Deb Vanasse, author of No Returns and Cold Spell, teaches us about the common mistakes writers make that can be revealed in the first five pages.
You know the importance of the first few pages. You’ve been told over and over. If your first few pages don’t captivate agents and editors, they won’t read on. If your book is published, readers won’t buy it unless they love what they read in the sample.
Secretly, you think this is unfair. You’ve got a great story. Lots of twists. Unique characters. Readers can’t tell all that from the first few pages.
Sorry. They can, and they do.
For the wrap-up of my writer’s workshop on voice, I pulled sample chapters from internet postings for my students to critique. I used the top listings that came up when I searched “sample chapter” plus the genre—thriller, in this case, because in the workshop I’ve got a few students writing in and around that genre.
The sample chapters are from authors looking to get noticed. I hope one day they will. But although they’ve taken the time (and money, if they’ve hired a proofreader) to make sure their first pages are free from obvious errors in grammar and punctuation, the samples I pulled showcase problems that will keep them from attracting a publisher or, if they’re independently published, from finding the readership that their creative efforts likely deserve.
Some of these mistakes come from trying too hard to apply writing principles like the hook that are more nuanced than you might think. Fortunately, all of these mistakes correctable.
Pull up your first few pages and see how they measure up against these five common flaws:
- Clichés: From your first few pages, your readers must decide they trust you as a writer. They want proof that you’re adept and wise and original. A cliché tells them you’re sloppy and lazy and derivative. Frankly, most readers don’t have time for that. A million different directions. Pretty big stretch. Tear welled up. Tortured expression. Ghostly reflection. These are a few of the tired expressions that substitute for original language in the samples I pulled. And on that last one, the ghostly reflection, you do know, don’t you, that it’s a cliché to use a mirror (or any reflection) to show us what your character looks like? Ditto for rhetorical questions. Make it your business to identify clichés and replace them with original phrasing that earns the trust of your readers.
- Pacing: One misconception about the hook is that you’ll captivate readers by piling up action after action after action in the first few pages: shootouts, bloodshed, that sort of thing. Rarely does this work. There’s nothing wrong with action, but it’s not the same of a hook, and piling it all on at the beginning makes the whole thing seem clichéd.
- Grounding: In your eagerness to hook the reader, you frontload the narrative like it’s a newspaper article. The big questions are addressed—who, what, when, where, how, and why—but the readers aren’t there, in the narrative, because in all your explaining you’ve neglected the grounding details, those sensory images that make readers feel like they’re part of the story as it unfolds. This problem likely stems at least in part from misinterpreting comments made by early readers who say they want to know more about this or that in the story. What they really mean is that they want to have a reason to care about what’s going on. So don’t tell us Jane Doe is your narrator’s favorite client. Show us Jane Doe in such a compelling, original way that we’re drawn to her the same way your narrator is.
- Characters: Author Steve Almond says this best: Your readers have to know who to care about, and they have to know what that character cares about. Readers don’t care about characters simply because they materialize on the page. The characters have to touch them in some way. They’re paradoxical. Complicated. Their perspective is unique. They have voice. Once we care about your characters, we’ll care about what they care about—what’s at stake for them. That, too, should be apparent in the first few pages.
- Dialogue: Dialogue has to be spot on. Every time someone speaks. No exceptions. That means no dialect that makes your character more spoof than person. No blah-blah dialogue, like “Hello, I’m Jane Doe,” or “How is she?” No using dialogue as an expository tool to convey information to the reader that the characters already know.
Bio: Deb Vanasse (www.debvanasse.com) has authored more than a dozen published books, including two 2014 releases, the novels No Returns and Cold Spell. Formerly on faculty at the University of Alaska Kuskokwim and Fairbanks campuses, Deb is a graduate of the Master in Humanities program at California State University Dominguez Hills. She is the co-founder of the 49 Alaska Writing Center, a nonprofit serving Alaska’s literary community, and the founder of Running Fox Books, an independent author cooperative. Her current projects include a narrative nonfiction book called Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold. In addition to writing, Deb does freelancing editing and hosts a teaching series for writers at www.selfmadewriter.blogspot.com. She lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier.