Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Column: The Business of Writing - First Two Pages Checklist (From Iowa) by Linda Rohrbough

Recently, a couple I knew when I lived in another state contacted me. Their youngest daughter, the one with Care Bear flip-flops on tiny feet who used to crawl up in my lap for a hug, is now ready to go to college. She wants to be a writer and they asked my opinion on the best school for writers interested in being novelists. They mentioned a couple of prestigious schools and I am pretty sure I shocked them when I recommended the University of Iowa.

But I read a piece in the New Yorker a few years back about that school. Evidently they turn out more New York Times best-selling novelists than any writing program in the country. I said all that to say, I have a checklist of what a professor teaching at the University of Iowa Writing Festival this summer said he found was common in the first two pages of every best-seller currently in the bookstores.

Want to see it?

Okay, here it is, courtesy of guest instructor Gordon Mennenga of Coe College, (who got his MFA at Iowa).

Checklist of the common nineteen things found in the first two pages of best-selling novels:

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

Now, what’s interesting to me is the person who sent me this list, also said the students taking Professor Mennenga’s workshop started counting to see how many of the nineteen they had in the first two pages of their novels. The person in the workshop with the most had ten. I did a check of my recently published novel The Prophetess One: At Risk and I had sixteen. Then I did a check of my new work in progress, The Prophetess Two: A Son For A Son and found fourteen, but was easily able to change the text to add three more to make it seventeen from the list.

(Will these changes stay? Depends. I usually go back over the first chapter once the book is done to make sure the first chapter and the last chapter are connected. But I was able to say to you guys that I now have seventeen. <grin>)

The temptation here would be for newbees to say, “Okay, when I write a book, I will make sure I shoe-horn those nineteen things into the first two opening pages. Then it’ll be a best-seller.” If only it were that easy. But I noticed the items on that list are all things that show up when you’re writing well, meaning showing the reader what the characters want and feel, creating the environment, the initial conflict and setup for the book, with very specific details. In other words, when you are weaving a world that hooks readers.

Like it or not, hooking the reader has to happen in the first couple of pages of a novel. Or else the reader isn’t going to stay with you. I think this is doubly important with the advent of ebooks because it’s so easy now for readers to get a sample chapter - give a writer a test drive. This is what you want if you’re doing the job right.

So my suggestion is take this list and compare it against the first two pages of your novel. See if it helps. Then compare it against the first two pages of a best-seller you like. Why take Professor Mennenga’s word for it?

About the Writer: Linda Rohrbough has been writing since 1989, and has more than 5,000 articles and seven books to her credit along with national awards for fiction and non-fiction. New York Times #1 bestselling author Debbie Macomber said about Linda’s new novel: "This is fast-paced, thrilling, edge-of-the-seat reading. The Prophetess One: At Risk had me flipping the pages and holding my breath." An iPhone App of her popular three-step formula workshop for writers, “Pitch Your Book,” is available in the Apple iTunes store. Visit her website: www.LindaRohrbough.com


  1. I'm amazed at the number of people who don't know that Iowa Writer's Workshop is the oldest and most prestigious in the country. I was fortunate enough to have some of its graduates as professors who later mentored me. They are so talented! Well done recommending it to someone majoring in creative writing!
    Lucia// VeinFire.net

  2. Linda,

    Thanks for a though provoking post. As I read it my brain started ticking off the items. In the never-ending quest to hook readers, any small tool for those first two pages is wonderful to have.

    Recently I realized that my first two pages, were out of place. They are action packed I placed them there after several comments from Beta's about hooking the reader. But, the character involved and the setting made it more of a prologue. They actually belonged as pages three and four. Now, pages one and two (which used to be three and four) just happen to have all nineteen of the mentioned items, naturally occurring...before I read your post.

    Hopefully this bodes well.



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