Urban Fantasy: First Page Research

It twas a cold and snow Saturday when I sat down with my manuscript and stared at the scrawled upon first page.  A number of questions came up that I could not answer.

So, in a fit of pique I did the unthinkable.

I put on real clothes and went to the library to RESEARCH the matter.

Never live with an academic.  You pick up terrible, terrible habits.

But since I went through all the effort, let me share what I gathered.

The Method: I went to the sf/f section the library and grabbed novels by well known urban fantasy, trying to hit a number of the biggest named authors.  I grabbed the earliest books in their series, opened to the first page, read through, and made notes on the first page only.  First pages are arguably the most important part of a book. While a lot of readers might open a book to a section at random or buy a book based only on the book jacket.  But I and a lot of other readers, make a decision based on whether the first few pages grab our attention. And, most importantly for people in my shoes, the first few pages are inevitably going to be what gets an agent or an editor to request a full manuscript.

Ideally, I wanted to get the first books in their series, as that’s what I’m writing and the rules are a little different when you’re on the second or third book of a series.  But A) most of those were inevitably checked out, and B) the rules aren’t THAT different because you can’t assume every reader has read every book in your series.  In fact, its more financially beneficial if you build a series which catches unexpected readers who are looking for something to read in an airport bookstore.  So every book has to be catchy from the get go and ought to explain anything that happened in prior book well enough that the reader doesn’t HAVE to read the first books to enjoy the work set in front of them.  Thus, you get the information based on what I could grab from the library at three thirty on a Saturday.

The notes below are judgement on the first PAGE of the novels and in no way represent my full opinion of the books selected.  Some of these books, I rag on the first page but really actually liked the book.  Some of these books have great first pages and weren’t books I liked.  Most of these books I’ve read in full, but not all of them, and I did my best not to let knowledge of the further novel influence this reading.  If you like, you can skip my notes and go straight to my basic conclusions at the end of the post.  If you want to follow along, most of these novels have their first pages up on Amazon as teasers.  Which. I realized probably could have saved me a trip to the library.  Too late now.

“The Outlaw Demon Wails” by Kim Harrison (#6 in series)
*By the end of the first paragraph, we’re introduced to a point of conflict (our main character lacks money).
*In the same paragraph, we’re introduced to the supernatural elements of the world.  The first paragraph discusses wands.  We could be in a normal world and our heroine is just hanging out in a New Age shop, staring at wands, except that she refers to them as a work expense.  So our heroine could, in theory, use wands at work, even though she currently doesn’t due to funds.
*We have also, by the end of paragraph one, established where and what: Our character is at a store, shopping.
*For the rest of the page, we get our characters name, dropped by her mother.  We also establish that she has a mother and is out shopping with her, for fun.  And they are discussing Halloween costumes.
*And that further develops our setting, grounding us in a time of year.  Its fall, October, and the novel plot will probably revolve around the importance of Halloween.  Because we’re talking urban fantasy and Halloween is NEVER a red herring in this genre.
*A secondary character, Jenks is introduced.  The narrative isn’t dragged to a halt to describe him in detail, instead we’re given a brief, but telling description of him.  He’s small, winged, and leaves gold dust behind.  So this furthers our sense of the supernatural world here, we’re in a place where small, winged people go shopping with other people’s mothers.  It also, very quickly, establishes his personality as a bit of a sweary jerk.
*We’re given a question that keeps us reading: What is our main character going to wear for Halloween?  Frankly, it seems like a silly question, especially if you look at some of the OTHER questions that get proposed by other novels I looked at.  The thing is, it worked.  I turned the page to find out the answer to that question. I did want to know, even as stupid and inconsequential of a question that it seemed.

“Blood Bound” by Patricia Briggs (#2 in series)
*First paragraph establishes a lot about the main character.  She owns her own business that runs during the day.  It also establishes a snarky, humorous voice for our narrator: “anyone calling this time of night had better be dying.”  By the end of the page, we know she’s a mechanic.
*We also get a setting of place and time right off the bat.  She’s been woken up by a call, so we’re starting in her bed at night.  At least, we presume its her bed, though with cellphones, this is no longer a given in our society.
*And we are quickly introduced to the supernatural as the caller, Stefan, is declared as having been dead long before the call was made. We know nothing else about Stefan, except he’s mild over the phone and requires a favor.
*And that is our question as the reader: What kind of favor does Stefan want of our daylight mechanic at three in the morning?

“Cry Wolf” by Patricia Briggs (technically first in series, though there is a novella that proceeds it)
*Hoo boy, this one starts with a prologue.  Prologues change the game.  They’re either an explanation of prior books or, in the case of this one, an establishing shot/teaser of things that won’t be significant until later in the story.  And, I’ll be honest, I don’t like the first page of this one and I didn’t when I first read it.  The rest of the book is good, but prologues are like a first page that are three to six pages long.
*Anyway, the prologue first page sets us up in Montana, in October.  We learn a lot about our character very quickly.  He’s ex-military, older, and he’s a crazy loner who lives wild in the woods.  We don’t know why, only that he does and he’s stalking some kid who is taking samples of bear scat.  The questions raised are mostly what the hell is this crazy guy going to do to this poor kid with  no one else around for miles.  At the same time, it paints our crazy ex-military guy as crazy, but sympathetic, harmless crazy.  Not “I’m going to skin you and wear you like a hat” crazy.  It’s unclear and that can get us turning the page, but on a whole, not a good example.  Prologues.  No establishment of anything supernatural on the first page.  Unless our guy is secretly supernatural, but there’s no indication that he is.  Eesh, prologues are tricky.
*So if we DISCOUNT the prologue and assume the first page of Chapter One as the real first page, we get names, location, relationships, Again, not really the best first page, this one is something of an info dump.  But it sets up our main character as a terrified young woman who is reliant on Charles, a man she met only a few days ago.  …Yeah, okay, that set up feels icky, doesn’t it? (The book itself is not icky, I feel the need to say, I actually LOVE Patricia Briggs’ work.)  It does, however, raise a crap ton of questions that drive the reader to keep going.
*We are also told that hey, yes, werewolves are a thing in this book.  Definitely a thing, the driver of the car is the WEREWOLF of werewolves.  So, there’s a lot of interesting built up, a lot of questions to answer, and a lot of personality established quickly.

“Dead Beat” by Jim Butcher (Seventh in series)
*”On the whole, we’re a murderous race.”  WELL, that’s an attention grabbing first line.  A lot to be said for an attention grabbing first line!
*And along with that line, we find that our main character and narrator is currently empathizing with Cain, the First Murderer.  Yeah, that’s a question to driver the reader on to the next page!
*We get setting!  Damn do we get setting.  In a lot of ways, we get a little too much setting as there’s a rather detailed description of the apartment on the first page.  This works because we’re told that ‘this is the norm’ and then told that things are NOT the normal which leads us to wonder why things aren’t normal and what has changed.  Still, I don’t think taking a whole paragraph to describe the apartment in excruciating detail is the best use of a first page.

“Storm Born” by Richelle Mead  (First in series)
*A hilarious and intriguing starting line: “I’d seen weirder things than a haunted shoe, but not many.”  This line does a lot of work.  It establishes a sense of humor.  It establishes supernatural elements, we’re in a world where shoes can be haunted, though it’s hardly common.  And it dumps a bunch of questions because WHAT THE HELL HAUNTED SHOE YES I WANT TO KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON!
*After that first line, we’re introduced to our heroine, who is armed to the teeth with a gun and two athames. This tells us a lot about her, that she’s expecting trouble and also, with the athames, likely a witch and certainly some sort of supernatural hunter.
*Setting is established as being in an office, but is not embellished beyond that.

“Gunmetal Magic” by Ilona Andrews (5.5 in series, don’t ask)
*Oh, wait, this is a dream?  Hm.  Dreams are always an awkward way to start out a book, because there’s nothing more off putting than having an entire scene built up, only to have it SUDDENLY turned out to be a dream.  This one works, though, because there’s no “and then she wakes up!” moment.  We are told, before the end of the page, that this is a dream. So instead, we’re introduced to what kind of things our character dreams which is informative and builds a lot about our character.
*On the other hand, what we learn about this character, primarily, on the first page, is that she was abused as a child.  We also learn that she killed her abusers, which establishes some of who she is now.  But mostly, we learn about the then, not about who we are actually encountering as a heroine.
*Oh, and there’s shapeshifting which COULD be our signifier of oh hey, supernatural, but because it happens in a dream, we don’t know if that’s just the weirdness of dreams or an actual memory.

What you MUST have:
1) A question that is not answered.  This is the most important thing for the first few pages, because a question is what gets pages turning as you’re building up your characters as interesting people your reader wants to know and your world as a place they want to spend time with.  It doesn’t have to be the question at the heart of your novel, in fact, it rarely IS that question.  It can be a little question, like what Halloween costume is your main character going to wear or it can be something more prominent such as why does your narrator sympathize with the First Murderer.

Things You Ought To Have:
1) Establish that we’re in a supernatural world.  Some hint, some bit of thing that shows what genre it belongs to.  It can be as subtle as a wand for work or as blatant as “this is the big kahuna of werewolves, driving me around town.”  Your reader probably knows they’re reading an urban fantasy based on the back of the book.  But they don’t know the inner workings of YOUR world.  Is this a world of haunted shoes?  Or crazy shapeshifters?  You don’t need to and in fact, should NOT info dump how your world works, but give us some indication of what we can expect from the supernatural in the rest of your novel.

2) Introduce your main character and give your reader something to like or empathize with.  If this is a first person narration, establish your narrator’s voice.  Give the reader something to connect with immediately.  Put your character in a hard situation that calls for empathy or make it funny, something that let’s the reader like or feel for your main character right off the bat.  You can have a novel where the first character you introduce isn’t the main character, but readers expect that the first character we meet is the main character.  Anything else is liable to throw the reader off, unless handled well.

3)  Interaction with others.  Basically, start with a scene, because the first thing you should do is SHOW us your world and your character.  Don’t TELL us about your world or character.  Start by showing us and an easy way to do that is to show the interaction between your main character and someone else.

Things that, in spite of what I thought, you don’t need:
ACTION!  Not actually required for your first few pages to be chalk full of action and adventure.  In fact, in urban fantasy genre, it’s more common to start with a scene that sets up characters, which may lead into action quickly, but not in the first few pages.  Which, basically, answered one of my big questions so I don’t have to write in unexpected zombie attacks right from the start.

So that’s the advice I collected from my research. Now I should go work on my actual first page.


Review: Sacrificed In Shadow (OR My Fascination with Starting In The Middle)

I have always wanted to write a novel that starts in the middle of everything.

I’m not just talking in media res, where you start in the middle of an action sequence. Where you open the book and the first line is somebody taking a swing at your character’s head or the firing squad is taking aim or there’s a car chase and the reader has no idea how we got here, but they now very badly want to know how our main character got to that position, because come on, firing squads and car chases!

No, I like in media res just fine, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a book dumps us in the heart of someone’s complicated, messy life and then don’t go back to trace the details of ‘how I got here and why’ but instead moves forward with the complicated and the messy with a plot that doesn’t lean backwards on the things we don’t know, but builds on a future that contains the mess without being ruled by it.

This is an impulse I blame entirely on Dragon Ball Z. I was in high school when this monolith of anime started playing on Toonami. Anyone familiar with the anime knows that it had a predecessor, Dragon Ball, which was a lot sillier and based on Journey to the West. It centered on a boy, Goku, striving to become the world’s best fighter. Dragon Ball Z was the continuation, which had less people being turned into giant carrots, fewer poop jokes, and more long, gratuitous fight scenes.

But when Dragon Ball Z came on Toonami, I didn’t know about Dragon Ball. For me, the story started with these weird spiky haired guys landing on earth and a group of fighters coming forward to face them. And this group of fighters had an obviously complicated and convoluted history with one another, friends and allies and even enemies, all of whom were coming together to deal with a much bigger problem that had reared its head. And from that, everything else unwound.

Really, if you want the summation of what watching Dragon Ball Z was like, Team Four Star summed it up beautifully in Dragon Ball Z Abridged. Goku turns to Piccolo and asks, “Weren’t we enemies or something?” and Piccolo replies “Nobody watched Dragon Ball.”

And it was true. We hadn’t watched Dragon Ball. Hell, we didn’t even know that Dragon Ball was thing!  For American watchers, it first only existed with the Z at the end.  And so, for me, and for many others watching Dragon Ball Z, it started in the middle. We didn’t know what any of these characters had to do with each other, only the history we could glean from watching them interact, the things they said or they didn’t say. It was immensely attractive to me and still is.

It is also, however, not without its problems. Watching only Dragon Ball Z, I never cared as much about many of the characters as the show seemed to think I should. This Goku guy dies in the first three episodes? Well, obviously he’s not that important, right? …What do you mean he’s the central character even while dead? Oh, the creepy doll guy sacrificed himself? I am sure this is very sad, but it’s not like I ever cared about this character. And, come on. Creepy and doll like. We’re all happier without him, right? Are you sure we have to wish him back?

To be fair, Dragon Ball Z wasn’t trying to make us care about these characters. It assumed we had already seen Dragon Ball and already cared. Because for its original audience, that’s how it happened. It wasn’t the creators’ fault that America decided DBZ would be way more appealing to their audiences (and not without reason) and thus we got it in an odd order and therefore gave WAY more of a shit about Gohan than the Japanese ever did.

Still, that style, this idea of picking up in the middle, it has always lingered for me as something I want to try.

I picked up Sacrificed in Shadows by S. M. Reine on a whim, as I do many of my books. It is, as far as supernatural novels and self published novels go, not at all bad. If you like demons and werewolves and women kicking the butts of the above, give her a shot. It’s not even terribly problematic, in terms of gender roles and subtler messages, as many supernatural books are. Well, Sacrificed in Shadows isn’t, I can’t promise about the rest of her books. But I enjoyed this book as good, chewy junk food reading.

It also starts in the middle.

The novel’s main protagonist, Elise Kavanagh, is a demon. She has an awful lot of history, things that happened to her that gave her awesome demon powers and a great deal of emotional baggage. Much of this history impacts the story, but we get told it in cliff notes version, the details that matter for the moment and without gloss or drama. It’s fascinating to slowly have this character revealed, one incident after another. And she’s not the only character we see this happening with.

I later figured out that this was because the book is much like Dragon Ball Z. There’s a seven book series that proceeds Sacrificed in Shadows, documenting in detail how Elise got where she is. Sacrificed in Shadows begins a whole new series with Elise as the central character, while also drawing in characters from other series of Reine’s.

I doubt I’ll pick up the books that come before Sacrificed in Shadows. The things that happen to Elise are… well, ridiculously drama and treachery filled and rather rape-tastic at points. I am dubious on how much I’ll enjoy these books. I am, however, probably going to pick up her Six Moon Summer series. Because it’s winter and winter is the time for me to read about werewolves. Why, I don’t know, though it’s probably Patricia Briggs’ fault. But I like some good (and bad) werewolf lit, so we’ll give it a shot.

 And I did enjoy reading Sacrificed in Shadows. I’m not in love with it, the way I was with Kyle Murchison Booth, but my time spent with Elise was fun and entertaining.  And I really liked starting in the middle of her life.  I enjoyed getting the cliff note version and watching her, the new demonic her which is the only one I’ve met, getting sucked into a new kind of trouble.

 As for my own writing, well.  On writing this blog, I realized that the vast majority of my stories do exactly what I’m describing.  Especially, in many ways, the novel that I’m planning to edit this winter.  I know, in detail, a lot of what happens to my main character before the novel begins.  And maybe some day I’ll write those stories too, but I’m starting in the middle of her long, complicated history, with the ghosts of her past occasionally popping up, but mostly staying in the closet as much as she can keep them.

So I should probably stop blogging and just go work on that story, huh?