Sunday, May 31, 2009

Grab Me!


No, not literally. But those two words are something of a mantra for agents and editors. They want our queries and pages to grab them. Not so hard, right? Wrong. At least for me. Because what the fine print says, and it's very fine print, is that we have to grab them in 5 pages if it's a novel or only a couple of paragraphs if it's a short story. So, no dilly-dallying around. No immediate launch into the detailed backstory of Grandma Sofie who died three years before the main character was born and for whom she's named. Instead, it's time to get right to hooking the reader either with characterization, action or both.

Jennifer Jackson, an agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency, has written a couple of blogs on this topic, as well as on the importance of reading -- and following -- submission guidelines.

It might not actually feel like five pages are enough to make an assessment. But isn't that the same thing that happens with readers/consumers? They walk into the bookstore, pick up the book and read the back-cover which has a pitch (like a query has) and then flip it open and read the first couple pages to decide if they want to take it home. (May 22, 2009)

What do I think is the purpose of the first five pages? To get me to want to read page six (and hopefully 7, 8, 9, etc.). They don't need to be perfect. In fact, watch out for over-editing because that can make them seem stale. They do need to be exceptional. These pages don't need to have bombs going off or start with a big action scene. Though starting in media res can be helpful -- watch out for backstory that can bog down your opening. Someone recently repeated to me this advice: "Start the story as late as you can." Obviously, the whole story is greater than the sum of its parts. I'm not expecting to know everything about the book in just five pages. That's not why I'm reading them. I'm looking for a sense of things. The writer's style or voice, perhaps. A compelling character. A strong plot hook or concept. A taste that makes me want more. All they have to do is get me to turn the page (or hit page-down in my email) and want more when there isn't any more. (May 29, 2009)

Agent Kristen Nelson blogged about a workshop she conducted a workshop called "2 minutes, 2 pages". According to her, "[t]he purpose is to pretend we are sitting at home with our feet up reading the slush pile. As the author reads the work, we say “stop” if we wouldn’t have read on and then try to explain why." What she discovered is that the "openings lacked a sense of urgency that would have propelled the story forward or would have engaged the reader immediately in the story or the characters presented." This doesn't mean the scene had to meet the Die Hard test of bombs and bullets in the opening scene. All it means is that there must be something at stake for the character. That something can be a treasured keepsake that your character can't find, waiting for a phone call that she knows will change her life, or an explosion. But it has to be something to draw the reader in and keep her turning the page and wanting more.

So, what keeps you reading past that first page? What do you put in those first five pages to keep the reader wanting more?

25 comments:

Kate said...

The short-short version? Character, hook, setting and kind of story, usually by getting as much out of each word as I possibly can.

My first draft usually doesn't do that, of course, but the beginning is what I clean up with the most care - sins that stick out like the proverbial early on get skipped right over when they happen later in the story or book.

WangZheng259 said...

Amanda,
I don't know if I can answer this question well, as it has been, I think, some time since I've started reading a story I absolutely know nothing about.

While the opening of a novel is hardly a random sample, it can be representative. The first few lines tell us if the writer is not able to write smoothly and well. If this introduces questions or possibilities that I am interested in, then I continue. If it contains something that repulses or disgusts me, I would tend not to.

The best example I can think of right now is Pati Nagle's 'The Betrayal', which I earlier found through this website. While I had seen some of Pati's earlier postings, I did not have that good of an idea of whether her writing was to my taste.

I found the writing to be of good quality. It also flowed well. There were some things that slightly rubbed me the wrong way, but I can find things to disagree with in just about any work of fiction. I would be willing to describe myself as a generally disagreeable person. Anyway, the first bit left me interested in finding out more about the story. I am still interested after this time, even though a number of issues have prevented checking it out at the bookstore. I do not yet know for certain if the elements of the story are a good match for my tastes, so the hook isn't entirely set yet.

Example number two would be your Rasputin story. I had previously read the snippets of the Nocturnal novels, and enjoyed them greatly. On the other hand, the date and the subject matter concerned me. I have found some treatments of Rasputin, particularly the Disney and Hellboy ones, distasteful. My understanding of his death, is that it is quite likely that the British instigated the earlier attempts, then finally got disgusted with the ineptness and finished him off themselves. The 'Oh, he must be immortal with invincible magic powers' stuff that a lot of writers seem to default to just bugs me.
Also, I did some reading on the Imperial Secret Police for a 'Accidental time traveller alters the course of history' story, and I think 1913 is too late for it to change things. However, it is set in a fantasy alternate universe, so real world knowledge of exactly when events become unchangable and tend to result in the rest of the history of the twentieth century is not valid.

While your Rasputin has magic, I do not get the sense that he is unkillable, or that his magic is all powerful. I see a man killing himself trying to accomplish the task before him. I also do not see a situation that will produce Hitler, Mao and Stalin no matter what happens. (I think they have been born by this period of time, but one can hope that they get killed earlier in your setting, or least don't reach power.) In fact, this ties back to John's discussion of Antiheroes. I find myself, despite knowing that Rasputin is doing very unethical things, hoping that he succeeds.

matapam said...

I like to get to know the main POV character. Name, gender, cop, robber or innocent bystander?

I want some idea of the World and genre of fiction. If it's Virtual Reality, tell me right away. Magic, yes or no. Medieval, modern or something new? On a different planet? Spaceship or space station.

At a minimum with good grammar, but a well turned sentence is always appreciated. Clever ways of bringing in the background instead of just telling me where the scene is taking place can help immensely.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, I know what you mean. I angst over my openings more than any other part of the book except the last page. What is your favorite book opening as a reader and why?

Chris McMahon said...

Right off the mark I'm looking for the voice - a flowing style that has some sense of emotion or presence.

Following that its character - and I am picky. I need to get into a character quickly. Anything that throws me out generally stops me reading at that point (often the first few paragraphs). I don't like superficial characters, those that are too cynical, self-centred, or those that couldn't be bothered because they are so cool.

Kate said...

Amanda,

As a reader, one of the openings I loved is the beginning of Pratchett's The Color of Magic.

"In a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part..."

I don't know how many times I've read this book, but I pick up a new pun or reference or some other joke every time - and that opening beautifully indicates that this is Not Your Everyday Fantasy.

Amanda Green said...

WangZheng259,

I know exactly what you mean about a book that might be well-written but the subject matter is something I am just not interested in or comfortable with. I have an extremely hard time continuing to read under those circumstances.

As for Rasputin in Russian Nights, he isn't invincible. One of the things I'm trying to do with him is not make him a cartoonish figure like so many other books/movies/comics have. For one thing, I need the reader to have some empathy for him, even if they don't necessarily like him.

I also understand what you are saying about 1913 possibly being too late to change the course of historical events, things can be altered or delayed. Or, as you said, this book is set in an alternate universe so all of the history we know may not necessarily have occurred there.

So, I'll ask you the same question I asked Kate. What is your favorite book opening and why?

Amanda Green said...

WangZheng259,

I hit the post button before I meant to. I wanted to add my thanks for the kind words about the Nocturnal books.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam,

Written like a good wereslush reader [G].

Same question to you. What is your favorite book opening as a reader and why?

Amanda Green said...

Chris,

You just defined what I generally look for -- and what will turn me off almost as quickly as bad grammar and spelling. Unless an accent, foreign language, slang or colloquialism is necessary for the development of the character or scene, don't overdo it. I don't want to have to sit there and feel like I need a dictionary or translator line after line, paragraph after paragraph unless that sense is an integral part of the book.

So, Chris, same question to you. What is your favorite book opening as a reader and why?

Amanda Green said...

Kate,

"In a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part..."

That has to be one of the all-time best opening lines. Of course, I should have told you "no fair" quoting PTerry. [VBG]

Kate said...

Amanda,

A big fat resonant raspberry to you for even hinting that PTerry should be off the menu!

matapam said...

My favorites?

"He shouldn't have taken the shortcut." David Weber _Oath of Swords_

Of course now he can get away with any sort of opening he wants - but DW writes the best "Board Meeting" openings in existence.

"The prince was dead.
Since the king was not, no unseemly rejoicing dared show in the faces of the men atop the castle gate." Lois Bujold _The Hallowed Hunt_

Amanda Green said...

Matapam,

You chose one of my favorites with Oath of Swords, and you're right about Weber. I think what I like so much about that one simple sentence is all the questions it raises.

One of my favorites: Port Tinarana was like an old, decaying tart, her face lined with a myriad of streets and alleys, inexpertly caked with a crude makeup of overhanging buildings. from Dave Freer's The Forlorn

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Grab me -- I love the way you put it, Amanda.

I'm going to use this in workshops!

WangZheng259 said...

Amanda,
Once again, I am far too confused to pick a single option.

The first page of Roger Zelazny's 'Nine Princes in Amber', as collected in the 'Great Book of Amber', does a remarkable job of introducing the main character and the first set of problems. First Sentence: 'It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.'

This is the first selection from a translation of the Hagakure that I have just learned by reading the forward is abridged.
'Although it stands to reason that a samurai should be mindful of the Way of the Samurai, it would seem that we are all negligent. Consequently, if someone were to ask "What is the true meaning of the Way of the Samurai?" the person who would be able to answer promptly is rare. This is because it has not been established in one's mind beforehand. From this, one's unmindfulness of the Way can be known.
Negligence is an extreme thing.'

This is not my favorite part of the Hagakure, but it tells you something about the philosophy and the style. It also gets the mind started moving through the selections.

Thermodynamics: An Engineering Approach by Cengel and Boles, Fourth Edition

T here is a selection of quotes in the epigraph, and I am fond of the first and the last.

'Thermodynamics is a funny subject. The first time you go through it, you don't understand it at all. The second time you go through it, you think you understand it, except for one or two points. The third time you go through it, you know you don't understand it, but by that time you are so used to the subject, it doesn't bother you anymore. -Arnold Sommerfeld'

'A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of last generation. -Max Gluckman'

The first time I studied the subject, I found the first quote amusing and interesting. Now I think it is probably correct, and still amusing. The second is entertaining and encouraging.

Diana Wynne Jones, 'Crown of Dalemark' 'The Earl of Hannart arrived in Aberath two days before Midsummer. He was bringing the Countess of Aberath a portrait of the Adon to put in her collection. As this was a state visit, be brought his son as well and a string of his hearthmen, and his arrival caused a rare bustle.'

This and the second paragraph introduce over half the driving characters, and a good chunk of the importent background data in a fairly understated way that draws the mind forward, at least if the mind is functioning well.

WangZheng259 said...

'Solitudinum faciunt; pacem appellant ...'

'Dear Reader,
...
The one thing you must never do, though, is to think of it as a commentary on the current war or the leadership thereof.
Unless, that is, you want to.
Tom Kratman'

'They called him "The Blue Jinn." He took a small and perverse pride in the title. Blue jinni were evil jinni. That his enemies thought him evil was ... pleasant. Even more pleasant was the sight of his enemies, beaten and bleeding, captive and bound.'

I really like the opening of this story, and have since Tom still had the first seven chapters up on his website. In that form, it helped get me through some bad emotional times. The Latin bit appeals to my Latin nerd side, and my liking for some of Roman foreign policy. I was endlessly entertained by the letter to the reader when I first got my hardback copy. I think the only thing that stopped the cycle of rereading was schoolwork and health issues. My only quibble is that when he rewrote the story for a general sci fi audience, moving the part prior to this in media res (sp?) to the end of Carnifex, I think the beginning of A Desert Called Peace might have lost a little of its theraputic effect for me. It might be that the interludes and Earth Pig scenes interrupt the flow, or it might be that picking it up during a period of exhaustion tends to prevent emotional arousal and catharsis.

Other contemplated titles include the above mentioned Hallowed Hunt, Starship Troopers, The New Revised Standard Bible, and Doc Smith's Galatic Patrol. I have also considered digging into the books I only have digitally, but I have probably already brought in too many items at too low quality a level of commentary.

Dave Freer said...

I've always believed in one page - page one, being the teaser - being the teaser and the hardest thing to write. Opening lines are vital, IMO, and you need to interest your reader in the character PDQ.
here are a couple of good ones IMO
"My young gentleman was born under an unlucky star. That's a fact, the lackey Trince announced. (THE LUCK OF RELIAN KRU - Paula Volsky)
"You are a Kallikanzaros," she announced suddenly.
I turned onto my left side and smiled through the darkness.
"I left my hooves and my horns atthe office." (THIS IMMORTAL, Roger Zelazny)

Chris McMahon said...

OK, Amanda. Here is the opening sentence from Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.
"When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere."
:)

Amanda Green said...

Thanks, Chris, that brought back memories. It has been years since I read Triffids. As much as I enjoyed the book -- and I had forgotten the opening lines, the movie always jumps out for me. Not because it was a great movie but because, when I saw it as a kid peeking around the corner and watching when I should have been in bed, it scared the crap out of me. I still have that little voice in the back of my head saying, "don't look at the meteors," any time there is a meteor shower. [G]

Amanda Green said...

Rowena,

LOL. You can "grab" anything you want for your workshops from me. I'm sure I can give you more than enough of the "what not to do" variety ;-p

Amanda Green said...

Thanks, Dave, you've put it much better than I did. I love a book that hooks me from the very first page. The one that keeps me reading because I want to know what happens next. Pretty prose is great, but if there is no meat to it, it isn't enough. At least not for me. I want to care for the characters and what happens to them, even if it is a character I don't particularly like.

Amanda Green said...

WangZheng259,,

Those were some great examples. And, for the record, I'm the confused one. Especially in the morning before coffee, like now.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I'm in a hotel and away from my library. And yes, will return to mad work shortly. But my favorite openings are Friday by Robert A. Heinlein (just the amount of information buried in that opening) and They Walked Like Men by Clifford Simak.

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