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Author: First pages ‘hook' readers

April 11, 2007

You're browsing in the bookstore, looking for a really good novel to read. You flip through a stack of the latest in literature, skimming, skimming, and finally … a book grabs you. What's the “hook” that snagged your attention?

Usually, it's the first page. Even the first sentence, or first paragraph, says novelist Gail Tuskiyama.

Tuskiyama, author of six novels, including “The Samurai's Garden,” “The Language of Threads” and “Dreaming Water,” was one of the faculty at the fifth annual writers conference, “Desert Nights, Rising Stars,” sponsored by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

She taught a class titled “The Art of the First Page.”

“How many people have bought a book because they read the first page?” asks Tuskiyama. “Ursula K. Le Guin says that the first page is the ‘door to the world.' ”

Tuskiyama, who started college as a film major but majored in poetry, says she begins to write her novels by concentrating on the first line.

“It has an image, a voice, a place, the way someone looked,” she says.

The first page is a blank page, Tuskiyama told her audience of aspiring writers, and the trick is to just start writing – beginning with the first line. “If you're going to have everything down before you begin, you'll never begin,” she says. “Take it line by line.”

She recalls some of her favorite first lines:

• Nadine Gordimer: “She has never felt any resentment that he became a musician and she didn't.”

• Tim O'Brien: “The war was over, and there was no place to go.”

“If the story doesn't take shape in the first sentence, then it should come in the first paragraph,” Tuskiyama says. “That first line sets the story into motion, whether it's the character, or tone of voice. It's a tease.

“You want to create curiosity in that first page. It's like a first date. You want to make a good impression.

“You have to say what you mean, but you have to mean more than you say.”

Tuskiyama says she vacuums the floors in her house when she needs inspiration.

“You should let things percolate,” she says. “Take time. Give yourself space to think about the story you want to tell.”

Her writing styles vary, she says, adding: “Sometimes I sit for six hours and write one paragraph. Sometimes, in 15 minutes, I'll turn out several pages.”

Tuskiyama invited class participants to read the first paragraphs of novels they had been working on, and listen to comments from the class.

In every case, it was apparent that the original first line didn't draw the reader in. Often, it was the first line of the second paragraph.

With Tuskiyama's subtle nudging, those first sentences began to shine.