Apparently people select their mates on the basis of the first ten seconds of interaction – eyes meeting across a crowded room and all that – and that once this initial impression is forged it is almost impossible to overturn it. It’s the same with books. My agent told me once that he knows by the end of the first paragraph if the book’s any good, and I’m guessing that if a book hasn’t jingled the jangles of the reader (be they agent, publisher or punter) by the end of the first page (max!) then it’s bin time.
On this basis you’ve got 300 words to prevent your magnum opus interfacing with oblivion, so you’ve got to make each and every word count!
Now I’m no expert on creative writing but from what I’ve read (and here I’m referring to the SF/fantasy genre) it seems to me that there are certain things that get me hooked.
1. An intriguing, odd set-up. One of my favourite novels of all time, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ begins like this:
‘What’s it going to be then?’
There was me, that is Alex. And my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.’
How can you resist reading on? I know the odd language might be daunting (a criticism that has been levelled at The Demi-Monde) but to me this communicates a really subversive feel and also that Alex isn’t quite operating on all cylinders.
Then there’s the classic: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’. Genius!
2. A crisis, with the hero/heroine in danger. Let’s begin with a cliff-hanger! This is the one I chose for The Demi-Monde (see below) and to make it work you’ve got to avoid passive writing (essentially telling not showing), over-complexity and too much description. Try:
‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’ Stephen King, ‘The Gunslinger’.
3. Mystery. Everyone’s a sucker for a puzzle and well-written mystery will persuade the reader to turn that page in order to find the answer. I suppose the modern master of this is Dan Brown (yeah, I know he ain’t SF but I’m buggered if I can think of a great SF whodunnit. Now there’s a thought ...). If you check out The Lost Symbol (great first page, rotten book) how’s this for a hook:
‘Since the beginning of time, the secret had always been how to die’.
But as they say, physician heal thyself, so I thought I’d analyse the opening page of ‘The Demi-Monde: Winter’ to see how I stacked up.
Probably a mistake: it seems that a fair few readers don’t read Prologues. Strange but true. Probably better to have been Chapter 1
The Demi-Monde: the 37th Day of Winter, 1004
I used this to communicate that we were in a different world and a different time. Also as I hop between the Demi-Monde and the Real World in the rest of the book it’s a useful device to flag to the reader just which world they’re in.
Norma ran. Picked up her skirts and ran as she had never run in her life. Ran as though the Hounds of Hell were at her heels.
I wanted a short, sharp and exciting opening, this to signal that the book is a thriller. It also introduces my lead protagonist Norma and shows she’s in danger. I put the ‘picked up her skirts’ thing in as an afterthought to show that she’s dressed a little unconventionally.
Fuck it…the Hounds of Hell were at her heels.
Norma’s a feisty modern girl who calls a spade a spade so the use of the ‘Fuck it’ was deliberate to comunicate this. The thought lines are a substitute for dialogue.
And as she ran she heard a crackle of gunfire behind her, the sound of the shots ricocheting through the curfew-silent streets of London. The gunfire told her that Mata Hari and her Suffer-O-Gettes had kept their word. They had tried to delay those SS bastards for as long as they could. Suffer-O-Gettes died hard.
I’m told that the best hooks in a first page are sex and death ... I used danger. The juxtaposition of Mata Hari and the Suffer-O-gettes was an attempt to show that the Demi-Monde is out-of-kilter with our own world.
Run, Norma run! Mata Hari had screamed at her as Clement’s SS-Ordo Templi Aryanis thugs had smashed down the pub’s door. And she had run. She couldn’t - wouldn’t - let the SS catch her.
Mad, evil bastards.
But she was running blind.
The short elliptical sentences and paragraphs are designed to give the opening a breathless aspect, just like a running Norma would be.
The snow was so thick that she could barely see a dozen strides in front of her, snow that the icy wind was whipping into her eyes, making them water with pain.
Scene setting: the book is ‘The Demi-Monde: Winter’ when all said and done.
Angrily Norma shook her head, ordering herself to ignore the pain, ignore the cold, ignore the frosted numbness crawling along her fingers and her toes, ignore the protests of her mutinous body. Ordered herself to ignore everything but the need to put as much distance between herself and the animals chasing her as was humanly possible.
The repetition of ‘ignore’ is a writing device called ANAPHORA which consists of repeating a sequence of words thereby lending them emphasis. I did this to help build the tension, to show that Norma was starting to panic and to mimic the rhythm of her running.
She had to forget everything but the need to run. Forget that duplicitous, scheming, treacherous, underhand, slimy, son-of-a-bitch Burlesque Bandstand.
Over-the-top I know but Burlesque is an important character, but he doesn’t make an entrance for a hundred or so pages so I wanted the reader to remember him and Norma’s loathing of him.
Considering it's almost three years since I wrote these words I'm not too disappointed with them. I'd probably tweak the opening few words - Run, Norma run! - but other than that it's okay. Got me an agent and a publishing deal anyway, which ain't too shabby!