FIVE FUNCTIONS OF YOUR FIRST FEW PAGES!

The first few pages of your book, or the first few paragraphs of a short story, have a heavy load to bear. These are the pages that make or break your chances with publishers or competition judges and, most importantly, readers. It’s best not to think about it too much when you’re doing a first draft. Just start writing and then, later, once you’ve written all the way to the end, you can figure out the best place to start and whether it’s working well.

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Most importantly your first pages must:

1.HOOK THE READER! Something in those first pages must intrigue the reader and compel them to continue turning the page. But how? SET UP A QUESTION. You can engage a reader with your beautiful prose but really, most of us just want to get our teeth into a riveting story that draws us in. By asking questions in that first page or so, you compel the reader to continue in search of an answer. This is your hook. The question you ask should relate to your story as a whole, not just “Which dress will Sophie wear to the dance?” but “Will Sophie ever escape her dreary small town?” 

Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, sets up the question that drives the novel in the opening line. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” And there you have it – who will this rich man choose to marry of the five sisters? 

In my novel set in Cambodia, “Child of Fortune”, I set up my question in the first page:

“I need to let you know what really happened, who I really am. Who you are. I’m afraid to tell you, because when I’m done you won’t be the same anymore.”

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What happened in Cambodia that changed this woman? And how will it change us too?

What is the central question of your story? Find a way to introduce it early.

2. GROUND THE READER. When we begin a new book, we enter a new world. This world may be as familiar as a suburban street, or it may be another planet 400 years ago. Make sure you include some setting details in that first page, so we know where and when we are in time and place. This is especially important for Sci-fi and Speculative fiction. Make sure the reader isn’t frantically looking for clues to figure out what’s going on. Just tell us!

3. ESTABLISH YOUR MAIN CHARACTER. Just as readers need to know where we are in the story world, we also need to know who we’re with and whether we like them. If your story is about Jane, start with Jane in action, doing or saying something that lets us know who she is and what is driving her. If you can manage it, also endear her to us. Show her in a moment of vulnerability or tenderness. Or show her being totally amazing and someone we’d like to be, or at least know. When we read, we commit to being with these characters for the length of the story, so even if they’re not exactly honourable, make them fun to be around. See Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. He’s a creepy paedophile but he still manages to be charming.

4. ESTABLISH GENRE. If you start your story with a horrifying scene of slaughter, the reader will expect more horror and violence throughout the story. If you start with a love scene or someone yearning for love, they’ll expect a romance. In film the opening image carries all the weight with establishing just what kind of movie we’re going to see. Make sure your beginning sets up the right expectations from your reader.

5. ESTABLISH TONE. You may have done everything else well, hooked your reader with a question that will keep them turning pages, set up a story world for them to enter and a protagonist they’re keen to follow and set up that it’s a romance BUT what kind of romance is it? This is the tone. 

Is it a light-hearted teenage romcom, or a romantic tragedy like Romeo and Juliet? Is it a quick, easy bodice-ripping read or a more philosophical exploration of a love affair? Your first pages set up expectations of what kind of a book it is. Readers tend to throw books across the room if they are lead astray in those initial pages. For example: Stephen King’s Carrie starts with a scene of blood and humiliation – spoiler alert – it ends the same way. But what if he’d started it with Carrie hanging out with all the girls at the coffee shop, giggling and eyeing off the football star? We’d expect a very different story then – a sweet teen romance, not the gory horror of Carrie’s revenge.

It’s all about grounding the reader, compelling them forward into the story and setting up their expectations of what the story will give them. Don’t think about it too hard or you’ll twist your brains into a horrible knot. Just check that your opening is doing these things. If you can’t tell, show someone else.

I’m offering a special deal for readers, send me your first 10 pages and a one page synopsis, and I’ll give you detailed feedback on what’s working and what may help you hit those marks. All for only $50 AUD. Drop me a line if you’re keen. I’d love to help you make your story the very best it can be.

Lots of love,

Edwina xx

6 STEPS TO SHAPING YOUR MEMOIR

Structure is the primary concern of the writer, how to order all the key emotional plot points to keep the reader turning pages.

A memoir is not an autobiography. Unfortunately, unless you are a sportsperson, politician, musician, or movie star, no one cares about where you were born or your ancestral history, how your parents met, and what you did in grade three. Unless, of course, this is of itself interesting enough to be a story. A memoir is a slice of your whole life, focused around a topic, an idea or theme, a specific time, or linked moments that resonate around a search or question of some kind.

Here are 6 STEPS to help you find your structure.

  • NARROW THE FOCUS

When shaping your memoir, it helps to narrow the focus as much as possible – not just My Journey to Healing, but My Struggle with Addiction from recognition of the issue to finally getting clean. Not My whole life was leading to this but The Last three years of growth. Not My entire family history but My discovery of my lost grandmother. The narrower the focus the better.

  • START WITH ACTION THAT ESTABLISHES YOU AS NARRATOR AND THE CENTRAL QUEST OR QUESTION

This may be the inciting incident, or it may be another emotional turning point in your story that hooks the reader in and establishes what the story will be about. For example, the first scene in a medical recovery memoir may be in a doctor’s office receiving a diagnosis. Or finding a hidden photograph of a woman who looks strangely familiar, but that no one has ever mentioned. Make sure you are front and centre in the scene, making decisions and acting.

  • GROUND THE READER 

At the beginning of any story, it’s very important that we are grounded in time and place. Establish where your story is set. Is it set in the gritty backstreets of Logan or the leafy riverside suburbs? In India or Australia? Where are we, and most importantly WHO ARE WE WITH? In memoir you are the central character. The “you” from the past is not who you are now. Describe yourself with a few specific details, illustrate your character by showing interactions with others. And most importantly, give us something to connect with, a moment of vulnerability or relationship so we care about you as a character. If we see you as a person who is loved, if only by your cat, we’re more likely to want to share your story.

  • INCITING INCIDENT –What moment in time propelled you on this story journey – a diagnosis, finding yourself asleep in a gutter, an accident, a betrayal? This plot point come quite early in the story.
  • CLIMAX What was the most dramatic emotional moment during this period of your life? This is the point you are writing towards. Structure all other emotional turning points so that they lead up to this point. Put your Heart Clutching Moments on index cards and order them so they peak at the climax. Often with memoir, chronological order can work best, but weaving background story through moments of high drama works well too.
  • ENDING – Where to end? We don’t need to come right up to the present day. After all the present day is shifting quickly. Is there a moment of revelation, a moment of hope, or a time where the issue seemed to resolve? This is real life so no resolution or moment will ever be the complete end of the story, but you can’t continue writing your memoir until you die. Not if you want it published anyway. So, find a place where the story feels at least in some way to have found a natural ending and be content with leaving it there.

And remember, as with all narratives, in order to keep your readers turning the page we need to keep them moving between HOPE and FEAR. See my post HERE.

Were these points useful for you? Have you got any questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you.

The next RELAX AND WRITE RETREAT is all about memoir and life writing. In Highfields near Toowoomba among the trees. Come along and connect with like-minded women and get those stories out of your head and onto the page. Perfect for memoirists and those with stories to tell who just need to make a start. Only $380 all inclusive if you book before the end of August 2021. CONTACT ME for more info.

GOOD LUCK! Memoirists are the most courageous of writers. Go forth and roar!

Lots of love

Edwina xx