The Machinery of the First 3 Pages

It’s Friday, good job making it through week.

Before we talk about today’s topic, I want to give you some updates:

1. The #FiYoShiMo manuscript (see the index) is still under construction. I’ve had a lot more to say about some particular topics. Combine that with health and work, progress is slow, but steady. I like steady. Especially with this, where I’m making sure each idea is presented as clearly as possible.

2. Noir World sees more players later this month at Dreamation. Not in a “test this out” way, but more like “hey come do this cool thing with me.” The MS lives on three separate files and I’ll cohere it into something greater than its parts, probably starting over the weekend. Depends on my energy level.

3. Remember the Johnversations? The Youtube videos I did? They’re making a comeback. I might record one tonight. But I want to have one out for the Monday blogpost of next week. I have a few possible topics in mind, and if you’ll forgive the fact that I’ll be likely wearing a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, I sincerely think you’ll get something out of it.

4. I’m talking to some really smart people about what I can do to make better use of Smashwords. If you haven’t already checked out the stuff I have available, get the books while the price is still $3 each.

Okay enough with the updates. Let’s see what we’re talking about today.

There’s an old saying that an MS lives and dies by its first three pages. I tend to agree with it, and I know many readers (meaning: editors, agents, publishers, consumers) do as well.

What makes those three pages critical? The fact that they set tone and expectations for the reader. Whether that reader is someone with the power to move your MS towards publication, or whether that reader is someone’s mom who plunked down the bucks and got something for her Kindle to read while on vacation, you have to bear in mind that your first three pages are a machine with a purpose: to make the reader want to stay and invest time and energy and thought with the MS.

I know this can sound like it’s a compounding problem, since so many writing resources tell you with bootcamp intensity that your first paragraphs have to be strong and they’re important, and I don’t mean to up the anxiety you may feel about trying to keep all these plates spinning, but since paragraphs are part of the first pages, the whole shebang is important.

During #FiYoShiMo, we talked tone. And we got a little into expectations, but now I want explore that some more. What expectations would your reader have, where do they come from, and what do you do with or about them?

So that we don’t have to get all literary theory on a Friday, we’re going think like readers for this discussion. We’ll come back to being writers in a bit, just go with me here.

Find up any book you’ve never read. Doesn’t matter what it is. I don’t care if you’re in a bookstore aisle, or if you’re looking online at Amazon, or if you’re rooting through dead Aunt Jean’s grocery bags of crummy novels. Assuming this book has a cover on it, or at least a title page, you already have a lot of information, and that’s before you’ve even fanned through the pages.

a) You have an author’s name, and presumably can search for that author on the internet. While I’m writing this, I’ve timed myself to see how long it would take to pick up my phone, google an author and get to their blog. Total time: 11.71 seconds

Are you about to tell me that you don’t have seconds to look something up on your phone, or in a separate browser tab? Sure, yeah, I’m on a strong wifi connection right now, but we’re not saying this is hours spent digging around for info on an author’s name.

b) You may also find reviews for the book, depending on if you search the title, or the author is a magnet for controversy and all people ever talk about is how their book is somehow ruining all of existence.

c) You may also find other titles this author has written. Were they prolific? Was this a one-and-done deal? Are they still writing? Again, this is all accessible information.

d) We haven’t even considered the idea that you’ve looked at the book’s cover. Is there a picture? What does that picture tell you about what possibly may be going on in the book? Naked model holding other naked model while naked model number one stares to the side? Maybe that’s romance. Is anyone shooting a laser? I bet it’s science fiction. The cover art can color and create a lot of expectations.

e) Flip the book over. Any back blurb? (For you internet people, scroll down the page) What’s the summary tell you? Any quotes from other authors? Do those quotes sound sincere, or are they just streams of pro-sales adjectives like “amazing” or “great” or “couldn’t put it down”? Again, you’re being presented with expectations of genre and rough concepts of story.

f) Is it a thick book? Is the font tiny? How many pages? Now go and fan through. With that brief glance at paragraphs (don’t get into the text yet, just skim), do they look substantial, or do they look like tight sentences with white space all around? This is an expectation, not a fact, that you might have to labor to read this thing, so maybe you approach it timidly.

After all that, crack it open and read the first paragraph, then the first page, then go all the way until the middle or bottom of page 3. I don’t care if it stops mid-sentence. (If you’re on the Kindle, get the free sample and follow along)

What did those three pages show you? What things did you picture in your head? Here’s a list of questions:

i) Did you get introduced to the main character?
ii) Did you learn anything about the main character?
iii) Was there an action beat? What was happening in it?
iv) What did you learn about the world this story takes place in?
v) What did you learn about the setting specific to the story?
vi) Did you find out what the central conflict of the story is?
vii) Did you get introduced to the antagonist?
viii) Anybody die?
ix) How many conversations were there, and between whom?
x) Was anything foreshadowed?
xi) Was anything, in your opinion, underexplained or glossed over?
xii) Was there a chapter break?
xiii) Was there profanity or sex?
xiv) Did you get bored?
xv) Would you keep reading?

That’s fifteen questions, off the top of my head. You may have more, I could have asked more. But that’s FIFTEEN. And they’re not limited by genre or age of the book.

This is what’s important about three pages: it gets you started. This is the turned key in the ignition. Your picking up the book and opening it was the key going into the ignition, so now you want to get in gear and get moving.

I wish there was a simple formula to tell you that said that X number of paragraphs on the first page have to be about the character, then Y paragraphs have to be about the world, then Z paragraphs have to be about conflict. But there isn’t a formula like that. There’s no set percentages of text that need to be reached in order for your first pages to be engaging. Any combination of character, world, and conflict can lead to reader interest.

The question they teach in school is this: Who’s doing what, where, and why? It’s not a bad question. Whether you’re introducing Poe Dameron on Jakku, Ishmael boarding the Pequod, or Nick Charles mixing a cocktail, you’ve got a blank stage and a willing audience waiting for whatever you present.

So make it count. Don’t think of this like a long fuse that can slow burn before finally doing something. Rare are the people and situations where a reader sticks around until page 40 to see if “it gets better.” Rarer still are the professionals who stick around to page 10 in hopes that the MS gets its shit together.

It’s to your advantage to take a big swing and put together a good scene. It might not be the start of the specific plot, but it’s the reader’s access point to the plot, because you’re connecting them to a character and their world, and together they and this virtual being will (hopefully) get up their necks in the specific plot.

What does that look like? That’s up to your story. How are you going to get the reader immersed in your world, introduced to your character and convey the sort of vibe you need to in the face of their expectations? Here are three ways:

Sentence structure
It’s the primary mode of broadcast for your ideas. Vary that sentence length. Use push/pull to draw the reader in deeper as you provide details.

Word choice
No, this isn’t a permission slip to go adverb and adjective wild. Pick the best word or word phrase for the job.

What information are you giving in what paragraph, and in what part of the paragraph? Why is it going there? Could it go sooner? Later? What’s your thinking behind that piece going where you have it? If I’m working to follow along, does that information in that spot help or hurt? Ease or retard my progress?

I wrap today’s 1600-something words with a reminder that you don’t have to do this perfect the first time. You don’t have some finite number of drafts to make this happen. No one’s coming to take away your keyboard or something-something-other-topical-American-political-commentary. This takes time, and yes, I swear to you, I promise you, if you keep doing this, if you keep working at it, you will see it pay off.

See you next week. Happy writing.

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