Start me up: Read the first page of Last One To Die like an editorhttps://i0.wp.com/www.writerandthewolf.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Last-one-to-die-start-me-up.png?fit=1024%2C683&ssl=1 1024 683 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes Siobhan O'Brien Holmes https://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/ba3674976788a4e771f9a93e14b42805?s=96&d=mm&r=g
This is part of Start me up: Mark-up on successful novel openings, a blog series designed to help you read like an editor. I’ll analyse the first pages of some of the middle grade and YA novels on my bookshelf and dig deep into the mechanics and craft. 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? You can learn so much about writing craft if you examine and dissect stories while your read, so give it a go!
Last One to Die by Cynthia Murphy is a YA horror novel described as ‘Point Horror for a new generation’. Here’s the blurb:
Niamh is in London for a summer of fun and freedom.
But young women are being attacked across the city … and she quickly discovers they all look scarily similar to her.
Can her new friends all be trusted? Can she shake off the feeling that someone is watching her?
Will she stay one step ahead of the killer, or …
Will she be next?
The first page of Last One To Die (Also available to read via Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature)
This is it. My new life. A fresh start, no boy worries, just me, the big city and my future. At least that’s what I thought until two minutes ago.
“I’m sorry, miss. There ain’t no Neve listed here.”
I try really hard not to bite this guy’s head off and force my lips into a smile instead.
“It’s Gaelic,” I explain, for the seventeenth time since I got off the boat. “It’s spelled N-I-A-M-H.”
“Oh.” The little man behind the desk of my new halls of residence narrows his eyes and scans his list again. I notice the name on his polished steel badge says Derek.
“Oh, yeah, here you are. Weird spelling, innit.”
Read like an editor: the first page with my comments
This is it. My new life. [So we’re in first person, present tense – a common choice in YA and something that works well in horror as it adds an element of urgency and intimacy that helps the reader sink into the protagonist’s shoes and experience the heightened emotions along with them. I talked in my last post about opening lines that signal change and how they can be really successful at grabbing the reader’s attention and pulling them into the story immediately. It’s a great way of telling the reader that the story is already in motion: things are happening now and life won’t ever be the same for the protagonist. It makes the story feel like it’s already in motion, plus it hints at transition. The main character is going on a journey and they’ll grow and develop over the course of the story as a result. Here, we know the protagonist is starting a new life and we’re going along for the ride.] A fresh start, no boy worries, [This feels ominous! She’s looking forward to leaving boy worries behind but the reader can probably guess that there are plenty more ahead of her! This line also gets us straight into the YA mindset: ‘boy worries’ indicates this protagonist is a teenager.] just me, the big city and my future [There are a few more clues here: ‘the big city’ suggests the protagonist hails from somewhere smaller and quieter than London, while ‘my future’ again reminds us this is probably a young POV.]. At least that’s what I thought until two minutes ago [Murphy introduces conflict straight away. We know what Niamh is hoping for this summer but something is already getting in her way!].
“I’m sorry, miss. There ain’t no Neve listed here.” [If we didn’t already know from the back-page blurb, the man’s dialect – combined with ‘big city’ – tells us we’re probably in London.]
I try really hard not to bite this guy’s head off and force my lips into a smile instead. [This indicates Niamh is probably a pretty nice person. She’s annoyed with the guy but doesn’t want to snap at him.]
“It’s Gaelic,” I explain, for the seventeenth time since I got off the boat. “It’s spelled N-I-A-M-H.” [Oh wow, I can so relate to this! Murphy does a great job of getting Niamh’s frustration across here as she rolls out her usual response when people spell her name wrong. I usually find myself saying ‘I know, it’s Irish’ apologetically, like I picked my own name.]
“Oh.” The little man behind the desk of my new halls of residence [Now we’re anchored in the setting and we have some context as to why Niamh’s here] narrows his eyes and scans his list again. I notice the name on his polished steel badge says Derek.
“Oh, yeah, here you are. Weird spelling, innit.” [Zip it, Derek! This exchange sets Niamh apart as an outsider and reminds the reader she’s in a new place away from her friends and family, starting a new life. One which perhaps won’t be as easy as she’d hoped.]
Call to Adventure!
How to use these ideas when reading like an editor
🐺 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? If you’ve read the novel, did you love it? Let’s discuss it in the comments or email me for some book chat!
🐺 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.
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- Writing Craft
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
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