That First Page

“That first page” is probably the hardest thing there is for writers to deal with. When it is time to start that “next” story, we sit staring at “that first page,” trying to decide what to do with it. Sometimes we just want to write “Once upon a time,” and hope that great idea strikes us then and there. But in today’s time, we need something more catchy than “once upon a time.”

We are told “that first page” can make or break us, and it truly has done both to a lot of writers.There are readers who will judge your book by “that first page,” and if you lose them there, you’re doomed. Or, if you totally catch their attention, they will likely buy your next book, as long as what follows “that first page” doesn’t disappoint them.

It isn’t easy to find just the right words for “that first page,” let alone the words for the first line. That, too, is important. But sometimes it takes a full first page to hook your reader. Most readers will give you at least that much if you don’t grab them with the first line.

The biggest problem with how to start your book is that sometimes things need to happen before you get to the real hook for a line or page. The author has to figure out how to get to that defining moment without leaving out important story events. Just always remember the READER, and that you want something that will quickly get them involved in your story.

I usually get to the good stuff right away – something that makes for a good first line or a “first page” that pulls the reader into the story. I can always find a way to give the reader more details about that event later in the book. Ninety-Nine percent of the time, the things I think I need to write first, as a build-up to my “hook,”end up being unnecessary after all. It’s important to find other ways to tell the back story that led up to what happens on “that first page” than to bore the reader with it at the beginning of the story. Telling back story later also makes for more active writing from there on, as the hero or heroine, through action and dialogue, gradually explain how he or she reached that point and ended up in that dire situation with which you opened your story. 

In my book PARADISE VALLEY, the story opens with Maggie Tucker digging a grave for her husband. How did he die? Why is she alone in the middle of Wyoming? No one knows at first. Readers wonder those things, and they keep reading to find out. The first chapter of my story ends with Maggie collapsing after a stranger (the hero, of course) comes along and offers to help. So by the end of Chapter 1, the reader has been introduced to both the hero and heroine, and in a way that makes them wonder about both characters and makes them want to read more. Then, as the story progresses and they get to know each other, Maggie reveals what happened, while at the same time we learn more about the hero.

I could have started PARADISE VALLEY with Maggie on her way to Oregon with her husband when they are attacked by outlaws, but I kept thinking how much more mysterious and interesting it would be to open my story with Maggie digging her husband’s grave. Plus, telling too much too soon would have brought Maggie’s husband into the picture, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted all the attention to be on the hero, who comes along later to help Maggie. I didn’t want to give my readers a third character to have on their minds or to feel sorry for. Yes, he was Maggie’s husband, but he was not important to the story, strange as that sounds.

In my newest book, LOGAN’S LADY, (March 2019 – Sourcebooks) the story starts with the heroine (who lives with her wealthy older brother in London) involved in a huge family argument that keeps you reading to learn what it’s about and how it will be resolved. In that first chapter the reader learns a lot about the heroine’s rather brave and daring personality, and it ends with her deciding she will leave London and go to America. By then I have set the reader up to wonder what will happen when she gets there.

Chapter Two introduces rugged, ruthless, rather unkempt Logan Best, an American bounty hunter with no real home. He drops a dead body onto the floor in a sheriff’s office and asks for the bounty on the man. His attitude is, “Here he is. He was wanted dead or alive and dead was easier.”

Here I took TWO chapters to really capture my readers. The first one hooks them, the second one reels them in because they just KNOW the lovely, educated, sophisticated “Lady” from London is going to end up somehow mixed up with the rugged, ill-mannered, uneducated Logan Best, and the pairing is going to be very interesting, let alone humorous. For the first half of the book, one chapter follows Lady Elizabeth, and the next follows Logan, back and forth as each character takes an exciting path that readers can tell will lead to the inevitable “clash” of personalities and culture. There is a lot of great humor in this book, as well as adventure and, of course, romance.

You do not necessarily need a first line that “hooks” your readers, but it should at least hint at what’s to come; and by the end of that first page, what’s to come should be pretty darn obvious. Most readers will stick with the book through the first chapter, so by then make sure you have made it pretty clear where your story is going, and that it’s going to be exciting.

As a writer, don’t spend too much time fretting over “that first page.” Just consider what is most exciting about how your story begins, and even if something has to happen before that, get to the good stuff and find a way to cover the pre-events after you have your readers hooked. Sometimes you can include those events, but don’t dwell on them for pages and pages.

“That first page” can be a real challenge, I know, but remember the READER at all times. Pretend you are the reader. Where would you like the story to start in order to make you want to keep reading?

In the book I just started writing for Sourcebooks (the first in a trilogy of books set against the Outlaw Trail) the story opens with the heroine, who is lost and hungry and thirsty and alone in a wild, untamed western landscape, coming upon a gang of men about to hang a man. She ducks down out of sight, not sure what to do.

Immediately the readers will wonder - Who is the man about to be hanged? Who are the other men, and can they be trusted? Are they good, or are they outlaws? And how did the heroine end up wandering alone in lawless country without food and water? How can she possibly help the man about to be hanged? And should she help him at all? Maybe he deserves it. Either way, it’s a terrible thing to see, and when the other men ride off while the hanged man’s feet are still kicking, the heroine, of course, decides she has to do something to relieve the hanged man’s agony.

Is he worth saving? Is he truly guilty of something terrible? Or is he an innocent man who’s just been robbed? (The other men ride off with his cattle.)

This opening leaves a lot of questions readers will want answered, so they will keep reading to find out who the man is, and also – what led the heroine to the situation in which she finds herself. And, of course, will she be able to save the man? She is driven not only by a desire to help his awful suffering, but also by the fact that his accusers left the man’s horse and supplies behind when they rode off – things the heroine needs to survive.

Just always remember – “That first page” needs some kind of hook, and that the best way to start your book is with that first exciting event that leaves an opening for all kinds of exciting story that in turn, KEEPS THE PAGES TURNING! And good luck with your “first page!”

Characters And Covers

In all my years of writing, I very seldom get a cover that accurately depicts my characters the way I see them. Usually the background scenery is perfect. The pose is perfect. The blurb is perfect. The colors (usually) are gorgeous. But out of all 68 books I’ve had published so far, only a few depicted the hero close to how I saw him. The ones that come to mind that (to me) came closest to my hero’s looks were the following – (I have underlined the word original because many of my books have been reissued several times, each time with a new cover.)

My three Blue Hawk books – SAVAGE HORIZONS, FRONTIER FIRES and DESTINY’S DAWN. There have been several versions of these covers, but the original covers were the best. I also liked the reissued covers that had a couple on them (a bit sexier - by Hot Damn Designs) came very close to my hero, Caleb Sax, and the heroine, Sarah.



Possessiveness – A Roadblock to Finishing Your Book

As writers, we sometimes feel very possessive of our characters. Deep down inside, I don’t always want to share my favorite story and its characters with my readers. Sounds crazy, I know, but then I haven’t been totally sane since I started writing. I often feel a little jealous that my readers get to walk into my personal and private world, my thoughts and loves, my personal story ideas that belong only to me. As a writer, I am forced to give these things away once I finish a story. If I want to make a living at this, I have no choice. And yet for me, it’s never been about money. It’s always been about the stories, and my desire to tell them and to share them. Yet when I do, I feel as though I’ve lost a part of myself to the whole world and to a host of strangers who are reading about my very personal thoughts and dreams.

Focus: The Key to Finishing Your Book

I have talked to many “would-be” writers who never seem to finish a book and/or never even start one. One thing that seems to be a common problem in this situation is that many new writers have so many story ideas in their heads that they can’t decide which one to work on. Or, even if they have only one idea, they can’t decide on a firm direction for their story. They spend months, sometimes years, trying to decide how to flesh out their story. Often, this indecision ends up being an excuse to not write anything at all. They think they have accomplished something just by having all those great ideas, or just that one great idea. I have spoken with too many new writers who claim that as soon as they decide what to work on, or how to develop their story, they will finish their book and start submitting. Sometimes a year or so later, I learn that they still haven’t decided which story to write, or they have “started” 2 or 3 different stories and never finished any of them, or they still haven’t moved past the first couple of chapters of that one great idea.

The Value of Those Voices in the Night

A few nights ago I woke up with a great idea for a blog. By morning, I forgot it! I am so upset that I didn’t write it down. That in turn gave me a different idea for a blog, so I’m writing about the value of remembering to write down a good idea RIGHT AWAY! Those voices in the night are simply the product of your writer’s brain offering up ideas. 

Riding The Outlaw Trail …

I am currently reading THE OUTLAW TRAIL by Robert Redford (yes – the actor). In the early 1970’s he actually rode the old Outlaw Trail so that he could experience what it was like and then write about it. The trail runs from Canada to Mexico. Mr. Redford started at Hole-In-The-Wall in northern Wyoming, and traveled mostly by horseback to south of Robber’s Roost in southern Utah. There couldn’t be more spectacular pictures of the fantastic landscape involved along the Outlaw Trail than in this incredibly beautiful book. It’s a big, roughly 9” x 11,” hard cover, with a great sexy picture of Mr. Redford on the cover and pictures and conversations with some very crusty and rugged characters inside the book. I can already see in this book the nostalgia Mr. Redford had for the “Old West,” which I am sure prompted his starring in the movie THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN, where he steals a beautiful but doped-up show horse out of Las Vegas and rides the horse into the wild plains, where he turns it loose and lets it run free with mustangs. 


We all get a case of nostalgia once in a while - you know, another one of those “diseases” they are always talking about on TV. If your ear itches, it’s a disease. If your eyes get a little dry, it’s a disease. Used to be a disease was something serious that you usually died from. Now the drug industry wants you to think a mosquito bite is a disease. 

Writing – A Joy, Not A Job

I was answering someone else’s blog a couple of days ago, and I ended with saying writing should be a joy, not a job. Soon as I wrote that, I realized it was a great topic for my own blog!

I write every chance I get, any time of day, deep in the night when I can’t sleep, often while my hubby is watching a movie. I just put on my ear phones and listen to my favorite “mood” music and shut out the TV.

I just sold three more books (still to be written) to Sourcebooks, which, when finished, will bring my total published books to 72 over about 39 years. Those years have gone so fast. I have no memory of even writing many of those books. It’s all kind of a blur. But I do remember the plot of every book. Sometimes I have to look at the blurb on the back to remind myself of the names of the characters, but most of the actual story quickly comes back to me.

I squeezed most of those books into my life while working full time and raising two active boys, then spending a lot of time with grandchildren. I’ve always led a very, very busy life, and when working full time, I often sat up after everyone else went to bed and wrote until 1 or 2 am – then got up at 5 am and put in another long day.

Yes, it was hard. Very hard. Yet I enjoyed every word I wrote because I love writing and have loved every character I’ve ever written.

And that’s what writing should be to any writer – a JOY, not a JOB. You should be so “into” your characters that you can’t wait to get back to them and continue their story. In my case, I want to see what happens to them, because even I don’t know until I go into the “next” chapter. I don’t use an outline and don’t plan out my books. I just start one and let the characters take me where they want to go.

Too often I talk to other writers who have been working on the same book for years. I don’t understand that. If you aren’t interested enough in your book to finish it and start submitting it, then don’t write it at all. Start a different story, something that keeps you so excited that, like a reader who can’t put down what she’s reading, you can’t stop writing your story!

I can tell those writers who look at their writing as more of a job than a joy. They struggle to find the time to write and come up with all kinds of excuses not to sit down and keep going. My problem is usually finding time to do everything else, but I never have trouble finding time to write. My stories and their characters are with me 24/7, 7 days a week. When we stay at our condo in Vegas winters, while my husband plays poker, I sit at Starbucks and proofread my daily writing. Why waste money gambling when I could be making money on my writing?

A true writer never sees her work as a job she dreads or struggles to find time for. A true writer can’t wait to get back to the computer, and she not only works on the story at hand, but she also has more stories in her head just itching to be told. A true writer never runs out of ideas, and she is so excited about the story she is working on that she gets in as much writing time as possible every day. She doesn’t sit watching TV for 3-4 hours every night. She sits and writes 3-4 hours every night. If you have time to do nothing but watch TV, then you have time to write. Once you get into the groove of working writing into your day, it gets easier and easier.

If you let writing be a JOY and not a JOB, you’ll find you can produce a lot more books in a lot less time. That joy has allowed me to produce an average of two big books a year for the last 35 years, and all those older books are still selling, a lot of them having already been reissued two and three times over the years. That’s how you build your name, which in turn builds your sales.

Write! Write! Write! You don’t get published by wishing it, and you don’t get published by working on the same book for years. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t want to “work” that hard. Honey, if you’re calling it work, you aren’t a real writer. Let it be a JOY!

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With more than 7 million books in print, RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award–winning and USA Today Bestselling author Rosanne Bittner pens a historical Western romance filled with dangerous cowboys, capable heroines, and an epic love story that sweeps across the Old West.

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

This weekend I’ll be attending a small weekend writers’ retreat, and I can’t wait! (See details at the end of this blog.) Writers love hanging out with each other, because only other writers can counsel each other on our own unique problems. Only other writers understand where we’re coming from when we talk about our characters like they really live(d). Another writer once asked me how I make my characters so “real.” My answer was because they are real … to me. They are people from the past, speaking to me in spirit. And the more “real” I write my characters, the more real they become to my readers. Only another writer would understand how “alive” our characters are to us.