How to Write: Checklist for the First Page
1. Times New Roman 12 is preferred. 10 is too small, and fancy fonts are difficult to read.
2.Use double spacing with wide margins. One space after full stops.
3. Starting from the top, click on VIEW for Header & Footer. Header is preferred. Type in the title of the book, author and page number, like this:
MURDER AT THE ALTAR Veronica Heley 56
4. Every line of dialogue (except the first line in every section or chapter) should be indented. It follows that the first line in every section or chapter should go back to the margin. Single speech marks.
5. Interrupted speech is written like this ‘If you want to know what –’
And the next line is written like this: ‘I couldn’t care less what you think!’
Trailing away thought is written like this: ‘But then I wondered …’
The more space you have on the page, the easier to read, and the more tension you can generate.
6. Some sections, linked either by character or theme, can be put in ITALICS. This is to make it easier for the reader to differentiate, and to understand what is going on. Do not be too liberal with italics, or it makes the manuscript look bitty.
First person or third?
7. Beginners often want to use first person, but third is preferred by agents and editors. Use third person, as if you were inside the head of your protagonist.
8. Some books skip from one point of view to another. Make sure the reader understands which character they are with, if you keep changing. This really comes down to thinking through your character before you start writing.
9. To denote a change of POV, or a change of scene, or a jump in time,
Leave one line space. A gap. Then start a new section, going back to the margin, of course.
10. If you have to quote something like an advert, use a different font, but be prepared for the editor to over-rule you.
11. Use English UK spelling, found on the spellchecker under ‘language’. Leave spell check on, but take off grammar check, because dialogue is usually not grammatical.
Some publishers like ‘z’ in words such as ‘recognized’, ‘disorganized’, etc.
They will set their preferences out in their House Style literature. Don’t worry too much; these can be corrected by the copy editor in due course.
12. CHAPTER HEADINGS may be written: Five or 5
Remember the first line of each chapter, and of each section within a chapter, goes back to the margin.
13. Time of day, and day of week. I write crime which needs tension, and I head each section with the time of day and day of week, if the plot is working against the clock. It’s not necessary to do it.
14. FIRST LINES are so important that you should spend time and effort getting them right. They should be short, and contain a hook. For instance:
‘It was a bad decision.’
‘She was being watched.’
‘She was desperate to get home without breaking down.’
And of course the classic, ‘He opened the dustbin lid and looked out.’
If you can, set up an insoluble problem in the first sentence to get the reader interested, and only solve it on the last page.
15. Humour catches an editor’s eye.
16. Start with a twist. Some films, TV series, Prime Suspect, CSI, etc., open with a tense scene, which actually turns out not to be what you assume at first sight. This works well in fiction, too, BUT KEEP IT SHORT.
17. Introductions or Teasers. You can have a short intro, provided it contains a hook, setting up the genre for the reader. Scene setting with descriptions of buildings, cloud formations and places, is not fashionable. Elmore Leonard says Never start with a weather forecast!
The great thing is to interest the reader – not in the scenery or the weather – but in the protagonist straight off.
Here’s one intro/teaser I’ve used:
‘Ellie Quicke did not consider herself a brave woman. She’d never learned to drive, and her efforts to fend off a bullying daughter had met with only partial success. On the other hand, she had managed to bring various wrong-doers to justice without having to spend time in hospital…until, that is, she undertook an errand for a neighbour.’
This gives you a lot of information about the character and the book. Then I plunged straight into the action.
If you are writing a story from several points of view, then this intro is the place where you could give the reader a hint that you are about to make them do some work, because many older readers don’t want to have to switch persona every page or so. Or even every chapter or so.
In one such intro, you could say something like… ‘each member of this group had a secret which they couldn’t share with anyone else’. You can then start introducing one character from the group in the first section and his or her secret…then switch after a chapter or section to another…and so on. The reader has been warned!
18. DO give your characters names which are easy to remember and help you recall their place in the story. Don’t give us a cast of names such as ‘Jane, Jean, Jenny and John.’ Don’t have two people in a book with the same initial letter.
It’s easy to guess how old certain characters are from their names. Violet, Gladys….Kylie, Elvis. Indicate nationality by giving appropriate names: Patel, Singh, Kasia, Wesley.
Don’t give Christian and last names if only one is necessary – to start with at any rate.
Do use characters from ethnic minorities, keep up to date.
19. Don’t name ten different people and places on the first page. Every time you give a character a name, you are asking the reader to remember it, and that’s making them do some hard work.
20. Putting in the back story can be a problem, especially if you are writing a series. If you are writing a ‘stand alone’, there is a school of thought which says you shouldn’t introduce the back story till chapter five. I am not of their number because my readership wouldn’t put up with that sort of carry on. They need clues early on, backed up by more info as they read on.
The best way is to lay a clue when you first bring on the character, continue with the action, then shove in a bit of back story, then go back to the action…and if you’ve got the reader hooked on the character, you can fill in more back story in driblets. In other words, drip-feed the information. This system helps create tension. Lay clues, but never give a lecture or a long description.
In a series; I get bored with the same description of hero or heroine appearing on page l or 2. Try to think up some slightly different way of imparting the necessary information to the reader each time.
To sum up: MAKE IT EASY FOR YOUR READER TO READ.
Which means: Get the layout right, and
Plunge straight into action, quarrels, fear, anxiety.
DON’T send stories in by email unless requested to do so, because it’s too easy for them to get overlaid by the next day’s mail.
DO; send hard copy, not stapled or in a folder. Use an elastic band round the bundle with a title page giving name of book, your name & address, and agent if appropriate. You need a good covering letter which will lure the editor into reading on. Then a synopsis, and whatever else is required…usually a couple of chapters.