I’ve been on a reading binge, catching up on some of the books in my TBR (to be read) pile. AND I’ve been doing a bit of judging for various contests. Which has set me thinking about first impressions.
Once upon a time, I would finish everything I started reading. Then I realised I was spending valuable reading time on stuff I was not enjoying or learning from, so the stuff with the worst writing or the most unlikeable characters dropped off my list. But I’d still often struggle on with stuff that had some promise, in the hope it would get better.
But I’m 66. I may still have 30 years ahead of me, but beyond a doubt I’m closer to the end of my life than the beginning. I’ve become more demanding.
At this point in my life, I need to have some kind of guarantee of satisfaction. I don’t demand perfection. I can forgive a name that is historically unlikely, or the occasional cliche in a description. If the plot grabs me and I care about the characters, the rest just needs to be good, not flawless.
But I have little time and a TBR pile that keeps growing, which lesson I need to apply to my own writing. I want people to keep reading my books, so I need to pay attention to the four firsts: first sentence, first paragraph, first page, and first chapter. If the four first aren’t right, there’s a real risk my books will never make it onto people’s read list, whether or not they’d really enjoy the rest.
The first sentence should hook you into the story, intrigue you, and impel you to keep reading.
“In the great sprawl of London, where would he find her?” (The Marquis and the Midwife, Alina K Fields)
“The man who’d murdered her stepfather was finally in her sights.” (My Fair Princess, Vanessa Kelly)
The first paragraph should reveal a hint of the plot, while keeping you in the moment.
“If women were as easily managed as the affairs of state—or the recalcitrant Ottoman Empire–Richard Hayden, Marquess of Glenaire, would be a happier man. As it was, the creatures made hash of his well-laid plans and bedeviled him on all sides.” (Dangerous Weakness, Caroline Warfield)
The first page is often as far as you’ll read when you’re trying to decide whether to make the purchase. And certainly you will use it to judge whether a book in your TBR pile suits your mood of the moment. It needs good writing, more than a hint about at least one of the characters, something to intrigue you, maybe action.
The first chapter might be as far as you get. I need to make it count. Check out my excerpts page to read the first chapters of my published books.