Start Me Up: read the first page of Tobin, Bigfoot & Me like a writer

1024 683 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

By now you all KNOW I’m really passionate about the importance of not just reading but reading like a writer: analytically and with purpose – something I’ve started calling ‘rabbit hole reading’.  It’s brilliant to simply let yourself get totally immersed and enjoy a novel – that’s a really important experience for writers – but you’ll get so much more value from a story if you let yourself go down a rabbit hole when you read. Analyse the plot, the structure, the characters. Ask yourself why the author made the choices they did. Make notes. Annotate. Discuss it with other people. Even mine the acknowledgements page for the names of agents, editors and publishers involved and learn about that author’s writing and publishing process.

Related post: GMC: The one question to ask every novel you read

So as part of my mission to get you all doing more rabbit hole reading and really reading like a writer, I’m going to be analysing the first pages of some of the middle grade and YA novels on my bookshelf. What works? Why did the author make those choices? What clues does this opening give us about the rest of the story? How well does it grab the reader’s attention from the off? Welcome to Start me up: Mark-up on successful novel openings.

🐺

If you’d like me to feed back on the opening page of your manuscript, send it along and I’ll feature it on the blog! Let me know if you’d like to stay anonymous.

Today’s opening page is from Tobin, Bigfoot & Me by Melissa Savage, a really lovely middle grade adventure/mystery about grief, friendship and the furry mythical beast.

The first page of Tobin, Bigfoot & Me

Bigfoot.

It’s the very first thing I see when we pull into town. A gargantuan wooden statue of the hairy beast, stuck right smack in the middle of the square, like he’s the mayor or President Ford or someone really important.

‘Where are we, anyway?’ I ask the social worker who came to get me all the way down in San Francisco.

I’ve only met her once before this and I can’t remember her name. I think it starts with a W. Maybe an M. There were two of them who came to visit. I can’t remember the other lady’s name either. This one must have drawn the short straw to have to drive me all the way up to this dead-end place.

‘We finally made it, Lemonade.’ Her eyes meet mine in the rear-view mirror. ‘They say Willow Creek is the Bigfoot capital of the world.’

Read like a writer: the first page with my comments

Bigfoot. [Whoop, this is a strong word to open with! Right away the reader knows the book is about Bigfoot (if they hadn’t guessed it from the title, that is!) which I think would hook most middle grade readers whether or not they know much about or believe in the legend. If a child has picked up this book because they’re intrigued by the Bigfoot angle, they’ll be rewarded right away with the promise of the premise – ‘ooh, we’re already talking about Bigfoot, cool!’ – rather than having to wait. That doesn’t mean all stories should start by jumping straight into or even hinting at the narrative question or central conflict but it’s definitely an attention grabbing first line!]  

It’s the very first thing I see when we pull into town. A gargantuan wooden statue of the hairy beast, stuck right smack in the middle of the square, like he’s the mayor or President Ford or someone really important. [Opening a novel with your main character travelling to a new town or starting a new school is fairly common in middle grade and can be seen as clichéd – Mary Kole includes it in her list of ‘beginnings to avoid’ in Writing Irresistible Kidlit – but because Savage started so strong with the ‘Bigfoot’ line I think she gets away with it! My advice to the less experienced author is start your story as late as you can: if you absolutely have to include the car ride to the new house, go for it, but could you fast forward a little and open with your character in action, doing something interesting or interacting with the town to show the reader they’re in a new place but in an engaging and dynamic way?]

‘Where are we, anyway?’ I ask the social worker who came to get me all the way down in San Francisco. [This is the first line of dialogue from protagonist Lemonade and it immediately gives her away as fed up and maybe somebody who isn’t going to capitulate to adults. That word ‘anyway’ feels a little impertinent, even whiney – just how you’d expect a sad (grieving, we later find out), bored 12 year old. We now also know that Lemonade has a social worker which gets us asking questions. What’s happened to her?]

I’ve only met her once before this and I can’t remember her name. I think it starts with a W. Maybe an M. There were two of them who came to visit. I can’t remember the other lady’s name either. [Again, this hints at Lemonade’s nature: she’s not overly worried about being polite or bothering to remember people’s names. It also suggests maybe she’s met a lot of social workers.] This one must have drawn the short straw to have to drive me all the way up to this dead-end place. [This tells us that Lemonade is moving far away from home, and perhaps that she sees herself as a burden on the adults around her?] 

‘We finally made it, Lemonade.’ Her eyes meet mine in the rear-view mirror. ‘They say Willow Creek is the Bigfoot capital of the world.’ [They’ve arrived somewhere new: this signifies change, transition – something that cropped up as a successful opening tactic in the Bath Novel Awards shortlist]

Call to Adventure!

How to use these ideas when reading like a writer

First, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this opening page. If you haven’t read the whole novel, what does this extract tell you as a reader? Does it make you want to turn the page? Do you think Savage started in the right place? Have you warmed to Lemonade yet? If you’ve read the novel, did you love it? Let’s discuss it in the comments or email me for some book chat!

And next, can you apply this practice to your own reading? You don’t have to scribble comments all over your books (although I absolutely do condone annotation – every note, underline and post-it just makes the book more special and personal to you. What could be wrong about that?). You can record your thoughts in a writing journal, a Word document or software like Evernote and then look back over them for inspiration next time you’re writing your own first page. What patterns and tropes do you notice in openings? What’s the most original way you can find to start a middle grade or YA book?

Related post: Read like a writer using Evernote, part one: Saving examples of clever writing techniques

You could also take note of the author’s narrative choices that show up on the first page like tense, POV, perspective and general format like whether the book includes any epistolary or supplemental materials like letters or newspaper articles or whether or not the timeline is linear. If you’re digitising your notes, you can include tags like ‘first person’ or ‘muti-POV’ which you can search for later when you need to find inspiration or samples.

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Leave a Reply