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THE FIRST THREE PAGES

23/07/2015

Often when I rewrite a book I realize that I’ve started the story in the wrong place. Most writers start too early, the character is dreaming, or waking up, or sitting in traffic. It’s boring. I actually tend to start too late. I don’t give the reader time to get grounded and so the beginning can often be confusing.

My current work in progress, FASTER THAN LIGHT, is no exception. I’ve now moved Chapter 1 to Chapter 7. So I have new chapters 1 through 6!

First chapters are difficult. They’re also the most important pages of your book. Here’s why: This is what will sell your book.

Most readers read a bit before they buy. Some the first line, others the first page, more still a few pages. So readers are using these pages to gauge whether or not they will enjoy the whole book and whether they want to invest money and time in giving it a try. The same is true of agents and would-be publishers.

In some cases a reader’s decision will be a matter of style. Some readers hate a first person narrator or a book written in present tense. It goes without saying that if the pages are full of grammatical errors and typos you won’t find many takers. For others readers it will be a question of whether the pages ‘grab’ them. I’ll address grammar and style in another post, but grabbing the reader? Let’s look at that.

So how do we grab a reader? What should you be trying to do in first three pages?

FASTER THAN LIGHT is a science fiction novel which presents a challenge. It means that I need to introduce a whole new version of humanity to you. Can I do that in the first few pages? Nope. If I try then I’ll lose you. But I also can’t not explain the world or you’ll be lost. So pacing is very important. Pacing in this case is the ratio of dialogue, to action, to information/exposition. Most first drafts tend to have too much explaining going on—watch out for that.

You also need to give the reader a sense of your tone. Is it funny? If so, be sure to have some humour in the first few pages. If you can make the reader laugh you’ll sell that book.

The first few pages are difficult because you have to do all this while introducing us to your main characters, setting a scene, engaging the senses and engulfing us in some sort of conflict.

Be careful, I think many books make the mistake of placing the reader in the middle of a shoot out or some other action scene in the first page before we care about the characters. In Faster than Light I have the characters heatedly debating whether they’re going to continue to follow the rules for their final exam or break them in the hopes of returning to school as legends.

Why did I do this? Well, aside from showing the reader all the personalities at play and using it as a way of showing how this particular society works, it’s also the theme of the book. How does anything we do matter? Should we follow the rules? Or do we break from the norms to try to achieve something legendary? If the start of your book can state what the book is ultimately about, that’s a good start.

So let’s look at a draft of FASTER THAN LIGHT chapter 1 and see if achieves the goal of a good first few pages.

****
“This is not how legends are made,” Ensign Keil Nighter fumed. “Rock cores? Who cares about rock cores?”
They gathered around the ship’s galley table on which were clipped a few squirt bottles. The walls shimmered with the depictions of famous pirates that had come before them.  An ugly bunch, but that’s what happened when you explored galaxies, you lost things. Like arms. Eyeballs. Legs. Most of Keil’s crew had too.
Sabra Tombstone, Keil’s navigator, chewed on a thick slab of pemmican, a concoction nobody wanted to know the ingredients of, but that tasted a little like gnawing on your friend’s shoe. Lothain was the mission captain and he seemed to like the pemmican a little too much. In space his chins always waggled in weird ways. He ordered his bot, Francie, to pull up a holo of the mission orders over the galley table.
“Says here our search area is Star Quadrant 16-2 A. Milky Way. Mission: Acquire samples of rock cores, water, and reconnaissance for potential settlement. If we return with zero cores, we fail. One core, partial pass. Two cores, full pass. Three cores, pass with distinction.”
In the corner hulked Hal, Lothain’s body guard, first mate, slave, whatever. He didn’t say much but was scaly and rather green.
“Mission—boring,” Keil said. “I know what it says, but we can take a hundred rock core samples and not make a difference. They want students to push limits—that’s how they choose captains. I say we hit deep space—find an advanced planet and come back heroes.”
“They don’t send us into deep space for a reason, Keil,” Sabra said.
Keil nodded vehemently. “And I know the reason. It’s Loth. Daddy doesn’t want to lose his son.”

“I actually think my padre really wouldn’t care if he lost one of his three dozen children,” Lothain replied. His daddy was the Commandant of the entire Pirate Guild. Which was why he had an Interstellar Class ship bristling with cannons half of which he didn’t know what did.

“Pass the exam, Keil,” Sabra said. “Once you’re a full member of the guild, after that you can be legendary.”
“We already have two cores; I agree with Keil,” Telly the Bit said and everyone glanced at them in surprise. Telly was agender and had elected to use the pronouns they and them to describe themselves. They didn’t speak much. A shock of yellow hair sprouting from the back of their head moved with their emotions. Right then it pointed straight out the rear.“Rock cores will not improve our lives and will have a very low probability of changing Earth’s history.”
“See, why do something if it’s not going to change anything?” Keil took another bite of the pemmican and then began the jaw aching chew to make it possible to swallow. “I’m going back to the charts,” he mumbled around the glob in his mouth and kicked off the table, doing a back somersault through the door into the hall.
“Don’t do anything stupid—I mean legendary.” Lothain laughed.
“I tell you what.” Upside down, dreadlocks writhing in all directions, Keil thrust his hand back through the hatchway. “If I find something in a habitable zone, you can claim it, but—you have to promise to go.”
“Sure thing.” Loth didn’t bother with the hand.
The chances were virtually nil.
“No, Loth, your dad will kill you,” Sabra said.
Hal grunted agreement.
“Thanks, Mom.” Loth rolled his eyes and then indicated Hal. “And, Dad. But Keil’s not going to find anything in the next hour.”

Keil pulled himself through the hall, a bit depressed that Loth was probably right.

Soon they would be full-fledged pirates like their parents before them. Not ahoy thar matey, pirates, rather engage the faster than light cube and burn dark matter, type pirates. The goal of every pirate is to find alien technology and steal it. Not to gather rock cores.

Three hundred billion stars fill the Milky Way Galaxy and around them spin a trillion planets and moons. Keil wanted to search the totally unchartered waters of the other hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. To be specific, the area over on the upper left hand side. The average pirate had to scour a thousand planets to find a technologically advanced one.

Keil’s batting average was much better than the average pirate’s and for one reason. He trusted his gut. The real brain was in the stomach—no, not really—just because this is the future doesn’t mean it’s ridiculous

On the navigation deck Keil called over Otto. Otto was his bot. Having a bot was like having a pet a billion times smarter that himself that could access pretty much anything he would ever need to know.
“Otto, give me that star chart I was looking at on the holo.”
Otto was also his father’s old bot delivered to the family silo with the ship ten years ago, minus one important occupant. The father. The only message it had contained was a holo of him warning off the guild from pursuing his rescue due to the warlike nature of the Kebons and their ability to vaporize whole planets. That was enough for the Pirate Guild. After all only 0.02% of the known universe had been as yet charted—why bother with planet destroying aliens? So Keil had been left fatherless. Keil had vowed to one day find out what had happened to his dad. Once he had passed the exam, he would be a step closer.
Every team had two ships. A deep spacer like the Dainty and a scout, like Keil’s skater. The deep spacers could, as their name suggested, venture wherever they wanted. Keil’s skater needed to piggy-back for long jumps. Until Keil could afford his own deep-space ship, he’d be stuck scouting for someone else or limited to exploring the Milky Way far from Kebo. For the last month he and Sabra had been paired with Loth the Sloth, Hal who everyone knew was really a body guard, and Telly the Bit—the smartest and weirdest student in their year. They were the best of the academy. Only Loth held them back. He was going to pass the exam because of Keil, Telly, and Sabra.
Otto chirruped that it had a message.

It had to have been timed. No message from Earth could reach their position for the next several thousand light years.

 “Show me.”
The holo of his mother replaced the stars. She smiled at him, dark face framed by her burnished white hair.
“Last day of the exam, honey, your father would be so proud. I hope it’s going well, I have a surprise for you when you get home.” Her brown eyes quavered a little and she stuttered. “It ... it’s a ... well ... another inheritance I guess. Our little secret. Say good luck to Lothie...oh, and ... you’re probably getting restless and thinking about doing something reckless ... don’t. Pass the exam.”
She winked and faded out. The star chart replaced her.
Keil’s heart tripped and then kicked into high gear. Another inheritance? Before the exam she had given him his father’s skater. A bit banged up and missing a chaffing cannon but still one of the best scout-class ships you could ask for. For a guy who had to borrow pemmican from everyone else because he lacked the credits ... he couldn’t ask for more.
“What was that?” Lothain asked and Keil jerked around.
“What ...? Uh ... good luck from my mom, Lothie.”
Loth squinted. “That’s it?”
“Yeah, but I think I have something, a solar wobble. Exoplanet within a habitable zone.” A habitable zone was the distance from the sun which could sustain life. The planet wouldn’t be molten lava. Nor a popsicle. Although they’d been surprised just how much life there could be under extreme conditions.
Loth zoomed in on the star chart. “That’s what? Six million light years away?”
“You want big finds, you have to take big risks.”
“That’s a lot of FTL.”
FTL—aka Faster Than Light travel—humanity had blundered into the power a hundred years ago. FTL had changed the course of the race. The mystic blue fire that jumped them through the universe with no more effort than a thunderclap. Earthlings were no longer tethered to however far they could fling themselves using the sun’s gravity. They could be anywhere. Instantly. The only issue was, they didn’t know where anywhere was. Astronomers had mapped a paltry amount of the universe and what they had mapped was billions of years old. The Pirate Guild had been formed to color in the gaps where astronomers wrote ‘hic sunt dracones’ or ‘here be dragons.’
“Like getting more FTL’s a problem for you,” Keil said.
“It’ll run out eventually,” Telly replied. He hadn’t seen them enter.
“Not in our lifetime.” Loth joked. “And by then we’ll have found more somewhere else.”
“Come on, we have our two samples. I don’t care about passing with distinction, let’s be talked about for the next thousand years. Be legendary,” Keil said.
“Legendary.” Telly gave a rare smile.
Grudgingly, Sabra joined them. They put their hands together. Only Hal kept his scaly talons to himself.
“We really should come up with a cheer,” Sabra said.
 
So—what do you think? There’s an awful lot of information there and I wonder what I can move to later. You only want to give as much information as is required for the scene. I think I do a decent job of introducing the various characters, what they are doing and what’s important to them. I don’t think I can picture them yet, or the ship, but I do more of that in the next chapter. There isn’t any real action in the scene but I’m not sure how to pack any in. This chapter is already a bit long. Some of the writing is uneven but that’s okay because it’s still an early draft. I need to get into action next if I plan on holding the reader!
 
If you send me your first few pages I’ll let you know what I think or your first chapter!

 

ATTENTION: The submission window for critiques is open! If you’d like your work critiqued, please submit no more than 3 pages (double spaced, 12 point font) via email to jessica.roy@BiblioOttawaLibrary.ca.

Michael Stewart is OPL’s  first official writer in residence for teens and tweens. Michael likes to experiment by combining social media with storytelling. He's both traditionally published and indie published. He writes middle grade through to adult novels, graphic novels and new media projects across many genres.

www.michaelfstewart.com
https://www.facebook.com/MichaelFStewart
http://twitter.com/MichaelFstewart

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