Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Elements of successful novels: the first two pages

I've just returned from two glorious weeks at the University of Iowa Writing Festival in Iowa City. It's always a little like drinking through a fire hose; as usual a great deal of useful information on writing was exchanged. I have a fun and useful tip to share.

We all know the first few pages are crucial to keep the agent or editor reading, so I signed up for the week-long course, "Beginning the Novel." The tone of the workshops tends to be literary rather than commercial, so our wonderful workshop professor, Gordon Mennenga of Coe College, apologized for coming dangerously close to being formulaic before sharing this. He'd gone into a bookstore, the classic Prairie Lights (Iowa City's Tattered Cover), and picked up all of the bestselling and otherwise successful novels of the past year or two. Each of them had all of the following on the first two pages (brace yourself!):

a sentence containing three commas

a one-word sentence


food (the universal ritual)

body fluid--sweat, blood, tears, urine

reference to sex or death

something sinful or painful

a color

a physical feature

a personality trait

question mark

mention of nature

anything with a brand name


body part or parts


metaphor, each of which saves five pages of description

city, state or street


He had us go through our first two pages and check off how many of these we had included. Most of us had two or three; one of us had ten or so (way to go Alan!). As far as evoking sensations in the reader, we realized we were writing at about 1/10 power. You might enjoy going through your first two pages and seeing how many you instinctively included...and then add the rest! You can always take them out again if it feels too much, or too contrived, but it's a useful exercise in writing vividly with all the senses.

Happy writing.

Storm Petrel


  1. What an important post, Stormy! I've been chomping at the bit to hear about this "secret code." Did he happen to go on and mention How often and to what extent these back off as he read into the best-selling novels? I look forward to checking this list against my work.

  2. I checked my latest manuscript, which just went to my editor, and I found 10, though I'm not sure if "mmhm" counts as a word. :) I do have 3 commas in the sentence I just wrote. Ha!

    Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Karen D, that's great! You're naturally a great writer. :-)

    Inkpot, you're also a great writer--and thanks again for teaching me how to write. Yes, Gordon did say that things tend to ease off a bit as the ms proceeds, because such a fever pitch is not always sustainable or desirable. It's also not necessary once we're hooked. But I think I might try to set a new, higher standard for including such things even as the book continues. Stormy

  4. Interesting list. I will check my ms.

  5. Wonderful list--and as a creative nonfiction writer, I'm using it to double-check my pages too. Yes, it's all about evoking sensations, helping the reader experience the world of the story more vividly.

  6. Very interesting way of observing what works! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Grat post! I've linked it to my writers group. Off to check my book's first two pages...

  8. Am I the only one who finds this unnerving?! And which bestseller list? So all of the following PW titles had this exactly? Now You See Her, Smokin' Seventeen, Against All Enemies, State Of Wonder, One Summer, The Devil Colony, Silver Girl, Folly Beach, Maine, Carte Blanche....

  9. I find this unnerving. It's good to have the senses expressed, and also to convey something that compels the reader to keep going, but must every novel have some bodily function in the first two pages?


    To tell writers that we need to get all these things in isn't helpful. To use this list as a starting point for writers to be sure they're going for sensual writing and drama is more useful.

  10. Thank you Sisters of the Quill and Stormy!

  11. Cool! I checked mine. I miss two:

    a sentence containing three commas - but I have a sentence containing 4 commas.

    reference to sex or death -- I don't have one until page 3.

    Pretty amazing that that ALL those things can be found in the bestsellers! I don't think I could do that if I tried! (and probably trying wouldn't be a good idea lol)