Tips for writing the first page of a novel from award-winning YA novelist Erin Bow

The Kitchener-based author and judge of The First Page student writing challenge gives some writing tips on getting started.
Erin Bow is the author of the young adult novel The Scorpion Rules. (Jay Parson)

Erin Bow is judging CBC Books' new writing competition for students. The First Page, open to Canadian students in Grades 7 to 12, challenges young writers to pen the first page of a novel set in 2167 and imagine how a current-day issue has played out 150 years from now.

Bow is the author of the YA novels The Scorpion Rules and Plain Kate. Plain Kate won the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award in 2011.

Below, Bow shares some valuable insight into creating a compelling first page.

1. Figure out what your character wants

Erin says: "There's not a person in the universe who knows where to start. For science fiction, it's particularly hard because you've created a whole, interesting world and you also need to create a character who needs and wants something. It's a tricky balance. I find it helps if what the character needs or wants is related to the interesting thing about the universe, but, you know, sometimes they just want to pass algebra."

2. Three questions to kick start your writing

Erin says: "When I think about creating a science fiction universe, I usually start in one of three places. The first one is, 'If this goes on…' Take a problem that's bothering you in the current universe and put it centre stage and exaggerate it. The second one's the opposite. It's, 'This can't go on…' The third one is the most fun, but also the wildest and the trickiest. It's, 'What if…?'"

3. Tell the small story

Erin says: "It can be overwhelming to have to create a whole world or a whole universe. It's even more overwhelming to try to get that universe onto the page. There are a lot of ways to do it and no wrong way to try. But I've got a favourite trick and it's about scale. Try telling the story of one ship, one family, one school, one hospital, one neighbourhood. Even a huge universe like Star Trek's Federation of Planets does this. It has 154 member worlds and 9.8 trillion people, but really we're only interested in the three people on the stranded shuttle craft. Tell the small story and let the big universe brush up against the edges."

Erin Bow's comments have been edited and condensed.

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