Holly and I are still very hard at work poring over the entries in the Surprisingly Essential First Page Challenge, so I don’t have an update on when we’ll have finalists. Instead, I know there are a lot of new visitors to the blog, and I want to encourage everyone to stick around! Consider this a pledge drive. If you enjoy your local Nathan Bransford programming, please, add the blog to your RSS reader or subscribe to the blog via e-mail. Every little bit counts. We depend on reader pledges for 100% of our operating budget of $0, so please show your support for programming like This Week in Publishing and You Tell Me and our many contests.
And seriously, you guys are some talented writers! Reading over the entries has been a pleasure, and can I thank everyone again for entering? I think I can.
Meanwhile, an interesting debate sparked in the comment section of last night’s time-calling post, and I thought I’d expand on it a bit here.
One of the things you always hear when you’re a writer is that you really have to grab an agent with your opening. And this is true — we read a whole lot of manuscripts, and if we’re not grabbed right away we’re going to move onto the next project.
BUT. This does not mean that you have to go out and try and grab the reader by the throat. Perhaps the most common shortcoming I’m seeing in some of the entries is that they try too hard to be surprising or shocking or pulling one over the reader. This is a common problem. Writers I talk to even sometimes tell me that they wanted to start with a more gradual opening, but their writing group said it was too quiet, so they went with the “bigger” opening instead. For instance, at least 7 openings in the SEFPC involve burnt and/or rotting flesh.
To be sure, this can be done well. But look at the openings of your favorite novels. Herman Melville did not begin MOBY DICK with Ishmael staring at the rotting carcass of a whale, Charles Dickens did not begin A TALE OF TWO CITIES by describing what guillotined heads look like. Even suspense novels that do begin with a shocking opener, like Jeff Abbott’s FEAR, which starts with the seriously awesome first line “I killed my best friend.”, double-back to gradually reveal details about the characters and world of the book.
This is because the purpose of an opening isn’t to grab a reader and start punching them in the face, but rather to draw them into the world of the book. A “shocking” event in the very beginning isn’t usually very shocking because it’s not earned — the reader doesn’t yet care enough about the characters or know enough about the world for it to resonate properly — so it feels more like a parlor trick. Even if it’s an action-packed beginning, it’s still necessary to orient the reader. So there are some definite dos and don’ts in the beginning, and I’d point you to Kami’s great comment from last night’s post for a breakdown.
The purpose of a first page is to begin to get to know a character, world, or plot in such a way that the reader wants to know more. It’s a taste. And great characters, a great plot, and/or great setting (and of course great writing) grab me a lot more than an opening that tries too hard to be surprising or shocking.
Nathan, that is really cool.
Thanks for throwing such a knowledgeable contest! I enjoyed reading everyones first pages, and your insightful comments later.
I love your blog and I’ve linked to it. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of writing with us, especially your take on the critical first page.
Yes, Scapegoat is brilliant. As is My Cousin Rachel. Daphne du Maurier rarely misstepped – a star in the sky of words.
This reminds me of some comments I got at the critiquing portion of a hero’s journey workshop. After reading the first pages, some attendees said, “But we don’t know where this is going– the hero hasn’t answered the call to action yet!”
I was thinking, “Well, the little dude is 10 years old. Can we give him a moment before he sells himself into slavery?”
northwest lurker says
Nathan, Thank you for the contest! I’m trying to read all the first pages (only a quarter of the way through) but there are a lot of great openings. I wouldn’t mind reading the majority of the books.
I hope this means that your readers are more skilled than the average slush pile submitter and not that my standards are easy to meet.