Great beginnings

Now that the holidays are over, conference season is picking back up again…and with conferences come those fun first-pages sessions where would-be authors read their manuscript openings to editors and agents across the country in return for a two minute mini-critique (in front of other would-be authors). So what makes a good page? Andrea Brown says that the first page shouldn’t have any grownups because, see, kids books need to focus on the kids. Erin Murphy (way back when I began my books with lengthy descriptions of setting or other non-essential info) says that first pages should NOT contain piles of back story.

No doubt about it: that first page is often your one-and-only chance to hook your reader–be he editor, agent, or bookstore browser. I thought I’d take a look at some first pages–some first lines, really–that really grabbed me:

Skin, by Adrienne Maria Vrettos: “These are the things you think when you come home to find that your sister has starved herself to death and you have dropped to your knees to revive her….”
The Wizard Hunters, by Martha Wells: “It was nine o’clock at night and Tremaine was trying to find a way to kill herself that would bring in a verdict of natural causes in court when someone banged on the door.”

Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo: “My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”
How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell: “Long ago, on the wild and windy isle of Berk, a smallish Viking with a longish name stood up to his ankles in snow. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third, the Hope and Heir to the Tribe of the Hairy Hooligans, had been feeling slightly sick ever since he woke up that morning.”

The Boyfriend List, by E. Lockhart: “Before anyone reading this thinks to call me a slut–or even just imagines I’m incredibly popular–let me point out that this list includes absolutely every single boy I have ever had the slightest little any-kind-of-anything with.”
What do they have in common? Some have such an intriguing situation that I want to know what happens next. They ALL have that nebulous quality of a distinct voice. Sometimes I think that my best writing happens when I manage to sound the most like myself. Hmm. Does that mean that Cressida Cowell speaks with Frequent Capitals?

:) Cheryl
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  1. Jennifer Bertman says

    Those are great beginnings, Cheryl. Two of my favorites are:

    “I have been accused of being anal retentive, an overachiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things.” Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee

    “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

  2. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Jennifer–Thanks so much for adding to the list! How could I have forgotten Millicent Min? That’s definitely one of my favorite openings, too. I love the Drowned Maiden’s Hair opening, too–I haven’t read that one, but it’s going on my list ASAP.

  3. Ms. Yingling says

    If it’s YA, and you’re writing for boys, you can’t go wrong with an explosion on the first page! I did like some of these, but the language in Vrettos’ Skin made it an inappropriate choice for a middle school library, even though there is a demand for novels involving anorexia. Just something to keep in mind when you’re writing. That, and don’t make any school librarians in your books evil!

  4. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Ms. Yingling–

    Yes, Skin has some rough language spots. I liked that it was told from the brother’s POV instead of from the girl’s. I recently read another good book dealing with eating disorders, Perfect by Natasha Friend. This one is less edgy and has a happier ending, although it doesn’t try to tie up life in a neat happily-ever-after bow.

    Oh–and how could I portray any school librarian as evil? :)

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