Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The First 500 Words, and Why You Don't Need To Fear Them

I know. Crafting and perfecting the first 500 words of your novel is climbing-the-rope-in-gym-class hard. It's going-out-on-a-first-date-and-realizing-you-didn't-put-on-deodorant awkward, too. I get that--trust me.

But it's not as tricky as you think to polish up those opening paragraphs. Here are some reasons why you can rest easy, and some fast-and-furious tips for making your book sound as appealing as possible from the get-go.

Don't play coy. Give me the story, characters, style and tone right up front. Just hand me the cards face-up and let me read them on my own. I want to know what I'm getting into before I get too much farther into your manuscript.

Here's why: Not every book is for everyone--and that is perfectly all right. We readers know what we like. Just tell me what your book is about and I'll decide if it's for me. And frankly, do you really want a reader who won't like your book? I don't particularly enjoy political thrillers. In fact, I somewhat despise them. So dressing up your political thriller as, say, a cozy YA murder mystery--you're not doing anyone any favors. I'm going to feel bait and switched, and you'll get a bad review.

Be honest about your writing style, tone, and content. It's okay. Your readers will find you.

Tell me the who, what, where, when, and how. I want to know what's happening right from the get-go. You can always weave a little mystery--an open question is what keeps readers turning pages--but if it's all questions and no answers, I'm going to feel like I'm in the middle of failing an AP test.

Trust me, that is not a feeling you want readers to have.

Tell me all the pieces of the puzzle, or as many as you can. Then for every three or four things you reveal, keep one a secret until the next page.

Be sure to tell us what it is that we don't know. This sounds crazy, but just stick with me here. There's a big difference between a question that a reader is asking--"But who murdered her?"--and general confusion--"I think somebody died.. and somebody else did the killing.."

Make the reader aware of the gap in their knowledge. Paint lines around it. Draw an arrow pointing through it. It'll keep me reading.

Start right away and don't hold back. Put me right inside the story. The best way to keep a new reader reading is to keep feeding them conflict, action, and details.

Conflict: I want to know what the problem is, and what the stakes are.

Action: I want things to happen. They don't have to be blow-em-up-type things, either. Are the kid's parents fighting? Let me know that. There's a lot of drama there.

Details: Give me pieces of information about this character that paint a picture. I'm not talking hair color, eye color--avoid the boring stuff. But do tell me if your hero is a jock who is actually a closet math nerd, or a girl obsessed with high-necked wool sweaters. Does she have closets and closets full of mega Amish-looking clothes? Can she not bear the idea of someone seeing her shoulders exposed?

Something should happen in those first 500 words--something that immediately challenges your hero. What's the best way to get to know someone, if not under duress?

Good luck with your first five hundred. If I can give any advice, it's to avoid overwriting; I know you want the language to sound wonderful and high brow, but remember: honesty in tone, style, and voice; and honesty in content. Just write your first 500 words like you'd write the middle 500 or the last 500, and your manuscript will speak for itself.


  1. This is a great post, Kiersi. I agree with all of your points . . . But It's hard to tell a reader everything they need to know about the character and then immediately have something happen in the span of 500 words. I would say within the first chapter to try to do all of those things because it gives a writer time to build.

    I am just like you though. I like stories that begin right away! If I've reached chapter 3 and nothing has happened yet then I became a very cranky reader. lol

  2. I agree, Kiersi. And like Chrys, I prefer to know what I'm getting myself into before I get to the middle of the book and say, Oh to hell with it!

    You give some great tips: like telling the reader bits and pieces of the puzzle, like the first few, and then keeping one a secret for the next page. And the advice for the description of the character hit the nail right on the spot! Sometimes, we don't think about these things. We are too busy trying to please the reader or play mind games with the plot. If we are more upfront not only with the reader, but with ourselves, the story works out better for both parties!