Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Oh Please Don't Go, We Love You So!

Posts like Latayne's last can break a writer's heart. As a reader, I happily chimed in with a short list of books I never finished. But as a writer... well, did you notice the things we were saying?

"I grew so impatient with the book that I stuffed it down into the seatback pocket along with the airsickness bag. I was going to leave it on the plane." "Maybe someday I'll force myself to trudge on through it." "I don't want to waste the time I have." "Truthfully? I toss a book aside if I'm not loving it."
Ouch! How better to describe a writer's nightmare? Our characters can roll their terrible eyes and gnash their terrible teeth and show their terrible claws like Maurice Sendak's Wild Things, but it's no use: the readers say "no," then climb in their boats and sail away.


As Bonnie said, it's intensely personal stuff. Those authors who wrote the books we didn't read - if they notice this post at all, if they even find their computers under all those royalty statements - they can console themselves with the knowledge that they are in terrific company. PD James? Anita Diamant? Barbara Kingsolver? I neglected to mention that it took me years to get past page one of The Hobbit.

Still, Latayne has reviewed both of my novels, and I can tell you that she is a very kind reader. What could induce this sweet lady to leave a perfectly good, well regarded novel in the pocket next to the vomit bag?

For answers, I looked up Original Sin by PD James on Amazon and clicked on "Look Inside the Book," to read her first sentence:
"For a temporary shorthand typist to be present at the discovery of a corpse on the first day of a new assignment, if not unique, is sufficiently rare to prevent its being regarded as an occupational hazard."
Are you bored already? Me too (and the rest of the page is no better). Because the book is a mystery, so of course it begins with the discovery of a dead body, and of course the body is found where bodies are not usually found, by people who don't usually find them. Please, Ms. James, take a break from answering your piles of fan mail and say something that surprises me. Make that first paragraph sing!

Because, as Sharon said, if the writing is bland or cliche, or if the characters don't engage, we can lose our readers before they get to the good stuff. There has to be something wonderful - something surprising, compelling and delicious - on the very first page.

Ah, but how to do that? I'm going to open the question for discussion: what makes a first page sing for you? What method do you use to make your own first paragraphs memorable. We want to know your thoughts.


Patti Hill said...

I agonize. Scribble. Agonize some more. Delete. Scribble. Delete. Much agonizing.

It's hard work to write that opening paragraph. I want to drop the reader into the action, tickle their curiosity, and welcome them into my story world.

I work at it until I think I've got it right...and at least ten other people who will tell me the truth say it is right, too.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

It's amazing how a first page - first sentence - can make or break a sale. When did this begin? I don't remember sizing up a book this way as a child. Maybe the cover art was more important then. Don't remember.

Once in a writing class, the instructor read the first sentence of a mystery that went something like "If it hadn't been for the horrendous storm, we never would have discovered the hidden room at the back of the house." She read a lot of first sentences aloud, but that's the only one I remember. (I wish I'd written down the title.)

When I craft that first sentence I try to enter a point where the protagonist is in some emotional turmoil or angst to give some insight into what's at stake. I'm not talking about melodrama. I think people care more about characters than description or plot, and that's what will hook a reader first.

BTW, I plodded through The Hobbit and almost stopped there, but someone convinced me to read LOTR. It's like The Hobbit was Tolkien's warm-up novel. (Did I say that out loud?)

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Haha, Debbie! I've never read the Hobbit, but it takes me a while to get into Fellowship of the Ring each time. Until the group gets to Rivendell, I don't really care. And when it's all over and the hobbits have to travel back to the shire, I don't care again. The same goes for Eragon; the first 100 pages are excruciating!

I'm like many of those who posted on Monday. Once I pick up a book, I finish it (unless it was for school! I made that exception back in the day because many of the books I read then bored me so much). This is partly because I only want to read "good" stories and partly because I'm running out of books on my shelves. And reading is a very expensive hobby--though the cost of not reading is far greater!

One thing I really try to do--and this is really fresh in my mind because I started a new story last week--is say something new, whether it's a unique twist to a common slang or something entirely fresh. I want that first sentence/paragraph to prompt questions in the reader right away, to say whatever it is saying in such a way that if a reader were to close the book right there, those few words would linger in his/her mind and force that person to pick it back up. Like Debbie, I usually refer to some kind of emotional turmoil, because that can drive a plot.

When I start reading a book, I know within a few lines if I care about the characters and their stories enough to invest in the time to find out what happens. As a writer, I try to solve that "problem" for my readers as well, while keeping in mind that it is pretty subjective. Hopefully I get better at this the more I write.

Nicole said...

I'm always the one to disagree, aren't I? Ack! I've never read PD James, but I rather liked that first sentence. Unique, smart alecky voice.

The first sentence, the first paragraph, the first few chapters aren't going to drive me away. After that, I might get impatient, disgusted, disappointed, or whatever, but I don't mind the writer getting into the story however he/she desires.

This is subjective from start to finish. Yes, I would agree the odds go up if you snap out that first sentence, paragraph, and those first pages because they might capture those impatient readers, but if your overall style is like, say, PD James, you're not going to be able to fool the reader for the whole book unless you modify your style.

Readers are a diverse group, and it's wise to make your writing snap, crackle, and pop from start to finish, but, geez, you or someone else might think it sings, and the next person will toss it.

Bonnie Grove said...

Debbie is right, I don't remember judging a book by its first line or opening paragraph either - but that's where we are today, folks - in the writing world at least.

I believe most readers (those who read for any number of reasons except as a gateway to being a writer), are more kind than most razor eyed writers.

Stories make me giddy - I'm always lightheaded with hopefulness when I crack open a novel. I'm ready to fall in love. I've read many books that grabbed me from the first paragraph because the compelling premise, the "feel" of book (which I now understand is about "voice" and "characterization", but I didn't always know that). With all of my favorite novels there was some point in the book where I felt I fell in step with the story - I felt its jangle jingle and rejoiced. It doesn't always happen on the first page - but it's magic when it does.

Some first page jangle jinglers for me? Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (both handed to me by a friend who said, "This is so not my thing. But I know you, Bonnie. It'll ring your bell").

Alright! Back to crafting what I hope will become my own page turner!

Nichole Osborn said...

I was forced to read the Hobbit in high school. I was not into sci-fi/fantacy so I trudged through. Now I love that genre. Isn't funny how our tastes change. Anyway, I have had the book Hooked by Les Edgerton sitting on my self for a few months now. I think I'm going to start reading it today. It looks very insightful. Any one read it?

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Nichole, I LOVE Edgerton's Hooked. Mine's full of highlighter. I need to revisit it...

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I was forced to read The Martian Chronicles in high school and now I'm a devoted fan of Ray Bradbury, so maybe the school system knows what it's doing! :~) I loved Cold Sassy Tree but The Bean Trees is one I have put down twice. Come to think of it, I also put down Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. Hmmm.

Michelle Ule said...

Noah Luken's "The First Five Pages"--how to keep out of the slush pile, is a good primer on what to avoid early on. Trust me, I can usually tell if a manuscript is going somewhere by the end of the first page.

I also look at how the words look on the page. I'll rarely trudge through a paragraph more than four or five lines long--at least not at the beginning.

I had to read "Ulysses" in college and thought I would die. Fortunately, the professor gave us seven weeks to read it!

Kathleen Popa said...

I have Hooked sitting on my desk right now. I took it off the shelf last night, hoping it would help me write my post, but since I haven't read it yet, I found it hard to find a snippet I could use. Debbie, you've encouraged me to take that all important next step after buying a book, of actually reading it. Right after I've read all the books I'm into now. I agree Michelle, The First Five Pages is one of the best.

Nicole, I should be fair and admit that I am not much of a mystery reader (or any kind of genre reader) because genre conventions tend to feel like cliches to me. I know there are many who would disagree. Vociferously. Wouldn't that make a great discussion for another day?

Unknown said...

I'm with Nicole on this one. I actually loved the first sentence of Original Sin. It was what kept me reading for quite a while. However, that character introduced in the first sentence turned out not to be pivotal to the plot (even in the end) and that disappointed me a bit.

Debbie, the first inkling I ever had that I might be able to write a novel was when I read the first line of Mary Higgins Clark's The Cradle Will Fall: "If her mind had not been on the case she had won, Katie might not have taken the curve so fast, but the intense satisfaction of the guilty verdict was still absorbing her."

I stopped cold when I read that, re-read that, and saw how masterfully Clark had hooked me. I said to my husband, "If I could ever write an opening sentence like that, I could write a whole novel."

To my great joy, when I met MHC several years later, I told her she was my role model and that I wanted to write a suspense novel. She autographed my tattered copy of her book with, "Happy reading, Latayne, and happy writing!"

Steve G said...

If I want the first page to sing I go to the card store and take the device out of one of those cards that play a song when you open it and put it in the cover of my book....

Actually, what I notice first usually is if paints a vivid picture in the first few lines. Either that or a delicious use of words - words that set me up with a question I want answered that I didn't know I needed to ask until I opened the book.

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

I agree with Steve - start with a question, something that intrigues me and makes me want to keep reading - but not something that confuses me and makes me want to give up. :) The opening needs to be interesting, and that can be either the character, setting, or situation. Something to draw me in. One thing I've done, in thinking about this, is to grab some of my favourite novels and read just the first paragraphs and think about why it worked so well. I guess, as you showed, you could also grab a novel that didn't work and consider why not... :)