Make me turn the page, I dare you!


Hey y’all, batter up! It’s your Magical Words Designated Hitter here. Faith will be back next week, she’s fine but had some stuff she needed to take care of this week, so I’m stepping in to lend a hand. 

As some of you may know, I’m currently reading submissions for an anthology I’m co-editing for Kerlak Publishing. The anthology is entitled The Big Bad – an Anthology of Evil, and the only requirements that I gave for content were that it couldn’t be tasteless, and the protagonist had to be someone that would typically be considered a villain. For roughly 20 open slots in the anthology, we (my co-editor is the lovely and talented Pea Fairie from right here at MW!) received almost 200 submissions. So we have ten times as many stories as we need. 

I have faith that we’ll end up with enough good stories to fill the anthology, but honestly, a 10% acceptance rate out of a pool of open submissions is incredibly high, and the curve is skewed because some awesome people like Sean Taylor and James R. Tuck have already hooked me up with great stories. BTW, it’s release week for James R. Tuck’s new book – go check out Deacon Chalk Book 2 – Blood and Silver!

But reading the submissions for this anthology has given me the topic for this week’s blog post – compelling beginnings. Anyone that I’ve critiqued their work in the past six months knows the biggest note I give – cut out Chapter One. That’s because people spend so much time writing all this awesome world-building and backstory, that they don’t get to the action or the interesting bits until Chapter Two. But people want to read the interesting bits. Most people don’t care about the interior layout of the starship that your story is set in. You have to know all about it, but until someone issues the Technical Manual as a companion piece to your novels, you don’t need to share that information with readers.

Seriously, focus on making your first paragraph – no – your first sentence – as compelling as possible. Because an editor, agent, slush reader, or book purchaser may not give you more of a chance than that to sell them on your book. You must grab the reader by the throat (or anywhere else that you want to grab to make a convincing argument) early and never, ever let go.

A lot of people refer to this as “tension on every page,” and one of the very best examples that I give people of this is Faith’s Raven Cursed. That book is a textbook example of increasing some type of tension at every step. It might be Jane’s tension with Beast, it might be Jane’s tension with local authorities, it might be Jane’s sexual tension with (pick your favorite, I’m not getting in that fight), it might be the tension between Jane and her own guilt over the repercussions others have felt because of their association with her. But the point is, there is always, always, always something increasing the tension and driving the action. 

Yes, I know that in some books you need breaks. I am a theatre guy after all, and there was never a greater master of comic relief than Shakespeare. Check out the gatekeeper scene in the Scottish play if you need a refresher in that. But even those scenes need to add something to the build of the book or story. Your characters barely ever get a relief from the tension, and if they do, it should be for a very good reason. 

Yes, I know there are wonderful books that start out slow. There are wonderful books that don’t ever really go anywhere at all. But this is genre fiction, and things need to happen. And especially in the early going of your career, you don’t have the credibility with readers to start slow. Neil Gaiman can go all those pages in the beginning of Neverwhere before things start rolling, because he’s Neil Gaiman. And we’re not. There are a lot of things fighting for readers’ attention, and if you don’t grab it and wrest it away from Team Dressage or whatever Olympic sport is going on, you’ve lost the first battle. And you might never get them back. 

I recommend action early and often, and dialogue early and often. Or at least present a compelling situation. I started Hard Day’s Knight with my protagonist tied to a chair with no idea how he got there. I started Genesis with my protagonists running out of the school with no explanation of why they’re running. I start many of my Bubba stories with dialogue between Bubba and Skeeter. Find whatever works for you, but as I’ve recently learned, starting a YA novel with a character getting ready for school is a good way to get laughed out of the submission pool. So I’m reworking that beginning, taking my own advice and putting some action in there. 

Hooking a reader in the first paragraph is essential, because an editor may not read further if you don’t. I’ve talked to editors who promise to read the first page, but that’s the only guarantee they give. I promise to read the first paragraph of any submission, but that’s as far as I’ll promise. And I know editors who will reject a submission if the opening sentence doesn’t grab them. It’s a cruel truth, but given the volume of submissions everyone receives, people are looking for reasons to reject your stuff. Don’t give them one. Do all the other things right, like the cover letter, formatting and all the stuff that more qualified people than me can talk about here, but start off with a bang. A big one. 

So here’s my question to you – what’s the last book that grabbed you early and never let go? Mine is Feed, by Mira Grant, an amazing zombie novel that keeps piling on the twists and new revelations and is one of the rare books that the sequel loses no steam and is just as good as the first book. 


21 comments to Make me turn the page, I dare you!

  • sagablessed

    Honestly? Theiftaker. Yup, our own David Coe (DB Jackson). Loved it. Starts off quick with a hunt scene and kills throughout the whole book. And an older YA novel, Tithe by Holly Black. She starts with the protagonist pranking her mother.
    I agree that Faith’s books are constant action/tension: the action/tension may change, but it is always there.

    I have not had much chance to read more, as I am in the middle of 2 WIPs and prepping to move. (Moving sux. lol)

  • Thank you so much for being here, John. It’s been a rough two weeks. 🙂
    And I totally totally totally agree with the opening. Grab me round the throat and shake me like a rag doll and don’t let go. That’s genre writing. But, getting ready for school? Really? Unless your kid finds a baby dragon hiding in his book bag and the dragon sets the house on fire… LOL Just teasing. Glad you are fixing it. Hugs and thanks.

  • I can think of two movies where getting ready for school worked: Clueless and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Unless you do something completely unexpected, it reeks boring.

    As for the last read that grabbed me: the Han Solo trilogy by A.C. Crispin. I got hooked on the first book and the next two did not let me go. I can’t believe I waited so long to read it!

  • Cool post. It is good to start with some sort of action/intrigue. Doesn’t even have to be fighting or running for their life. Could be something as simple as what I did in the noir piece I’m working on, he’s late, after sleeping off a bender, in picking up his friend at the bus station and is running to meet her. Yet when he gets there, the intrigue kicks in because she doesn’t respond how he expected her to and he suspects something’s up immediately, so you’re pushed along by the current into wanting to know what her deal is by his concern that she’s not acting herself.

    Of course, the flipside, all the action in the world doesn’t help keep me in a book if it’s not well-written. I’ve put books down and not gone back even when the action was there, just because the writing wasn’t there. And that is part of as you said, making your first paragraph as compelling as possible.

    I tend to break a rule or two now and again when writing beginnings, but my motto, if you break a rule, do it well and it won’t matter that you broke it. 😉 Just recently, I had someone waking up, but my betas told me it worked well and I really like how it reads.

    I also agree with your thoughts on chapter one. Lucienne gave me a piece of advice on one of my works a while back and reading through, I had to agree. The exposition wasn’t really needed and slowed down the tension I was trying for. I cut most of it, adding it in later where it made more sense anyway and it’s a stronger opening scene as a result. Hook ’em with chapter one, there’s a lot of other chapters for backstory. 😉

  • bonesweetbone

    One of my favorites is the opening from Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief. It’s in first person, which works because Gen is an incredibly compelling narrator. The book starts with him reflecting on his stint in the king’s prison and how he’s going to get out. There’s a bit of background info sprinkled throughout, but Turner keeps things moving by spotting it with humor.Particularly everyone making fun of Gen after all his boasts of how he intended to escape. He tends to get carried away with his bragging.

    Once she sets the ancient Greek-inspired scene, Turner snaps right to the action. Her early works were all short fiction and you can tell by how tight and layered her longer works are. All of the books in the series are serious page turners.

  • Oh, and I’m with sagablessed, Thieftaker dragged me in from the jump. I’m still reading it though. 🙁 Keep falling asleep. Not the book’s fault, but my body’s fault. I curse getting older! Just can’t stay up till 3 am reading like I used to. Maybe the B12 injections and new workout routine will help.

  • Ken

    So far, every book in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller series has snagged me and reeled me in. Recently, Rachel Aaron’s “The Spirit Thief” did the same thing.

  • I agree about Feed–that’s a great trilogy. Another book that really grabbed me from the beginning is Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered. The book is hard scifi written in present tense and I’m not a huge fan of either, but after skimming the first page I couldn’t put the book down.

  • TwilightHero

    Can’t think of anything recent, but one of the opening lines that really stood out for me has to be from Terry Goodkind’s Confessor, the eleventh and last book in the Sword of Truth series. (Though not, apparently, the last featuring those characters. Go figure.) The hero is stabbed, for the second time that night. Tell me that doesn’t pull you in. And just as importantly, as you say: it kept on pulling. I liked some SOT books more than others – Soul of the Fire. Sorry, it just didn’t do much for me – and I haven’t read them all, but I’ve found the first and last books to be the best in the series. The author got the ending right. I’ll give him that. Great post, John. Good to have you here.

  • Oh, so that was the reason I never got into Neverwhere! 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Sabriel by Garth Nix. Starts off with a girl resurrecting a dead bunny, and the whole time I was reading it I kept apologizing to my husband that I wasn’t willing to stop and read it aloud with him.

    However, as a reader, I really prefer thicker books than the current trend, with more room for world-building and such. It doesn’t have to be a lot of slow pages as good writing can pack in a lot of details while keeping them well tied to the story, but I really want those details, and even when I’ve quite enjoyed an action-packed story, I still finish it feeling dissatisfied if those details weren’t there. A big part of why I read is to be transported to other places.

  • Thanks, Saga and Daniel. I appreciate the shout-out. John, as always it’s great to see you here and read your words of wisdom and wit. Nice post. As it happens, I LOVED Neverwhere, and enjoyed the pacing of it. But I love just about everything Gaiman writes. I also think it’s important to point out that “action” comes in many forms and that grabbing a reader can be a subtle thing. So for my “Which Book Has Grabbed You?” title, I’m going to go with Pride and Prejudice, which I finally read just a few weeks ago (I neglected to read some classics early in life, and this is one of them). Character, prose, emotion — sometimes these are enough to grab a reader. Action, as I say, can mean many things to many people.

  • David raises a good point – there are lots and lots of ways to grab a reader, and if you can make a person getting ready to go to school interesting, awesome! I didn’t manage, so I need to rewrite that opening. There are plenty of things that make a great opening, and some of the books you guys mention are some favorites of mine, and some, like the Kingkiller Chronicles from Rothfuss, break several of the current “rules” for writing. One of those current “rules” is don’t do prologues. Well, Rothfuss does a prologue that’s better than some novels I’ve read, so he can do all the prologues he wants. And Gaiman can write out his laundry list and I’ll buy it, too!

    Good suggestions for books to add to my TBR list, too. Thanks for that!

  • mudepoz

    It’s by a friend, Deb Harkness. Shadow of Night. It grabs because it starts following the last sentence of the book from last year. Besides, it’s set in 1590, Shakespeare is alive and she just told me that Bacon didn’t have any sense of humor, so she ignored him.
    I’m a geek. Deb’s a History of Science prof as USC and while it’s a fun read, there is a lot of Easter Eggs to find. Real people and events that if you want to ignore, you can and it’s still a great read (vamp, witch, daemons), though some people find it draggy in places if they aren’t into the back back storyi. Or you can be a part of her book club and find them.

    I could kill her, first fiction book, this one hit number one on the NYT best seller list, movie in process, accepted right away. But she is an amazing writer, teacher, and person.

    Thanks John, It’s interesting to pick apart what makes me interested in a book, versus what draws in agents and the like.

  • For me, Deliah S. Dawson’s “Wicked as they Come” really grabbed me. The opening was awesome, and she did some really deft character work with her MC. She made it clear that she’d suffered without making her seem weak and laid the foundation for decisions the character makes later making complete logical sense. And her MC’s love interest is way hot. One of the hottest I’ve read in a while. But I really loved her MC from page one–she was a good person, honest, and her situation made sense, was sympathetic, and also tense. Excellent read if you’re into paranormal romance and a very, very different kind of vampire with a steampunky feel to it. 🙂

    And thanks for the shout-out John. 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @ David: Did you know the BBC miniseries of Pride & Prejudice opens with a shot of horses racing across a field because the screen-writer felt the book was so action-packed?

  • quillet

    Agree with David about Pride & Prejudice — which has one of the most famous opening lines in literary history, so I guess that definitely proves John’s point! (Plus it has Mr. Darcy… *swoon*)

    Like sagablessed and Daniel, I was really hooked by Thieftaker’s opening line. That hunt scene, loved it! And then I gobbled up the rest of the book.

    I was also hooked by the opening lines of: Martha Wells’ The Death of the Necromancer, Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, and Carol Berg’s Flesh and Spirit. Those happen to be three favourite authors of mine, and those books — plus their other books — kept me turning the pages late into the night. (Some books should come with warning labels: Danger, Do Not Take To Bed.)

  • “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

    What’s a hobbit? Why does it live in a hole? What’s the hobbit doing in that hole that’s important enough to mention in the first sentence? Where is this happening?

    When I first read the book, I didn’t know that Tolkien didn’t understand why he wrote that line. Some people are born with the magic, some have to work at it. I still love that line. The story, of course, just got better from there.

  • Stina Leicht’s ‘Blood and Honey’. I started reading last night, thinking I’d finish the first chapter before turning off the light and going to sleep. At 1:45, I finally made myself put the book down for the night. It was that good.

  • Razziecat

    One of my favorite fantasies, Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt, starts out, “The prince was dead.” There’s an attention grabber.

  • And I made a mistake…my book was “OF Blood and Honey.” I got the author right, though. *grins*