Monday, April 18, 2011

Awesome First Pages! - Part II

When I put up the examples of first pages that I loved, I was concerned about trying to get different genres.  I wasn't thinking about a couple things--most noticeably my tastes.

I lean towards books written in first person.  I love some books written in third (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, omg, they're awesome), but a lot of my favorites are written in first.  But of course as soon as someone pointed that out, I knew exactly which books I was going to talk about.

Even though it might be harder to establish voice, character, tone, and conflict in the first page, you still should. And not every book does it. But in today's market, as a debut author, you have to stand out. A kickass first page will do that for you.

Horns by Joe Hill
(again, this is a must read. Just ask Brooks)


First two lines: "Ignatius William Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances."

The first page of Horns--and the first chapter (which is only half a page)--tell us almost immediately what kind of guy Ig is. We get backstory on page 2 which helps us realize why he is the way he is and how he became this guy, and of course we get more as the story goes on. But right in that first page, we know him and are interested in him. We also have the conflict--he wakes up with horns. We also know from the first page, there's something dark and supernatural at work and that this is fast paced. And as someone who picked this up thinking, "I might like this..." I read a little more and was totally hooked.

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
(I love The Mortal Instruments Series. I can't even count how many subway stops I've missed, reading this books.)

First two lines: "'You've got to be kidding me,' the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest. He stared down at the boy in the red zip-up jacket and shook his shaved head. 'You can't bring that thing in here.'"

This is a more subtle example than any of the other ones I've used. And though the main character (Clary Fray) is introduced on the first page, she's not introduced in the first line. And that's ok, because this first line sets up interest and intrigue and will keep readers going.  WHAT does this boy in the red zip-up jacket have that he can't bring into a club?  And of course a few lines down, Clary is introduced, along with her best friend Simon, and they're both awesome.


Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
(I love this book. Seriously.)


The first line: "A long time ago, in the spring before the five days of the unspeakable, Finnikin of the Rock dreamed that he was to sacrifice a pound of flesh to save the royal house of Lumatere."

I wanted to use this example because 1) It's from a prologue which are often so boring that I skip them and 2) It's fantasy, one of the slowest genres to start in terms of plot. Yet, Finnikin of the Rock's first line and it's whole prologue (which is short, just a page) gives a quick sense of what the book will be about, gives us the most essential character trait of Finnikin himself (his sense of loyalty/responsibility to his kingdom), and begins building this amazing fantasy world.

***

Now, I also tend to read things that are a little darker. And sure it's easier to throw some blood on the first page and get the action going, but you can still hook your reader with a great character and voice--and a hint of the coming conflict--if your manuscript is lighter in tone.  Think of Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin.


"I was in the fifth grade the first time I thought about turning thirty. My best friend Darcy and I came across a perpetual calendar in the back of the phone book, where you could look up any date in the future, and by using this little grid determine what the day of the week would be."

The first lines are brilliant because it establishes the character, a central problem with her life, and of course her best friend Darcy, and between that and the cover copy, readers know what the main conflict will be.

***

And of course the other question was about literary fiction. Which is tough for me to talk about. After all, one of my favorite novels of all time is The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.  Another is Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.  Both of them are about so much more than just the plot. They're about the language, the symbolism, the depth of emotions underlying the text--they're about the bigger picture.

But at the same time, the classics that so many of us love and hold dear, they actually do usually begin with some kickass first lines.

Jane Austen anyone? 

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

This famous Pride and Prejudice establishes essentially the main plot (this is at heart, a love story) as well as the tone of the novel.

Here are some more first lines, all on one convenient website.

So how about some of the recently published literary fiction. Here are a few examples I dug up.

Callisto by Torsten Krol
(This is a Joanna favorite, so obviously a must read)


First lines: "My name is Odell Deefus. I am a white person, not black like you might think from hearing the name and not seeing me. If you did see me, you wouldn't remember me for my face, which isn't the kind to stick in anyone's mind, but you might remember me for being tall."

These lines obviously establish character. That's explicit.  The voice is there too though and it's there are definite traits about Odell that are clear from the way things are said, from the voice, not what we're being told.  And of course, as you keep reading the first page and the first chapter, you come to understand more about Odell and the journey he's on.

The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell
(Another Joanna favorite)


First lines: "God is a slick God. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe."

The voice here is unmistakable.  It's different--you'll see just how different if you read on--and it's unique and it practically jumps off the page.  Nothing physical has happened yet but I'm intrigued to find out what has happened. Because it's obviously something.

***

And those are my thoughts.  Again, I'm going to stress that looking at the first pages of your favorite novels--and of new and popular debut novels in your genre--are going to be some of the best examples for you.

13 comments:

Heather said...

The Mortal Instruments series are definitely among my favorites too! I see a few titles in there I haven't read that sound interesting. Thanks for the recommendations!

Donea Lee said...

Suzie, thanks so much for addressing my question. Something Borrowed is a book I've been meaning to read. Thanks for the suggestion.

I feel better knowing that I can possibly get away with just hinting at the action to come in my first page!

Andrew said...

Interesting perspectives, thank you. I noticed that only one of the new book examples was a top selling book. Why not look at best sellers? Or some top selling author's first books? Those seem a bit different to me, a little more relaxed yet still they have either intriguing actions or oddly intriguing characters. (Lee Child: Die Trying; Michael Connelly: Black Echo; Mary Higgins Clark: Remember Me; etc)

Bryce Daniels said...

Hi Suzie:

Thanks for reminding me of this critical approach to my craft. I am in sales, and we have the ol' adage "you only have one chance to make a first impression."

Loved the link to the first lines, too. It was fun to test myself and see how many I recognized.

Wish I had known about your Vegas trip sooner. I left some money for you last time I was there.

No bribe intended. (Smiles)

BDPS

L.G.Smith said...

That Jane Austen opener is my all time favorite first line. It's got everything.

suzie townsend said...

@andrew--these examples were specifically in response to a few questions people asked from the first post. With their questions in mind, I tried to pick books I've read and enjoyed--that happened to have great first lines.

To be honest, unfortunately literary fiction doesn't often end up on the best seller lists.

Both Emily Giffin and Cassandra Clare are bestselling authors (and these are their first books). The problems with using the first books of some of the big bestsellers, is that their first book sold over a decade ago, and the publishing industry and the market have changed.

Marce said...

Horns was fascinating. I also enjoy 1st person but don't always notice it until someone says something, I need to have that on my mind.

Jeff King said...

Great points, and examples… thx for taking the time to share them. I’ll pull down a few of my favorites and give them a closer look.

Sharlie said...

Thank you so much for this entry! A lightbulb went off in my head and I began to rework my beginning. Unfortunately, I've already sent in the first 250 words of the older version. Can I resubmit?
I adore The Mortal Instruments series! I'm currently reading Fallen Angels and am so glad to be back in Jace and Clary's world!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I don't actually remember reading the first page of City of Bones. I was too busy daydreaming about the cover. :)

Never mind the first page. The entire series (including City of Fallen Angels) should be studied and learned from.

Malin said...

Just a reflection after reading your posts - personally I have two experiences with first pages.

1) being completely awed with the first page of Labyrinth by Kate Mosse and then utterly disappointed in the next page - to the point of never getting through the first chapter. So, it's important to not only focus on first page (true, she did sell me that book which is kind of a success).

2) not being charmed. Which happened a few months ago, checking out My Sister's Keeper (Jodi Picoult) in the library. However, yesterday I had an hour to kill, and nothing to read. I snatched My Sister's Keeper from the swap-shelf at work and sat in the sun, going through that first page, and the confusing POV change, and after one hour I was so charmed I spent last night finishing the book in five hours.

So, sometimes a first page isn't everything. That said, I think Jodi Picoult had a real good first page, but the voice and the POV didn't thrill me.

Just my two cents and random musings.

Nicole said...

Thanks for pulling all these examples together, Suzie! You've shown quite the range of possibilities here, and all of them have their own type of power. Great learning tools!

Delia Moran said...

Ah, Horns. The first chapter in that book is one of my favorites. Great examples!

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Five Random Things About Suzie

1. I drink so much orange soda, it's probably running through my veins. I've been known to go through a twelve pack of diet sunkist in a day.

2. I'm legitimately nocturnal (or a vampire). I will be so exhausted at two pm that I'm falling asleep standing up - it has happened before, at Six Flags no less - but as soon as the sun goes down I'm wide awake.

3. I have a gorgeous unused $6000 Reem Acra wedding dress hanging in my closet, and it showed up on my doorstep the same day my (now ex) fiance broke up with me. And thank God for that. I wouldn't have wanted to waste that dress on him.

4. Social anxiety plagues me daily. I write a script and practice in front of the mirror when I have to make a phone call, but most people who interact with me have no idea how nervous I am (or perhaps they lie) because I've worked so hard to try to overcome it.

5. I'm actually worried that I will never love my children (when I do have them in the far off future) as much as I love my dogs. I just like animals better than people - they're sweet and innocent and soft and furry - is that so wrong?