Making a great first impression

There is no denying the importance of making a good first impression. Look online…ask a friend…go to the bookstore! You can find a lot of solid advice about how to impress in a variety of environments. Regardless of the relationship – personal or professional—getting off on the right foot is critical to establishing credibility. And likeability.

I have made my share of good and bad first impressions. I have stumbled over words. I have said the right…and wrong thing. Once I fell flat on my face.

So on that note, I’d like to introduce myself!

Hi, My name is Sarah Aronson. I have just joined this very wonderful blog, and this is my first post. I am so very happy to be here.

Some of you may find me likeable. Others may wonder if I am just too grateful to be true.

I could start this way:

Hey there—I’m Sarah and this is my very first post. Shannon’s first post scored a lot of readers and comments. I am really nervous that mine will be the first to receive none.

Both these introductions are honest, but they project extremely different images. And appeal to different readers. If we were all hanging out, I would know what would work. I could make eye contact. Shake hands.

But we’re not.

You’re just reading my words. So I can’t know. I can’t react and respond.  Online, I can only hope that you’ll get the sense that I’m humble. And friendly. It has to be clear in my words that I am a bit of a mother hen. Also self deprecating.
You might think I don’t know how to use commas.

(My Vermont College advisors would tell you: No. She does not know how to use a comma!)

This is my topic for today. Knowing how to create a good first impression on the page…in a middle grade novel.  It is so important.  On Page One, we have to convince readers to keep reading.  To trust us.  To care.

How long should it take to hook the reader? How long will a skeptical reader read?

One page? Two? Ten? Fifty?  We don’t know.

What I can tell you: Over the past few years, I have organized many conferences, classes, and retreats. I have participated in three first pages panels for New England’s annual SCBWI conference. I have probably read at least 600 beginnings! I know that it is absolutely magical when a book makes such a good impression that I cannot put it down.  Often, that magic happens on LINE ONE.  I also know that it is really easy to miss the mark and alienate the reader with ONE WORD. Usually, the impression made by the end of the very first paragraph is accurate.

That is why I spend so much time on my openings, my first impression. Frankly, it borders on obsession! I love fussing over my beginnings. I probably write my first paragraph fifteen, twenty, thirty times before I am brave enough to move forward. For a good beginning, I don’t rule anything out. Some day, I will write a book called Chapter One. It will be a collection of all my false starts!

It’s just like my introduction here. I have to think about my voice, the particular words, and syntax. I have to think about white space, and where the reader might want a pause. I have to consider my intended master effect with what is actually on the page.

And then, I have to trust the reader. I have to also accept that some readers won’t like my beginnings. Not all books are for all readers. Our job is to make sure our intended readers know that this one is for them.

So…let’s dig in. What do we need to do to make a great first impression?

You cannot underestimate the power of a great first line.

Barbara Kingsolver said that the first line of a novel must offer up a promise to the reader. Keep reading, and something or someone is going to be changed. The story is going to have a point and a meaning. It’s worth your time. You will connect emotionally.

A great first line HOOKS the reader. Do not underestimate its power. The first line is a signal to me that I will like the book, that the book will suit my sensibility. It is the ultimate good impression.

Let’s put three first lines to the test:

What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays.

When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved.

Just let me say right off the bat, it was a bike accident.

Are you hooked?

I am. In each case, these lines made an impression on me. They drew me in. Or they made me laugh. A promise was made and accepted. As a reader, there is nothing more exciting that. In each case, I knew this was my kind of book. My kind of promise. I couldn’t wait to keep reading.

The first line, and by extension, the first paragraph and page and chapter, act like a firm handshake, a wink between people who realize right away they are going to be good friends, that sense that YES. I get you.

So now, let’s think like writers. How can we make that impression? How do we ensure that our readers know our books are for them? How can we hook the reader??

The first thing I do is become a reader. I read like a writer, a reader, a teacher, a skeptic. I read my opening seriously. I think about who my intended reader is.

We really should understand whom we are writing for! I spend a lot of time thinking about my “ultimate reader.” I read the books my ultimate reader would love. And hate.

Then I ask myself the following questions:

___Is this a book of character? Or is this a book of action? Is that reflected in the opening?

___When do we first learn something interesting about the main character?

Note: there must be something about the main character that is important/essential to you, the writer.

___What is your book about? Describe it in LESS THAN ten words. How soon will the reader know this?

___Can you describe it in ONE word?

If you are having trouble, and even if you are not, here are some other irritating questions that will help you figure out the big picture:

___What does the character want?
___Why does the character want it?
___Why is he doing this NOW? Why is he doing this HERE? In this setting?
___What is your character’s joy? Pain? How does your character use joy to deal with pain?
___Why does your book have to open where it does?

With these questions in mind, I evaluate. I remind myself that there is a sacred relationship between my book (and me) and my reader. I remind myself that no book is loved by every single reader in the universe, but that my readers. . .the people I am writing for. . . should know that this book is for them. And they should know it fast. Because that is what a good beginning does. It makes a great first impression.

Do you have a trick for making a good impression? A story about when you missed the mark? Do you have a favorite opening line? I’d love to hear it. Let’s chat!

27 Responses to Making a great first impression

  1. Excellent post! My personal favorite beginning is from my favorite MG book ELLA ENCHANTED…

    “That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intent to lay a curse on me.”

    There so much information in that little sentence and the rest of the book absolutely lives up to it!

  2. Hi Donna and Kimberley! I’ve feeling very welcomed! Thanks!

  3. Hi Sarah! WONDERFUL post! So fun and informative and friendly. Just like YOU, I well imagine! Congrats!!! So glad you’re here.

  4. Welcome, Sarah! Great first post!

  5. Hey Tami, this is why writing is so hard! Because you can’t just make a promise…you have to keep it!

    Mike: why do I worry? My kids would tell you: She worries all the time! (To reference the great Debbie Wiles beginning: “I come from a family of worriers!”

    Kenda: keep experimenting! Re-imagine! Glad this was helpful!

    Laurie: I agree with Richard Peck. And the whole time I’m revising page one, over and over again….I know that when I get to my ending, I’ll probably scrap it. But the truth is, that revising helps me get the voice down. And if I didn’t fuss over it, I wouldn’t be able to move forward. So it serves a purpose!

    Thanks for your welcomes and comments!!!

  6. Great post Sarah! The value of a great opening line- one that leads into a fantastic opening paragraph then chapter can’t be over-estimated. But…
    last weekend I hosted an editor at our local SCBWI conference. Afterwards as we drove to her train we talked about the many many submissions she receives that have fantastic first lines and even first chapters but then fall flat. She pointed out that your first line makes a promise to your readers– this is what this book will be like, and this is the quality writing you’ll read, too. The rest of the novel has to live up to the promise of that first line. Hmmm

    And WELCOME to the Mixed-Up Files!

  7. Hey Sarah, this is a great first post, what are you worried about? :)
    My all-time favorite first line (and it’s not even close) is from Lisa Yee’s MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS:

    “I have been accused of being anal retentive, an overachiever and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things.”

    Best first line EVER.

  8. I’m pasting this one into my writing journal. I don’t even think you can take it all in at once! The last great first page I read was Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. By the end of the first page, I knew I was in good hands.

  9. Great intro, great post! You’ve provided some important stuff to think about. I’m still experimenting with that first impression, first line, first chapter, so I think I’ll bookmark this and revisit from time to time…

  10. Laurie Schneider

    Ah yes, my favorite place to obsess: Page one, chapter one. I’m never sure I’ve gotten it right, though, until I get to the end of the story and then I obsess more…. Richard Peck claims he always throws away his first chapter when he finishes his first draft and then “writes the chapter that goes at the beginning. Because the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.”

    Great post!

  11. Thanks, everyone! Annette, you have quite a beginning yourself!!! I’m glad this made sense.

    Kellye, I KNEW you were going to comment on my commas!

    Elly: that is so funny. Of course we ALL have stories like that. Sometimes, when my scenes are stalled, I think: what if one of these people is having the worst day ever? What if they say the very thing that would incense the other??? (It doesn’t always work, but it always makes me think!)

    Diana: Harold Underdown and I are talking about the same stuff? COOL. I am in the big leagues!

    Good luck with the chapter, Natalie! Write with intention! Try everything! (Those are my mantras!!)

    Shannon, you humble me!

    Big smile!!!!

  12. Sarah: Fabulous, fabulous post–and totally put my Monday post to shame. For realz. And as someone who has rewritten her opening chapter so many times I honestly can’t keep track anymore (but I do know I’m on draft 18, and that there were many false starts before I started numbering the drafts) I can so relate to this. I like your approach. I may have to try it next time. Maybe I’ll get it right sooner. :)