Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #1: The First Page Promise

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So here we are at our very first lecture for Novel Boot Camp! It only makes sense to start at the beginning – the very beginning – the first page of your novel.

If you follow my blog, then you know that I put a lot of stock in first pages. I provide free first page critiques every week in my blog series First Page Friday. I’ve probably written more about first pages and first chapters than anything else. And for a very good reason!

If your first page sucks, you’ve got nothing. Harsh? Maybe. But writing is a tough business. And because I’m an editor and love analogies, I’m going to compare it to another harsh business: the movie business.

Your Submission Package (An Analogy)

Most aspiring writers think of their first page as the setup, the part of the novel that just gets things going, the calm before the storm. This is wrong! All wrong! Your first page needs to open with a bang. It is your audition.

To carry the analogy a bit further:

Your query is your head shot.

Your First Page is your audition.

Your partial/full manuscript is the callback.

Getting published is getting the part.

We don’t have time to get into the query letter or (God forbid) your entire manuscript in this one blog post. So let’s focus on what we came here to focus on this morning: your first page.

The First Page is Your Audition

The goal of an audition is to impress the director with your acting skills. You want to demonstrate that you can handle the script better than anyone else. That you are great at what you do!

If a director likes your audition, it’s because they saw something in you that popped, something they loved. Because of that something, they give you a callback – another chance to convince them that you’re the actor for the job.

In the publishing world, your first page is your audition. It’s your chance to impress agents/editors with what you can do. You must convince them that you are a masterful storyteller of the exact story that you’re telling.

The Partial/Full is the Callback

In the movie business, if a director likes your audition, they give you a callback – a chance to prove that you can live up to your first audition. If you go to the callback and perform completely differently – maybe you put a new spin on the character or add some extra emotional complexity – the director is likely to be disappointed. Why? Because the director wants more of the same, not something different.

In the writing world, the first page is your initial audition. Everything that comes after (whether you send a partial or a full) is your callback. If your novel does not deliver what the first page promised, you’re in trouble. People who loved your first page won’t get what they wanted. And most importantly: the people who would’ve loved your novel won’t read it because the first page isn’t an accurate representation of the whole.

This means that the wrong people will read your novel. You might as well carve its tombstone right now.

Setting the Wrong Tone

The tone is the atmosphere your novel creates for the reader. It’s a sensation in their chest that makes them tense up with excitement or relax into a comforting tale. On the first page, the tone gives the reader an inkling of what to expect from your novel. It should spark an excitement that is supported from page one to the end.

But so many amateur novels set the wrong tone! If you open with a car chase, the reader will expect an action-packed book. If you follow that up with a family saga, the reader will be sorely disappointed. Likewise, a heart-wrenching death scene leading into a superficial comedy will attract all the wrong readers and repel the right ones.

So why do so many amateur novels open with the wrong tone? There are three main reasons:

1. The writer doesn’t know what the tone of their novel is when they first start writing, and after that first draft is complete, they don’t go back to rewrite the beginning.

2. The writer is worried that the logical point at which to open their novel is boring so they craft a more exciting beginning – even if it doesn’t represent their book.

3. The writer is too busy cramming information into the opening to write an interesting and on-tone first chapter.

Dreams, Prologues, Flashbacks, and Other False Promises

If your novel opens with a dream, prologue, or flashback there is a very good chance that you are opening with a false promise (and fall under group 2 in the list above).

These openings are often used as a way to make the first pages of the novel seem more exciting than they really are. Rather than crafting an awesome first chapter, it’s easier to write an exciting dream, prologue, or flashback to draw the reader into the story and then cross your fingers that they sludge through the boring opening that follows (the one you were trying to hide with the dream/flashback/prologue in the first place).

This is why writing advice across the web will tell you to avoid dreams, prologues, and flashbacks in your opening chapter.  It is not because these things are inherently wrong, it’s because they are tools often used to deliver a false promise.

If your book makes sense without your prologue, dream, flashback, or any other device used to create a more engaging opening, you are probably better off cutting it and rewriting your first chapter.

ETA: Several people have posted in the comments asking if they can keep their prologue. I am not attempting to say that all prologues are bad, simply that prologues can be used to disguise problems with the first chapter. If this doesn’t describe your book, don’t fret over starting with a prologue just because it’s a prologue.

You can test whether your prologue works by asking yourself if both your prologue and your first chapter hold up in the homework section of this post.

“But what about my query letter or back cover blurb? Readers already know what my book is about!”

Both query letters and back cover blurbs are generally terrible at conveying tone. Furthermore, agents/editors rarely trust the writer’s ability to accurately assess and portray their genre and basic plot within a query letter.

Think of your query and blurb like a head shot in the movie business. A head shot is not intended to be used to cast an actor. It is a tool used to determine whether the director wants to give that actor a chance (an audition). It’s a quick peek that allows the director to say, “Oh yes, I love tall, dark, and handsome!” or “No, I need a short, ugly guy.”

The query letter and back cover blurb are your head shots. They’re you saying, “Look how pretty I can be!” But anyone can take a pretty photo or write a pretty query. That doesn’t mean they can act or write a cohesive novel.

If your first page delivers a tone or represents a genre other than what is stated in your blurb or query, you’re unlikely to get readers to stick around.

“But my novel gets better later!”

If you don’t impress readers/agents/editors on page one, there is no later.

A false promise opening is still a false promise even if it accurately represents the last half of your book. The first page must promise something that the entire book can deliver on.

How to Create a Promise You can Keep

Focus on the tone of your novel (creepy, heart-warming, funny, etc.). Come up with ways to integrate this tone into your opening page. But don’t go overboard. You want the novel to steadily build in intensity, so you don’t want the opening scene to be the scariest/most heart-warming/action-packed thing that happens in your book.

But don’t be boring either.

Sound like a tall order? It’s not as hard as you might think. Pick an opening that contains a conflict that is a micro-version of the internal or external central conflict of your novel. For example, if your novel is about a boy learning to be himself, start with a conflict about how he must pretend to not be himself to avoid a bully.

If your novel is about overthrowing an oppressive government, open with the character challenging an oppressive postal worker.

In both of these examples, the writer would have no problem building up the intensity over time, yet the examples aren’t boring either. They tell the reader exactly what to expect from the book, which means the right people are going to read it.

Homework Assignment

Before you begin, remember that to write a great first page, you must put your absolute best foot forward. This doesn’t mean using a style that isn’t your own or writing a crazy action-packed car chase. It means writing a first page that is the best overall representation of your novel.

Step One: Identify the tone of your novel. If you haven’t done so already, submit your novel’s opening in the Genre Guessing Game workshop to see if you’re conveying the tone you intend.

Step Two: Identify the external and internal conflict. The external conflict is the obstacle/villain/antagonist acting against the main character. The internal conflict is something within the character that is holding them back (usually a character flaw).

Step Three: Consider whether your current opening reflects the overall tone.

If not, brainstorm moments where you can create a stronger atmosphere. Don’t forget that word choice can have a huge impact on the novel’s tone.

Step Four: Consider whether your current opening has a conflict that mirrors the internal or external central conflict.

If your novel does not open with a conflict at all, that’s a good indication that it needs some major rewriting.

Step Four: Depending on your time commitment to Novel Boot Camp, either write a new novel opening or make notes about what to change about the current one.

If you don’t need to make any changes, triumphantly proclaim it in the comments section or on Twitter (#NovelBootCamp) and take today to peruse some of my past writing advice.

If you do need to make changes, let us know in the comments or on Twitter (#NovelBootCamp).

If you need help with your opening or aren’t sure if you need to make changes, post your questions in the comments, on Twitter (#NovelBootCamp), or in the Facebook group.

Additional Resources for a Killer Opening

Want to learn more about opening your novel? Here are my other videos and articles about the first chapter:

[VIDEO] First Chapter Mistakes and Cliches

[VIDEO] How to Write a Great First Chapter

[VIDEO] How to Write the Setup of Your Novel

Nailing Your Novel’s First Chapter

First Page Friday

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

64 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #1: The First Page Promise

  1. gillianstkevern says:

    This was a challenging exercise! Both in terms of submitting the 200 word sample with a tone, genre and plot summary as well as completing the homework assignment afterwards. I’m left with mixed feelings.

    My genre seems pretty solid — paranormal and romance both got more votes than any other genre, and most of the other genres that were guessed shared overlap or make an appearance within the story (horror, urban fantasy etc.). However, there were still seven guesses for genres that were way off, so I still have some work to do! Likewise, tone was all over the place.

    I think my problem with tone comes down to the fact that I am having problems defining the tone of the overall story. It’s dark in some places, lighter in others. There is romance, humour and horror and these elements overlap and interplay. I successfully introduced the creepy/adult tone into the opening, I think, but I am not sure about the rest of it. Will have to give it serious thought!

    Like many other participants, I’m also wondering how soon we need to set up specifics. I’ve made it specific that my story contains paranormal elements, but it’s only at the end of chapter 2 that my character realizes he’s got himself involved with vampires. I am pretty sure the reader will have worked it out before then, but I will still have to think carefully about whether this is too slow a reveal.

    Overall, a really strong and challenging start to Novel Bootcamp! Thank you Ellen for what I’m sure has been a lot of hard work posting everyone:s excerpts, and everyone for your comments! I’m finding it really interesting, seeing how my guess on someone:s genre and tone varies from other people’s, and the guesses on plots are really entertaining!

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      The most important thing is that the reader gets a sense that the paranormal tone is there. It doesn’t necessarily need to be super prominent, but the introduction of paranormal elements shouldn’t blindside the reader.

      I would only be concerned if the tone of the opening is not a significant tone of the overall novel. This could indicate that you are putting too much focus on elements of your opening that are not significant.

      In other words, the overall tone of the novel should be present but doesn’t have to be the ONLY tone present.

      Any other tone that IS present should be significant or thematically relevant to the novel as a whole.

      I hope this helps!

      • Betsy Herbert says:

        I was amazed at how some folks picked up on something that I didn’t know was there, i.e. “dark humor”. When I went back and reread, I realized that a word or phrase sent the reader in that direction. I think that applies to the paranormal “promise”, too. You could make that promise with a single image or phrase in the opening. I also loved picking out these “sub tones” in everyone’s work. As a reader, it allows me to feel like an astute observer.

  2. Julie G says:

    Oh dear…Well, on the plus side, people do seem to be guessing the correct age range of young adult, which means that the writing style matches the target audience. Unfortunately, most people so far have guessed that it’s going to be a creepy horror novel. My novel is going to have darker and lighter elements in it, and it’s going to start with a scene that’s quite dark.

    I won’t go into specifics or I’ll give it away, but the character is about to begin the novel by sacrificing something they love, and will do so in a (hopefully) heart-wrenching way. The rest of the novel will have elements of dark and light, with them slowly gaining courage and hope etc. It appears that I’ve overplayed the darkness.

    Ah, but one person has it right! Very good guess, actually, and close to what I was going for. So maybe it’s not all bad!

    Of course, the good thing is, I now know that I can write horror! I just have to work out how I did it! Maybe one day, I’ll try my hand at that genre, too. Lemons and lemonade, and all…

    xxx

  3. waterprince says:

    I think I almost achieved what I was going for, but I’m worried that with shifts in pace for plot progression could possibly change my tone. Is there any way to avoid that?

  4. Heather says:

    Right… Not sure where to start with this…but I think my first page probably promises the wrong things.
    For a start, everyone guessed the tone correctly, but the genre was all over the place and almost no one guessed it was YA. Most thought it was supernatural (WHY?) or mystery.
    I can kind of understand the mystery part. After all… the train station…. the smoker. Classic mystery cliches.
    However. Supernatural = Undead. Yes? Ghosts, vampires, werewolves…
    I have a goblin, a Pooka, and some wizards. And a witch. He’s awesome. I also plan to have some dragons in at some point. No undead people.

    People also guessed that my main could ‘see into an alternate world’ That’s close, but only part true. It’s the same world, different view point. Cello Guy only hides his tail because the normal world doesn’t have guys with tails. Just like the normal world doesn’t have wizards, goblins, or dragons. My story has no Veil or Mist that clouds peoples vision, just some glamours and a really thick cloud of Anti-Belief.

    Also, my Main is apparently male. She’s not, but I see why people would think that. It’s a problem I’m going to fix. I also think the scene might need more conflict. Any tips?

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      I don’t think supernatural is far enough off to be too worried.

      Thinking the protagonist is the wrong gender is a common problem. Just have her pick at her nail polish or put her hair in a ponytail and you should be good to go.

      I can’t really say whether you need more conflict or not without reading more of your novel.

      • Heather says:

        Normally those suggestions would work, but Vivian has short hair and she’s a tomboy. I have Grum call her ‘girl’ somewhere around six or seven hundred words but I’m worried that might not be enough.

        Also, how do I fix the fact that most people thought it was Adult? Or would the query letter if I sent it to an editor be enough?

  5. Pete says:

    I’m getting a lot of YA when I’m aiming for upper middle grade. With only a two hundred word sample should that be a concern?

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Hey Pete, I checked over your submission and I don’t think you have anything to worry about. MG is an age group, not a genre, so guessing it incorrectly isn’t a big deal in most cases. Though squeezing the main character’s age in as early as possible is never a bad thing.

  6. Yori Papilaya says:

    Oh God. You’re starting this at my most busiest time. These lectures are meant to be done anytime, right?

    I just rewrite my first chapter allover again, so this is great. Thanks Ellen you’re the best

  7. Junior Kuranchie says:

    Hi Ellen, my name is Junior… I have been so confused to when everything was taking place although you left us a very clear message on your youtube account. I’m running a couple weeks late, but I’m gonna get stuck in with everything right away as starting from today the 16th July.

    I also have had a lot going on with work and uni breaking up as well as I’ve had to finish off assignments and also got the little one breaking up for school next week, but I’m a fast learner and aquitely equiped when I put my mind to it so I should be up to speed a.sap.

    Please let me know if this is ok?… Look through all of the camp notes right now!..

    Junior.

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