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.


World Building: Types of Urban Fantasy Worlds

Seeing as I just finished up Nano and November, I find myself once again with the urge to fling myself sideways from everything I’ve already started and begin something wholly new and exciting. This is not really a smart thing to do, because I have plenty of stories that need work, polish, and just plain finishing, including last month’s novel. Yet, like clockwork, the urge strikes me every early to mid December. We’ll see what, if anything, comes of it this year.

But it does get me thinking about one of my favorite writing past times: World Building!

In most fiction, a certain amount of world building is necessary. Where is the story set? How will the story show that it is set in that specific setting instead of anywhere else? But when you’re talking speculative fiction, world building takes on an important place in storytelling. Is there magic in this world? Does the magic have rules and what are they? What kind of creatures live in this world, alien or fantastic? Is it set in space? How does travel work between solar systems? And these are just a handful of the kinds of questions that might get asked that fall under the vast umbrella of world building.

Now, it isn’t required, even in speculative fiction, to have every little detail hammered out before you begin writing. But having answers can help keep a coherent world, as well as giving an author directions to explore in more detail.

Today, I want to blog about some world building basics in setting up an urban fantasy story.

Now, defining genres is difficult, as stories have a tendency to cross boundaries and blur genres together, especially when you start talking sub genres. Whenever you start shoving everything into neat, tidy categories, you discover slime molds that can walk and platypuses that still think laying eggs is really cool. But I use the following definition for urban fantasy: a story with magical (often but not limited to supernatural or paranormal) elements, set in a modern urban setting that is often a recognizable place from our own world. Generally speaking, urban fantasy authors are not crafting a world out of nothing. They’re modifying what we know and throwing in werewolves, vampires, fairies, and anything else they can possibly think of. That doesn’t mean its without world building though.

When you’re building an urban fantasy world, there are many things to consider, like if you want vampires and if your vampires are going to be allergic to garlic or have a bad tendency to sparkle in obtuse situations. But before you get there, you have to decide what normal people’s relationship is with magic in the world. And I see four major answers to this question.

1) Magic Lives Under the Hill:
Magic is closeted and completely secret and separate from the normal world. Your average joe on the street knows nothing of the secret inner workings of vampire politics. In fact, your average joe firmly does not believe in vampires, werewolves, and magic. And the people on the magical side do everything in their power to keep it a secret, hidden from the normal world.

Advantages: People know nothing about magic, giving the narrative a lot of advantages to explain magic to the new kid on the block. There’s also potential for suspense and intrigue as the new person falls down the rabbit whole discovers the magical world, as well as drama around keeping the secret, especially if we have a character that crosses between the magic world and the normal world. Keeping secrets can damage anyone’s relationships, after all.

Disadvantages: This option is common and therefore cliché. Can be done and done well, but mostly just feels like the writer fell back on a trope rather than actually building much of a world. In a multiple book series, you have to regularly rehash the idea that magic is secret and establish your world. It’s also easy for an author to get lost playing in the magic side of the world that they forget there’s a perfectly ordinary one. The result can be A) wondering why I’m reading anything urban fantasy when I may as well just be reading high fantasy, and B) breaking the suspension of disbelief. If the plot and happenings in the magic side of the fence get too complicated and elaborate, your reader may be left wondering HOW this is all being kept a secret. Things are exploding! There’s a war between vampires and werewolves! Angels have started sleeping with demons for maximum sexy times! And… nobody seems to notice? Really? Suspension of disbelief can be strained or broken just by the author having a ludicrously complicated and broad magical world amongst the normal world. How are they hiding whole under water cities? Is there really that much space under New York City? The thing with world building to remember is that the excuse of magic will still only take you so far with some readers.

2) An Open Secret:
While your average person does not know about the existence of magic, the information isn’t a jealously guarded secret. Most people don’t know that there is a magical world, but finding out about it isn’t a guaranteed death sentence. Often, writers play with some form of Weirdness Censor that automatically keeps normal people from noticing the weird. This can be a magically induced one but is often just passed off as humanity’s impressive ability to ignore things that don’t square with how we think the world should be. Either way, it means that either someone crossing from the mundane world to the magical has to be special themselves or have some event that triggers pulling them into the mundane. Governments may know that magic exists and have special forces who are assigned to deal with them in this setting, though those forces may be secret or have little respect as ‘weirdos’ who study X-Files-esque subject matter.

Advantages: This is one where you can have it a little bit both ways. You can get the painful newbie who needs it explained, but also the jaded cop whose dealt with one too many vampire attacks that no one believes are vampire attacks. There’s elements of secrecy to add tension, not wanting to reveal to your family that maybe the reason you can’t bring your boyfriend by for Christmas morning is because he’s a vampire. But it lacks the same hyper drama of magic being so closeted that anyone revealing the secret must die. Thus, such scenarios are often good for more humorous urban fantasy works. Not that this is only used for humor, but freeing up characters from having to keep a secret, it frees up energy for said characters to pursue their plot.

Disadvantages: Some sort of element must be inserted to explain why normal people don’t notice the supernatural, otherwise suspension of disbelief is strained again. Even then, again depending on what you’re doing in the novel, you may strain what your reader believes the average person will not notice.

3) The Closet Is No Place To Be:
Magic is coming out, either recently or in the course of the series. It has been hidden in the past, but now is open. This may be a very recent thing or this may be something that happened within the last hundred years or so. But either way, mundanes are working to adjust to the idea that there are magic things and the magic world is adjusting to the uncramped societal spaces of not the closet and everyone is working to integrate magic society with non-magic.

Advantages: Can grant a very complex social and political climate for your characters to interact within. Laws are unclear or changing on the rights of supernatural entities. You can have antagonists on the magic side and the non-magic side in the form of people who are uncomfortable with magic and may see it as a threat or curse. All of this gives immediate and easy spaces for conflict that are interesting and not explored enough in urban fantasy in this blogger’s opinion.

Disadvantages: It’s a complication that a writer might not want to deal with. And a complication that isn’t dealt with can become a dangling thread that drives your reader up the wall, wondering why you never went where you could have. Backstory must be in place to explain both when the magic world came out and why it came out. An all organic blood substitute that means vampires don’t have to prey on normal people? Enhanced forensics making it impossible to pass every werewolf attack off as a dog attack? Technology is often used as an excuse for why the magic world has come out in the modern world and can be very clever. But if you go for this kind of world, you will need some reason and you may want to revisit said reason as you go through the novels, which can add tiresome exposition.

4) Granny Was a Warlock And I Bank With Dracula
Magic is a given. Everyone knows magic is real and that unicorns exist and just anybody could get bitten and turned. In fact, you probably know some guy who is trying to turn and your neighbor is a very nice middle aged witch with three kids and a dragon sleeping in her garage. Nobody is surprised by magic and even the more bizarre magical creatures know where to go to get a decaf no whip mocha and not get stared at too terribly much.

Advantages: No need to explain, no need to deal with constant surprise. It’s easy to jump right into a story and start throwing around supernatural elements. No waiting around for the real of the magic world, bam, let’s start out with a werewolf baker and see where we go from there. Get creative, go big and elaborate with your magic, because the little things aren’t going to stop your plot.

Disadvantages: You set up a fantasy world, you’re going to need to explain some amounts of your fantasy elements to your readers. And in a world where magic is a given, explaining how it works becomes less natural. Characters stopping to explain the rules of magic to each other becomes a forced plot device for the sake of the reader, because no one really stops to explain how electricity works. There are ways around this, especially in prose. Magic as a given, however, does make for a more complicated world building. If you’re setting the story in a modern version of Chicago, only Al Capone was actually an immortal vampire who took over the city where he then abolished prohibition because drunk people are easier to track down… what does that actually affect? How does history change? If you make choices for things that happened and then don’t think them through all the way, your world becomes a shaky and unbelievable.

All of these types of urban fantasy world have something to recommend them and things to remember when pursuing building your world.This is also how I like classifying urban fantasy novels.  Since you can run into almost anything fantasy in an urban fantasy, whether the novel has werewolves, vampires, or dragons in them seems a weak classification system.  Instead, how the fantastic interacts with the mundane is something every urban fantasy has to deal with.

Blog readers, do you have an advantages and disadvantages you think I left out? Leave them in the comments!