First Pages: My Search for the Un-put-downable Start of a Story

I’m revising manuscript number five of my not-yet-illustrious writing career. The story is complete, has been read one critique partner and revised, and is ready to go to beta readers. This story has heists, fight scenes and even kissing (new for me since my prior stories were middle grade), and I’m very excited about it. I dream of agents begging me for this manuscript…if they get past the first five pages.

Sigh.

The story’s good, but the start…meh.

With past manuscripts, I’ve polished my first pages. Changed my start from the bus on the way to summer camp (which apparently rates as low as waking up in bed for interest level), to something more active. But I wasn’t looking for small improvements here. I’d really like manuscript five to be “the one,” so I pulled out all the stops on rethinking my first pages. I don’t want okay first pages. I’d settle for good, but not before trying for great.

Can I get to great?

Not sure. I hope so. (The gremlins are whispering probably not even as I write this). But I thought I’d share what I learned by trying.

What had me worried about my opening pages? Critique partners said they were “really close” but not quite there. I tried:

  • starting just before my main character’s life changed (two different ways),
  • just after her life changed,
  • a flash forward to near the climax for the “How did I get here?” effect,
  • a flashback to the incident that set the chain of events in motion,
  • the first confrontation with the bully, and
  • the first confrontation with the other main character/love interest.

once-upon-a-time-719174__480I was pretty desperate for a set of first pages that would draw cries of “YES! THIS!” from critique partners and propel the reader into the manuscript. But kept getting the same very kind, sympathetic response. “Really close.”

What did I do wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that some of my starts were destined to fail.

  • “No action,” said the critique partners.
  • “Scene 1 is too disconnected to scene 2.”
  • “What does this scene have to do with the story you pitched in your query?”

I felt in my gut that there was a set of great first pages for this story out there somewhere. There was this one scene, the scene the 2nd or 3rd in the manuscript depending on which first chapter option I was trying at the time, that worked. Critique partners said, “Things really started happening here.” I knew if I could just introduce the main character enough to set up this scene, that I could pull the reader in. But what words would do that, without getting my query slotted into the form reject pile before an agent ever got to that great scene?

I complained to the Pennies, because that’s why you have a writing group, so someone can pat you on the shoulder when you need it, and I found out something interesting. Julie Artz, whose lovely, heartfelt middle grade story I’d read months before, said she’d been through five versions of her first chapter. In fact, each of the first four chapters of her story had at one point been her first chapter. What? I felt like slightly less of a loser for sweating version after version of my first pages after that. Tara Lundmark, who I met at WriteOnCon when looking for more feedback on my pages, said she’d written ten different first pages for one of her stories. Armed with this knowledge, I dropped the angst and decided to just give in to as many rewrites as it took to get it right.

At this point, I’ve written 8 different versions of the start of my story, as well as polishing several versions, including the one currently titled “Chapter 1” in Scrivener. This is what I learned through the process of trying to make the start of my story unputdownable.

 1. Don’t Fall in Love with One Set of First Pages.searching-for-the-un-put-downable-start-of-your-story

I was stuck on Version 1 of my first pages for hours even after being told by trusted CP’s they weren’t right. I was stuck on Verion 2 for weeks. I loved the setting and how those pages developed my character. Allowing myself to get stuck on that idea blocked other ideas for how to start the story from flowing. Once I decided to not settle for meh, the ideas flooded in, as demonstrated by the fact that I ended up with 8 different starts. And, really, what’s the harm of trying something different? I wasn’t going to delete those words I loved, just tuck them out of the way. I could always go back to them if my new start wasn’t better.

2. Look to Master Books for Ideas.

Okay, admit it, you laughed at that flashback start. Everyone knows not to start with flashbacks. Except when they work. I was pulling ideas from master books. Both Harry Potter and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo start years earlier in their main characters’ lives. The idea for trying a flash forward came from Twilight and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Flashbacks and flash forwards can be done well, just not by me, at least not for this manuscript. But turning to master texts for ideas is great prep for brainstorming the start of your story.

3. Get Fresh Eyes.

I am blessed with wonderful critique partners who love me even when my words aren’t working. My closest critique partners had been hacking at this story idea with me from the idea stage, seven months before I hit my first pages wall. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t the only one too close to the story to see the pages clearly, they were too. That was stressful! Who do you turn to when that happens?

I found a couple great options: Adventures in YA Publishing holds a monthly first five pages workshop that is fabulous. (We also host our 4 on 400 contest monthly, but I can’t sub to that one!) WriteOnCon hosts an online writing conference with forums for posting your work and exchanging critiques with other writers. If all else fails, you can find a new critique partner. Someone I met on the WriteOnCon Forums asked if I wanted to exchange chapters, and since we’d already critiqued each others’ first five page and her comments were helpful, it was an easy decision. Just what I needed! A new reader who knew nothing about my story and had no worries about disappointing me.

4. Remember that Your First Pages Aren’t Your Only Pages.

I was jealous of Gita Trelease’s gorgeous first pages. They’d been right from soooo early in her revision process. Then, I was reminded that she was sweating her climax. The grass may look greener over by your critique partner’s writing desk, but there are weeds in everyone’s lawn.

Also, eventually you need to let those first pages rest so you can fix up the all the other pages in your manuscript. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there for you to take another look at later.

So, after writing 8 versions of my first pages, workshopping at Adventures in YA Publishing and WriteOnCon, and polishing the final pick, are my first pages unputdownable? Sigh. No. But they’re pretty good. Good enough that I’m going to take my own advice and move onto revising the rest of the story.

Maybe version 9 of my first pages will come to me while I revise.

Or maybe I’ll figure out how to polish this version until it’s unputdownable.

DON’T STOP HERE! If you made it through this post, I bet you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’ve written some first pages and have something to say on this topic. HOW MANY VERSIONS OF FIRST PAGES DID YOU WRITE FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS? WHAT HELPED YOU FIND THE RIGHT START FOR YOUR STORY? I’m no expert! Let’s learn together. Leave comments below!

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Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and writes for The Winged Pen here.

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