Chapter Two: The First Few Pages

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The following post is aimed specifically at people who are trying to write a young adult novel, although I hope that readers in general will find the information useful. Naturally, everything I say is my opinion and only my opinion. There is no one way to write a book—thank God.

The title of this talk is "The First Few Pages." It will probably take me more than a few pages to discuss the subject. I won't be surprised if it takes several posts. The start of your book is everything. As I mentioned in a previous post, most agents and editors will only read three or four pages of a novel if they don't already know and respect the author. The same with the reading public.

Just think of your own experience. If you love John Grisham or Stephen King you don't even have to read the blurb on the back of their novels to know if you're going to buy the book. You just buy it. But if you've never read a book by the author, what do you do?

You pick up the book and read the first few pages. If they don't grab you right away, chances are you won't buy it. In fact, unless a friend has sworn to you it's a great book, the chances are 99% that you won't buy it.

Hopefully we're on the same page on this point.

The first few pages have to grab the reader.

How do you do that?

Forgive me if I talk abstractly for a few minutes. We've all heard or used the expression, "I'm just can't get into this book." Or the opposite, "I can't put this book down." These two expressions are really telling us what a reader wants to feel when he or she picks up the book. The reader wants to feel like he or she is "INTO the book."

In a sense, every reader who starts a book is on uncertain ground. Think back on all the books you've read in the last year. Didn't you relax just a little when you reached the point in the book where you felt like you knew what was going on? Where you felt like you knew something about at least one of the characters? Where you felt like you had a feel for the kind of world the author was developing?

To grab readers you have to hook them. To hook them you have to give them information. The key to starting a book is to give the reader as much information as you can in the clearest possible way. If you're a bestselling novelist you can start your books with vague metaphorical images and disconnected dialogue. If you're trying to sell your first book you have to drop any pretense of writing literature and just tell the reader what the hell is going on.

There are a few ways to do that.

The path you choose will be up to you.

Now let's get down to the nitty-gritty.

The first book I sold was SLUMBER PARTY, a forty-thousand word young adult thriller. I sold it in 1984 to Jean Fiewell, a highly respected editor at Scholastic. I was twenty-eight at the time and I had been writing for roughly seven years.

When I sold Slumber Party I was a competent writer, but I was far from a great writer. For that reason Slumber Party is a good book, but it's not a great book. However, writing it taught me a lot about the craft and it sold and it allowed me to write another book. Just a point to remember. Your first book doesn't have to be a masterpiece to sell.

I knew before I sold the book that I had a chance to sell it. My agent at the time had given Jean a first chapter and an outline of the story. She contacted him and said she wanted to see the whole book. So I had one foot in the door.

How did I get that foot in that door?

At that time I had not yet developed a powerful narrative voice with which to grip the reader. Instead, I had to rely on the four fundamentals of writing:

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