Five Things to Make Your First Page Shine!

The first page is your chance to make a strong impression with your teen reader! Don’t blow it! New York Times bestselling young adult author Rachel Cohn spoke at the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day event, and shared her list of the top five things you need on page one!

The Five Things To Look For In Your Opening Page:

1)     Voice

  • This is often said to be indescribable. “I’ll know it when I read it.” Is what we hear over and over.
  • Voice is the way you speak on paper.
  • Write as if you are talking to a friend.
  • Write honestly.
  • Don’t write logically. Follow the emotion.
  • Imagine a teen in your living room and you are telling them your story. How would you tell it to keep them engaged?
  • Read other books! Hear other author’s voices.
  • Some of Cohn’s favorite author voices are: Libba Bray, David Levithan, and Patricia McCormick.

2)     Tone

  • This is similar to tone of voice.
  • It is not what is being said but how it is being said.
  • This is related to the adjectives you use.

3)     World

  • You need to show the world your characters find themselves in.
  • This doesn’t have to be epic world building like Lord of the Rings or high fantasy or dystopian.
  • Worlds are smaller. Think about the world created by author Sarah Dessen as an example.
  • Communicate how your world works to your reader.
  • Think about how your mundane and ordinary world can be seen as extraordinary to a teen.
  • Your world needs to feel like paradise before you make it feel like a prison.

4)     The Plot

  • Outlining is good! It’s really helpful.
  • Plot is what happens in the story and the order in which it happens.

5)     Conflict

  • What is in your character’s way?
  • What does your character want?
  • Do the situations your character gets into get in the way of what they want?

Rachel shared the first page of three young adult novels which (in her opinion) contain all five elements – Voice, Tone, World, Plot, and Conflict. Pick up these books at your library and see if you agree!

Example 1: The Hunger Games by Susan Collins

  • Mention of the Reaping = Tone and Plot
  • Story with the Cat = Illustrates (show not tell) the bleakness of the world.
  • Establishes the protagonist is a hunter who provides for the family and is loyal.
  • The line about love immediately shows tone and conflict.

Example 2: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

  • We get the voice from the first line.
  • We get the tone from the use of slang and the sense of darkness and mystery. Yet at the same time it’s funny.
  • The prosthetic belly tells us information about the world.
  • Immediate Conflict = She must get pregnant.

Example 3: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

  • Creates a teen voice that is direct and immediate, yet artful and smart at the same time. “The sunset was like yellow cat vomit.”
  • We get the voice immediately in the first few lines.
  • World is futuristic.
  • Plot and conflict is established in the bit about her friend getting a surgery that the protagonist herself has not had.

Rachel Cohn is a New York Times bestselling Young Adult author. Her titles include: Gingerbread, Ver LeFreak, You Know Where to Find Me, Cupcake, Shrimp and Pop Princess. She has also co-authored with David Levithan the very popular books, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, Naomi & Ely’s No Kiss List, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which became a successful movie released by Sony Pictures. Rachel’s books have been “Best of the Year” selections by Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. The American Library Association has also named her books to the Best Books for Young Adults and Top 10 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list.

The Importance of First Impressions

You only get one shot with a teen reader! You’ve got to grab your reader from the first page or it’s over! Author Rachel Cohn spoke at the 2011 SCBWI Writer’s Day in Southern California and shared her insight on why it’s so important to make a stellar first impression!

The Importance of First Impressions:

  • First impressions are really important when it comes to teen readers.
  • You need to get it right from the first page!
  • Don’t give your reader a chance to walk away.
  • Characters should interact and come alive!
  • There’s a common joke with YA writers that we are just as literary as adult writers we just do it in half the time. Meaning, we don’t spend 50 pages being pretty and flowery with language and setting things up. We jump in right away!
  • Give a teen the opening of your book and see what they think.
  • Think about your first days of high school and how that first impression of you stuck. It’s the same with a book.
  • Beware of swears on the first page of your book. This could be a deterrent for some readers. However, Cohn didn’t take out the swears on the first page of Nick and Nora. She didn’t want to give a false impression of what the book was about.
  • Check out Cohn’s List of: Five Essentials for Page One

 Follow the Instincts and Authenticity of Teen Life:

  • Everything for teens is a new experience. They are feeling things for the first time. If you pull it off it will feel honest.
  • Don’t “Parent” your characters. Authors have an instinct to tell their characters “Don’t do that.” And then they make “better” choices for their characters. RESIST this urge! Your character’s don’t have that insight and they need to make these mistakes. Follow the mantra that every time you have an instinct to tell your character to not do something, do the opposite, have them do it right away!
  • Everything feels so big to a teen. It’s epic. It’s biblical!
  • Don’t dismiss something because you (as an adult) think something is too petty. Those things can be really important in teen life.

Tips on Writing Your First Chapter:

  • Many authors find that they actually write their first chapter at the end, after finishing the book. Because now they finally know what they need to set up in the first chapter. And their original first chapter becomes chapter #2.
  • Beware of hiding behind voice and not dealing with world and conflict.
  • You need a hook on your first page. What is it that will get your reader to turn the page?

Other Tid-Bits:

  • Cohn just sold a 4-book deal on a Sci-Fi Series.
  • Copy editors are meant to tell you how you’ve mangled the English language.
  • Cohn writes in and is drawn to 1st person.
  • Cohn got an agent within 6 months of submitting to agents, but it took 7 years to sell her first book.
  • She was often told her protags were too whinny. Then she decided to write a book about the whiniest person she could, and that was her first book.

The Process of Writing “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist” and having a Writing Partner:

  • She and David Levithan each wrote alternating chapters with different characters.
  • They didn’t plan much. They wanted to keep the spontaneity.
  • There was very little discussion about the book. They would each pick up where the other left off.
  • TRUST! There was lots of trust in the collaboration. You are sharing your characters.
  • You need to be on the same page from the beginning.
  • They don’t use an outline.

Rachel Cohn is a New York Times bestselling Young Adult author. Her titles include: Gingerbread, Ver LeFreak, You Know Where to Find Me, Cupcake, Shrimp and Pop Princess. She has also co-authored with David Levithan the very popular books, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, Naomi & Ely’s No Kiss List, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which became a successful movie released by Sony Pictures. Rachel’s books have been “Best of the Year” selections by Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. The American Library Association has also named her books to the Best Books for Young Adults and Top 10 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list.

Opening Lines

Was that an earthquake or did you just rock my world?

Okay, we may not be trying to pick-up girls, but we are trying to pick-up readers. First lines and first impressions are important! And it’s amazing how much a first line can tell you about a book; including tone, character, and intrigue.

What does a reader look for in a first line? I decided to find out first hand. For a fun Friday night, I headed to my local book bar (store) to put the YA book-bachelors to the test. I would randomly pick fifty books, read one line only, and let the most interesting and compelling line (in my opinion) pick me up. Or more accurately I would pick it up, and take it back to my place for a little cozy one-on-one time. And after one saucy night of literary bedazzlement, the following openers rose to the top of the stack:

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” – M.T. Anderson’s Feed

“The best way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone.” - M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow

“Finn has been flung on his face and chained to the stone slabs of the transitway.” - Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron

“I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.” - Maggie Strefrater’s Shiver

“Everyone’s seen my mother naked.” - Elizabeth Scott’s Something, Maybe

“Paradise sucked until I found the suicide note.” - Caroly Macker’s Tangled

“Holly will always be immune from the damage that infects me so easily.” - Ibi Kaslik’s Skinny

But who got to snuggle up with me on my sofa? That would be…

“Everyone thinks it was because of the snow, and in a way, I suppose that’s true.” - Gayle Forman’s If I Stay

If I Stay caught my attention because there is something intriguing and poetic about the first line, mysterious and sad. But what you would pick is probably different. Just like dating, there’s a different book (and first line) for everyone. I suggest you go out and try this exercise for yourself. Who will make you swoon?

Also, (if you want more opinions) you can check out the American Book Review’s: 100 Best First Lines of Novels

What about you? Who’s first lines made you turn a page or two? Please leave a comment and share!