As a writer I feel my wife, critique partners and beta readers are the life’s blood for my manuscripts. I’ve never been strong in spelling and grammar, so developing a passion for writing may have been a very cruel joke on me. I rely heavily on them, more than one should, to catch my many typos, misplaced commas, tense switches, and many other issues that plague my writings. In this manner I realize how lucky I am to have married a teacher who has a reading endorsement. But as much as I lean on all of them to make sure my ideas are communicated properly within the guidelines of the English language, there is so much more that a writer needs to be aware of beside worrying about the difference between affect and effect, and the three different meanings of to, too, and two.
I recently decided to try out for another contest. In it participants must supply their query letter as well as the first two-hundred fifty words. This seems to be coming more common in writing contests – including the first two-hundred fifty words.
It comes out to about three quarters of a standard page in an 11 or 12 point standard font, double spaced. When I decided to enter I knew I needed to revise it if I were to stand any chance. Why? Well, because within these two-hundred fifty words the writer needs to communicate several things to the reader.
As any writer knows, the first line of the story is also known as a ‘hook’. The attention grabber that will make the reader want to continue. It makes sense, you want to make sure the readers are interested right from the start, right?
The following words need to do much more. They need to be interesting as well, of course. And if you were to ask other people what the first page of a book should do you’ll get a list as long as the number of people asked. It should set the scene, set the mood, demonstrate your writing style, create a visual of the main character, endear the character to the reader, establish the personality of the character, determine the motivation of the main character, and you get the idea.
None of the above is unreasonable. It would make sense for the first few opening paragraphs to do any one. In fact, you can do any number of those suggestions in that list. You can set the mood, introduce the main character and demonstrate your style. But many also warn that you should not have any exposition. The action should start right out of the gate. Make sure the reader knows they are in for a ride.
While this is great advice I can’t help but wonder if readers are really that demanding. Would a reader really toss a book away if they didn’t find out the main character’s eye color within the first page? Is it a deal-breaker if we don’t fall in love with the character in the first four paragraphs? Is all hope lost for the book if we don’t know by the middle of the second page that the boss is filing for divorce and the administrative assistance has been harboring a crush for her?
Can’t setting the scene take a few pages? Can’t showing a character living a fairly normal life before all Hell breaks loose be acceptable, even if the disaster doesn’t happen until the fourth chapter?
Some of the books I read years (decades) ago didn’t start off at warp speed (and I’ve read sci-fi, so it literally could have). But I didn’t toss it in the garbage. Have the attention spans of readers nowadays degrade so much that if everything is not available to them right at the start they lose interest?
Has the influence of living in an age of email, drone delivery, ATMs, and immediate gratification spoiled the readers and denied authors the chance to slowly building up tension, plot, and character creation?
In Moby Dick the whale doesn’t even show up until about a third of the way through the book. Gone With The Wind starts off with an exposition about her Scarlett’s physical features and family lineage. Many of the classics and famous stories of even the mid 1900’s would probably never find representation by a modern agent, let alone a publisher. Not because the author was a bad wordsmith, but because they don’t cater to the interests of the modern agent or publisher.
As writers, if we want our stories to be read we must capture the reader’s attention before they lose interest, whether that’s in one sentence or a generous full chapter. Perhaps such high expectations force current writers to dig deeper into themselves in an attempt to bring out the most in their writing. Even if the level of expectation may be unreasonable, it still may impel our creativity to flourish.
This may truly be the best of time and the worst of times, an age of wisdom and foolishness…