The Perils of Page One

Last night, I was struggling for a book to read. My husband remarked that I have dozens of books on my to-be-read pile by the bed was accurate, but limited.

I was in a particular mood last night. I had not had a good day and I wanted a fiction book that take me away to another world. Most of the books on my to-be-read pile have some element of work associated with them. I needed escape.

Eventually, I settled on Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle. I have not read this series. A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favourite books as a child, but I did not pursue L’Engle’s work beyond that series. A few years ago, a friend referred to one of the Austin books as crucial in her development in the same way that A Wrinkle in Time had been for me. Last weekend, I chose Meet the Austins for myself as I was browsing Young Adult books for my son. And last night, I decided to give it a go.

I was grumpy and tired, not a good starting point for being generous with an author.

Meet the Austins opens with a description of a family. It is a loud and boisterous house full of children and Mother is cooking dinner. Not an auspicious beginning for me at this time of my life. Cooking dinner with my four kids in the house is my most stressful time of the day. And I wanted to relax with this book. So far, all it had done was reinforce my desire to get away. I was about to throw the book down in frustration.

And, then, I turned the page. The sentence that spans the first two pages describes Suzy, the 9-year-old of the family, performing surgery on her doll while peeling carrots and using the peeler for both tasks simultaneously. This image and the beautiful phrasing that L’Engle uses to convey it enchanted me. And with that sentence, she kept me as a reader.

Many readers are not willing to spend time investing in a book that doesn’t grab them immediately. My husband is one of them. And last night, I would have been. But, there, in the last sentence I expected to read before putting the book down, was my reason to continue.

If I had a slush pile to read through and was trying to get things off my desk, I wouldn’t have lasted to the second page. As it was, I closed the book at the end of Chapter One and am looking forward to returning to it tonight.

But, I learned my lesson as a writer. Those first words are vital. It is true. Don’t wait until page 2 for an engaging image and a well turned phrase. The reader might not get to page 2 if page 1 doesn’t sparkle.


About Kate Arms-Roberts

Posted on January 19, 2011, in This Writing Life. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Kate, I know exactly what you mean about being glad to have gone past the first page or two of a book that otherwise didn’t grab me. I need to take a look at the first page of my WIP to see if it passes the “turn the page” test.. Also, Meet the Austins is in a pile of books from my son’s early years, and I haven’t read it, so thanks for jogging my memory that I want to do so. 🙂

  2. One of my favorite books, Bel Canto, didn’t grab me from the first page, or even the first chapter. I was just enchanted by the book’s premise because I’m from Peru, and the book was inspired by the Japanese embassy hostage crisis that took place there in the 90s. That alone kept me reading, but once it grabbed me, I knew I’d never let that book go. I’m sure that there are other potential favorite books out there that won’t get that chance, though. We have to seize every opportunity, from page one, to make sure our books don’t end up like that!

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