too, my dear friend, because whether you try traditional publishing, self-publishing, or even publishing on a writing platform like Inkitt, you must convince a potential reader from the word numero uno. Why? Because our age is marked by the fact that we cannot afford to spend time on things we don’t like. Not an all-too-bad philosophy if you ask me, but it turns publishing and gaining readership into a hard nut to crack.

How about we start with the fun. Let’s look at the first page of my WIP and then see what I’m so desperately trying to convey. Believe me, I will cringe as I read through this.

>I did not believe in luck. Nor in fate, or as the worshipers called it, ‘the path paved by the gods’. Skills and experience–nothing else mattered to me. Yet as I stood among revelers in Cortice Square, the hot summer night couldn’t be blamed for the beads of sweat forming on my forehead. The green jewel on the finger of a wealthy merchant bastard was a price too good to be true. So I made an exception and prayed to those damn gods: please, I need a good dose of luck today.

“This won’t go well, human,” Desmond said next to me. “Even on any other day it would be mad, but on Midnight Market? Need I remind you of the last time you tried to perform a miracle?”

My gloved artificial hand clenched, putting in motion the brass, plates and cogwheels that reached up to my elbow. There was no need for an answer, and my companion grunted, “Thought so.” He was a Fera–half animal, half human–his body weight shifted in the fashion of an ape to his hairy knuckles as he studied my target.

“Look at those booze-lickers,” I said, watching with a sneer as rich fools in colorful costumes and masks stumbled around the place, while the others had to do with their everyday clothes. The air brimmed with tension.

“Happy Solstice,” Desmond replied, and I flipped him the bird. I hated the annual Midnight Market, but for us thieves it also meant a welcome invitation to do what we did best when someone wasn’t paying attention to their belongings.

My gaze wandered back to the reason I was here. The merchant was tall, wearing a simple costume with a half-mask, his thumb running over the ring as he talked to another man. A group of young women walked past us, giggling and chatting, their heads covered by a piece of cloth tied into a turban. I reached up and took care of my own. Exposing my artificial arm on my tours would be bad. Exposing my hair a disaster. I wiped the sweat from my forehead.<


I won’t post anything further because agents and publishers will stop reading after the first paragraph. Or even sooner. My reading sample would be placed next to a bin overflowing with other authors’ reading samples.

So why does my first page bother me?

It bothers me because I don’t bother about what happens in those first lines. I’m not engaged. And I should be, right? I mean, I am the author!

But let’s face it.

The writing style is clunky, and there is at least one comma splice that definitely doesn’t belong there, as well as some sentence transitions that made me cringe. But that’s the easiest part to fix.

But the storytelling?! Oh dear. Were you hooked? I doubt it. I wasn’t hooked. What the *beep*!

So, what do we need to achieve on a first page?

1) Who is speaking?

In my sample, we know the POV and probably that the ‘I’ is the protagonist. But otherwise? Nothing really, right? We learn more about this Desmond guy. Jeez.

2) What is happening?

I have always believed that this is the easiest part. Whatever is on the page happens, right? But WHAT IS HAPPENING on this page? It’s all blurry. There’s a ring, a semi-human character, some kind of celebration; the I is in a lousy mood and observing, but what exactly is happening? It’s okay to make the reader wonder what will happen next. But it’s not okay to expect readers to solve nonsensical mysteries.

3) What are the stakes?

Seriously, what are the stakes on this page? There is a little bit of this stake-thing included, but it’s simply not enough.

Now this stake matter is really something. Because in order to create stakes, one needs conflict. And in order to create conflict, one has to bring a character to life on page one (the first paragraph would be even better; the first sentence would be jackpot) with a goal. So my first page should show that my character desperately needs to steal that damn ring. Otherwise, this or that will happen.

It is in the text – somewhere. But as it is now, we are back to the riddles.

And why do I believe a literary agent wouldn’t proceed with reading after my first paragraph? Because there is a lot of telly-telly-tell-tell. First, I thought it was good because it showed some of the character’s attitudes. But this is not what the first paragraph should be about. It needs a good show. Everything else can be established later on.

So let’s go back to this iwriterly-episode I was talking about further above. The literary agents looked at the first page, where a character was dreaming and found himself in the middle of a raging battlefield.

First, I was shocked because they didn’t ring the bell after the first sentence, which made clear that the character was dreaming. But I was even more shocked when they rang the bell after the second sentence. Because despite the dream thing, it was a good sentence. Good storytelling. Pulling the reader with vivid pictures into a loaded action scene.

The agents’ verdicts: starting a fantasy novel with a battle scene is cliche. But the most crucial part of their feedback: it is too much for a beginning. We know nothing about the character and their situation, yet we are expected to relate to them?


So, let’s summarize: We need action. But not too much action. We need character and clear pictures of what is going on. But we shouldn’t give away too much. We need a goal. A conflict. And stakes. We need good storytelling and good writing. And we need to achieve this with those first words written down on (digital) paper.

Okay. How about we sit back and let that sink in? You might want to have a glass of Dr. Red.

How am I going to edit my first page?

Honestly? I have no *beep* idea. I think I will take a break from this part of my WIP. I’ll continue to work on my second draft and then return to the beginning when my thoughts are fresh.

But I know one thing for sure. This will NOT be my first page. No way.

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