Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Firsts and Lasts

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

I attend several writers conferences each year. I love it. I love learning. There is always more for me to learn. I inhale writing information, always looking for ways to improve my process and make myself more productive.

This year, one piece of advice topped everything else I learned. It came from Ronie Kendig, a talented author, who, next year, will release her first young adult fantasy novel--which is AMAZING. (I got to read the first three chapters.)

Here are some of Ronie's books. You should check them out. They're great.

And here is Ronie's picture:

Okay, now back to Ronie's writing wisdom that changed the way I edit.

Last week, I talked about the importance of the opening line of a book. Ronie talked about that in her class. But she took it ever further. She encouraged us to pay strict attention to the firsts and lasts.

-Of every chapter
-Of every paragraph
-And sometimes (in the white space) of every sentence

Especially on the first page of your book.

-You also want to give a good first impression when the reader glances at the page. This is about paragraph length vs. white space. (White space is good. You want lots of it.) But also, a reader's eyes are drawn to white space and the words that show up there. Look at the words in the white space. What do they say? Is there action in those words? Is something happening? Do those words strike a mood? Hopefully they don't say something completely awkward.

So, yes. Pay close attention to your first sentence. But also to your last sentence of the chapter. And to your last sentence of the first paragraph. And the first and last words of each paragraph on that first page.

For an example on how to put this into action, let's look at one of my first pages. This is from Onyx Eyes, the book I started writing on my author blog that I had to temporarily abandon. (I will return to it soon, but if you want to read more, click on the title above.)

I haven't done too badly here. The paragraph that begins with "Silence" feels too long. I'd like to rewrite it to give more white space.

The words I've highlighted are my firsts and lasts. I want to make sure I use strong words there. Words that mean something and grab the reader's attention. I might change "We are not fairies, Kenneth" to "We are not fairies." Fairies is a stronger word than Kenneth, who the reader doesn't yet know. I'd also look at the pronouns and see about changing some of them out.

There isn't much movement in this scene. They're just standing around talking. Perhaps I could rewrite this to have them entering the room and taking in the scene of the crime.

The mood is tense. Drake is upset, and he is in charge, so his behavior has everyone else on edge--except Kenneth, who is always calm. I think readers could relate to that.

As to the words in the white space... The reader's eyes are drawn to what I highlighted blue. I'm not opposed to what I have. It's not awkward. There is a lot of eye movement. But it doesn't grip the reader, either.

Here is my quick rewrite. See how this looks a bit better?

See how these tweaks helped? Most of what I did was simply shifting words. But it added movement in the first block of white space. And it added extra white space, which gave me more phrases to highlight in blue and consider what the reader might see at first glance. And I switched out some of the first and last words for stronger ones. Some I left. As with all writing rules, they are not set in stone.

But can you see how such an exercise is useful? Especially for page one?

Do keep in mind, this is just for submitting to an editor or agent. If your book is published, the words, paragraphs, and white space will shift during typesetting (which is when they format your Word file into a book file). You can look at the firsts and lasts again when you're proofing your final galleys. But at that point, you can't change a ton or you'll annoy your editor.

I visited a school a few weeks back. I set five books (that were not mine) in front of them and asked how they chose a book. First I had them judge the books by front cover alone. Then I read the backs. Then I read the first page. I was really surprised at how many kids changed their minds about which book to read after hearing the first page.

First pages matter. A lot.

What do you guys think? Do you see value in this "firsts and lasts" exercise?


  1. This is great advice! I got some similar advice from a session in the conference I went to last weekend. She said to check the last word of every sentence and make sure it's a strong word.

    I'm saving this post to my favorites. Thanks, Mrs. Williamson!

  2. This is a marvelous exercise! I tried this with my WIP that I'm starting, and it's awesome. I'm going to use it for every story I write now.
    PS I read part of the first chapter of Onyx Eyes on your site, and it's really interesting. When will it be published?

    1. I'm glad you found it helpful, Jonathan. As to Onyx Eyes... I don't know. I need to finish writing it, so not for a while.

  3. Wow, this is really cool. Something for micro edits, I guess, but also to keep in mind and be aware of as you're writing. Thanks so much for sharing--I totally see the value in it! I tend to choose a book by looking through the library shelves for titles/colors that catch my attention. Then I pull an interesting one off the shelf and look at the front cover. It's amazing how many I'll put back just after seeing the cover...for instance, if there's a picture of this creepy looking girl with tons of makeup and mist on the cover, back it goes without another look. But if the cover doesn't raise any alarms, I'll read the inside flap. Often skimming, honestly. If that's interesting and doesn't raise any alarms, I'll go to the first page or flip through the book and read a page at random a few times. (Helpful for checking for language.) If I get through all of those, I'll check out the book. And it usually does take a minute at the most. If I'm buying a book I've never read, which is a very rare occurrence for me, I usually take much more time and read reviews before I buy it. (Unless it's the next book in a series.)

    I kind of feel bad for dismissing a book just because of the inside flap, knowing how much work goes into the book and all. But I guess there's not much I can do about it...if it doesn't interest me, it doesn't interest me. *shrugs*

    Also, this comment is getting long, but I have a mostly unrelated question: If you sign a contract with a publisher, can they make you add things to your book you're not comfortable with? Recently I've heard a few people claim Stephanie Meyer didn't want to add some of the things that are in her books. I've never read them, but I heard a few people say that and wondered...

    1. Yes, that's how it goes, though. Covers are very important. They are what people see first.

      They can---but most publishers give the author final say. New authors often don't know that they have the right to argue on changes, so they might agree to pretty much everything. But you can kindly explain to your editor why you don't want to change something. Then it depends on your editor. You might have to get your agent involved if the disagreement continues.

    2. Okay, so that's not exactly something to get super worried over or anything. Thanks! :)

  4. That's great advice. I never realized that I've used white space to judge books. Now that you mentioned it, I realize that I do it all the time when I scan through a book.

    1. Yes, I thought that was fascinating. My eyes go right to it!

  5. This is super helpful advice :):) thanks :):):)

  6. This is definitely super advice! Will totally think about when I write! :)

  7. Awesome post+I'm editing my story soon= Thanks for today's post!

  8. ... Bekah here.
    I should use this on emails too.

  9. Yes, I agree with the reading of the first book.
    But also, I'm a fan of old books, and a lot of those take a bit to get into.