Tuesday, February 19, 2008

first page mayhem

Bernita blogged today about the ongoing "controversy" that has arisen from first page contests and the fact that they seem to favor books that begin with a "bang" as opposed to a quiet beginning (and you can imagine all the implications therein about our need for sensationalism and lack of attention span, etc).

I have two things to say about this from my personal manuscript evaluation experience:

1) 9 out of 10 times I'll know whether I want to bid on a book after reading the first page.

2) Whether or not I want to bid on a book has nothing to do with what the first page was about.

Bernita makes the point that the real purpose of the first page is to engage the reader--and really, that's all it needs to do. I personally am more susceptible to good writing than to action. I would venture to say that I'm actually less likely to enjoy a book that starts out with a high-paced action sequence, but if it's really well written then it doesn't matter.

22 comments:

Josephine Damian said...

So, by "writing," do you mean "voice?" Or is it an intriguing character/scenario that makes you want to read more?

pjd said...

The sad fact is that too many people take themselves (and their work) way too seriously. The "controversy" is a tempest in a teapot.

And as someone pointed out, not getting picked as a finalist in Nathan's contest didn't necessarily mean your first page was awful. "It ain't that your baby's ugly, ma'am. It's just that those others are prettier."

moonrat said...

for me it's really voice. 99% voice. i know this varies from editor to editor and also depending on genre.

thanks for asking--that's a good question. the action i can really take or leave, and thinking about my favorite books right now i can't remember most of their opening sequences. however, i do remember getting sucked in right away.

my personal weakness is tongue-in-cheekness. i think this is why i love eg michael chabon. even when he's talking about a really serious subject there is some playfulness of voice.

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

If you read Heather! Anne!'s winning first page on Nathan Bransford's blog which had stiff competition, her piece is ALL about voice. (in my opinion)

Here's how she started...

He was carrying a can of soup and needed to make change for a nickel.

I told him if I had a nickel, or five pennies amounting to a nickel, I’d be out behind the old school house with my brother’s friends, gambling on dice. You need two nickels for a Coca-Cola and a Clark Bar, and one really ain’t worth having with out the other.

(for the rest, here's the link...)

http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2008/01/americas-next-top-surprisingly.html

For me, the voice must grab me and take me into the emotion of the scene, and a curious tug must keep me reading, not necessarily a bunch of "brew-ha-ha." (I have NO idea if I spelled that right, but you get the idea.)

It's all so subjective. I've tried to read some "best sellers" that obviously appeals to many folks, and the package is not there to keep me engaged.

For me, bring on books like "Peace Like a River" or "Secret Life of Bees" or "The Poisonwood Bible." (To name a few) No bang 'em up action yet takes you into the moment of the scene.

Demon Hunter said...

You're right, Moon. It's all about engaging the reader. :*)

Colorado Writer said...

"It's all about the writing!"

Bernita said...

Thank you for the reference, MoonDear.
I didn't enter Nathan's contest.
I think these controversies erupt because people seek a one-size-fits-all answer.
And I'm not really sure which category my WIP opening falls under.
You see, a zombie walks in on her while she's standing naked in her bathroom...
I've resolved not to worry about it.

Charles Gramlich said...

When I pick books to read it's also the prose that really hooks me, although my favorite book is one that begins with beautiful writing and quickly adds action that is beautifully described.

Precie said...

Moonie--Thanks so much for weighing in! I recently took a look at some of my favorite novels...and surprise, surprise, NONE of them starts with a Bang. NONE of them starts with Action.

(Niffeneggar's The Time-Traveler's Wife, Eliot's Middlemarch, Murakami's The Wind Up Bird Chronicles and the End of the World, etc., etc.)

In most of them, the whole is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. The writing is strong throughout and gives me a sense of storytelling mastery, not necessarily a Bang.

Hmm...that last sentence sounds borderline dirty.

Ello said...

Bernita! Finish your book already! I have to read it. Bernita is such a tease! ;o)

I love that you said this Moonie and that Jennifer and Precie also point out what the Big Bangers forget, there is an art in making the mundane intriguing. My most favorite book of all time starts slow:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbown. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. HIs left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

This whole paragraph is all backstory and yet it sets up such a pivotal part of the story. There is no doubt that Harper Lee's voice is what mesmerizes us to continue reading. There is no big bang. It is just an unfolding of events told from a young girl's perspective. But it is one of the best stories ever told.

Anyway, just my thoughts.

Precie said...

ello--- { there is an art in making the mundane intriguing }

EXACTLY!

Amie Stuart said...

Bernita is, as ever, wise =)

Manuscript Mavens recently blogged about this (like Sunday) for much the same reason. I'll freely admit that I'm a Vogler girl (heroes journey and all that) so no bangs, but definitely not boring (hit man walks into a gay bar.......)

As Bernita said it's all about being engaged. As a reader, I'm HUGE on voice--especially evocative (ala Marsha Moyer who I adore though for the most part I read commercial fiction)

Merry Monteleone said...

I'm a sucker for voice of every kind... I love evocative prose that pull me into a warm pool of thought, I love quick wit and charm that makes me laugh from page one and leaves me breathlessly turning pages in guilty pleasure... I love voice that's rich with culture I don't possess and that which confirms my own pathos and precarious past...

And I'll read me some snack books, when they can keep me laughing and reading and make me forget to start dinner on time... but the ones I remember (Harper Lee is one of my most favorites) they have a voice you trust and leave you with the most profound thoughts on life and character.... they influence your mind and life in a way that just telling a story won't, because they have a bit of heart woven into the fibre of their binding, and it's no small thing to acheive... they're the reason we're all writing, whether we ever get to that level of poignancy on the page, it's that level of voice that pulled us into this and it's the hope that won't let you give it up, too.

Just my thoughts... First pages don't have to bang for me... sometimes it's a simple turn of phrase that plays on my tongue and brings me into the character's place, sometimes it's the setting or the humor... the action doesn't so much matter to me if I trust the honesty of the voice.

Josephine Damian said...

You see, a zombie walks in on her while she's standing naked in her bathroom...

Bernita, I hate when that happens. lol

Moonie, I've stopped reading a couple of books recently because the silliness that grabbed me early on grew tired after a while. Siliness for the sake of silliness is not my idea of storytelling.

I've also stopped reading other books because they took waaaay to long to get on with the plot, gave me way too much backstory before getting around to the main/plot/action.

Action too soon is bad, but so is action too late... like Goldilocks, you've gotta get it just right.

bookfraud said...

found my way over here via bernita's blog.

as a reader, i usually decide whether or not to continue after ten pages; i'll give the writer that much time to engage me. but i imagine that most readers aren't as sympathetic, and certainly most agents and editors are not, either.

that's why, when i write fiction, i go with sex, sex, sex!!!!!! from the opening graph and never let up. which must explain my stellar batting average for my novel (1 agent, 21 editors, zero acceptances).

like the blog lots.

booklady said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. That was really good to hear. Um, read, I mean...

The Anti-Wife said...

Thanks for adding your voice to this topic. It's good to hear an editor's point of view.

McKoala said...

For me there has to be some reason to read on. Good writing can be enough, but it's even better if it's paired with some sort of intrigue, something I want to find out more about. That doesn't necessarily mean action in the sense of shoot 'em up, just interest.

McKoala said...

That 'something' could also be 'someone'.

Helen said...

There seems to be a fine line between gently leading the reader onto the next page, or grabbing them by the scruff and hauling them onwards.

I didn't end up entering Nathan's contest because I realised I didn't like either of my proposed two openings. So I trashed them both and wrote a new one, which I think works better than either of them... if I can get the opening line right. So the contest did some good, I suppose...

Bernita said...

Josephine!!!
~loved that~

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Ohhh, ditto to everyone who said voice here. What's funny is when I was a beginning writer, my jaw dropped when I learned that agents sometimes accepted or rejected ms based on the first page. And then I had agents asking to see the first five pages and rejecting me based on that. I didn't get it! It was hooky, it had action . . . now, of course, several books and a contract later, it's painfully obvious. There was no voice -- it could've been anyone and there was no immediate connection with the reader.

I think in a lot of cases action is being used as a crutch to engage the reader, when really what we're craving in even the most action-packed, blood-soaked, zombierific text is to be engaged with the characters from page 1. And I'm afraid after doing a pile of crits for fellow authors that I've joined the ranks of people who can tell if they want to read a book from page one.

I tell people, it's like House. We know we'll watch the next episode of house regardless of the plot because we want to see House play in the sandbox the writers created. Plot is secondary. Character/ Voice is king.