I know we were discussing the etiquette of rewrite requests, but something came up just now, and it needs timely addressing.
Former literary agent Nathan Bransford keeps up a blog about writing, and every so often he runs contests. The most recent? Post the first paragraph of your work in progress. The writer of best one, as selected by a combination of his judgment and popular vote, wins the chance to get part of the manuscript examined by an agent friend of Nathan’s.
The contest has been closed and as of this writing, Nathan is mulling over the winner, but the 1,000-odd entries are posted here. Go take a look and pop back here when you’re done.
I’m not going to point out specific entries and drag them through the mud. That would be mean-spirited. However, I noticed some mistakes that showed up again and again. Maybe you did, too. In the interest of education, let’s go over some problems to avoid:
–Confusion. You do want to intrigue the reader with your opening paragraph. A strange setting, an odd event, or bizarre exchange of dialogue can all be effective hooks. However, you don’t want to confuse anyone. Your reader will give you one sentence, maybe two, of befuddlement. After that, you better make it clear exactly what’s going on, or your book will go into the reject pile.
–Distance. The current vogue in fiction calls for a strong or unique or cool or off-beat or otherwise memorable narrator voice, and readers want to be inside a character’s head right away. You need to let us know who is telling this story or whose point of view the story is told from, and quick. This includes giving us the main character’s name or being clear that it’s a first-person book. Starting off with something like “An old woman approaches her door. A key goes into the lock, the door creaks open, the shopping bags drop to the floor. A set of gnarled hands run through gray hair” feels distant because we don’t know if the old woman is the viewpoint character or if someone is watching her. Who should we identify with? Reject.
–Philosophy. Readers want dialogue first, action second, and description or narration third. Philosophy is a form of narration, and the only way to start successfully with it is to be brilliant or hilarious. If you’re neither, start with something else.
–Unclear Point of View. This is related to Distance, above. If you start with two people having a conversation, be sure we know 1) who is speaking, and 2) whose point of view it is. Otherwise we readers flail and flounder, trying to figure out whose head we’re in.
–Flashback. Never, ever insert a flashback into your opening paragraph. Example: “Jason pounded down the street as a pair of bullets zipped past his ear. He couldn’t understand why this was happening. Five minutes ago, he had been walking home from work, talking to Melissa on his cell phone. They had been gently arguing about whether to go to the beach this weekend or hit some clubs. Then those guys with guns had jumped out of a van.” A decent action-oriented opener, ruined by a flashback in the second sentence. If you feel the need for a flashback in your opening paragraph (or even on your first page), it probably means you started your story too late, and you need to back up a little.
What did you think?
–Steven Harper Piziks
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