Monday, 5 November 2012

First blood

Is it just me? Is this First Paragraph thing getting slightly out of hand? Or am I just refusing to look reality in the face (Admittedly it would not be the first time, but life can be much better that way...)

I am a fan of Miss Snark’s First Victim, and she bases many of her writing competitions on openings.  Fair enough. These are what you submit to an agent or publisher, and they need to be good. In the past there have been competitions based on the first paragraph and even the first lines, which offer invaluable feedback for writers.  Correctly, the feedback mainly focuses on whether the paragraph grabs the attention of the reader, and whether there is a clear sense of voice.

However, there are times where, based on just one paragraph or line, the feedback can be comments like "No, sorry. I don't get a sense of the protagonist’s beliefs, hopes, dreams, past, future, age, appearance, needs or desires. I wouldn't read on..."  (Perhaps I exaggerate a little.) When I read these, I want to shout "Whoa there. Too much pressure! One paragraph/line can only do so much." Is that just me? Is it just me that apparently cannot write a line that in its singular state is beautiful and deep and dynamic and insightful, lyrical yet punchy, leaves sixteen clues that will make you shout “Of course!” 280 pages down the line AND grabs you by the throat? In one line? You can do that? Ok, just me then. Must try harder...

 And then I read this link here, where a panel of agents listened to a set of first 250 words and indicated at which point they would stop reading. They didn’t have buzzers but it still sounds cut-throat. I guess agents see a million submissions a week, and so they are particularly honed to this, but surely they could give it a chapter, assuming that the writer is able to string a sentence together? What chance does the slow burn novel have? As a reader, I pick a book up based on a good blurb and I'll give it at least three chapters before I  think about ditching it. The first paragraph doesn't feature in that mix.

The panel also gave indications as to what put them off; i.e. generic beginnings with weather and dates. On this basis, Tess of the d'Urbervilles would never have got published. So perhaps they are onto something after all...


  1. You are more generous than I am. I give a novel a chapter at best; more often, I know after a page if it's working for me.

    That said, I tend to agree with you regarding first lines. That's nuts! The first line of my manuscript presently out on submission consists of a single word!

    250 words is less than a page - I can almost buy that in terms of writing style. A good writing style will be obvious on the first page. Conveying "protagonist’s beliefs, hopes, dreams, past, future, age, appearance, needs or desires?" Hardly.

    1. I do like a single word first line! I think short is punchy. And I think that is my point really, that the first line/para must have something, but cannot do everything.

      Can I ask what the word is? Am intrigued.
      My current MS out on sub starts with "Oi knobhead!". (It's YA Contemporary. "Oi knobhead!" possibly wouldn't sit so well in various other genres...)

  2. *Can I ask what the word is?*

    You can ask - I shan't tell. ;) Not at this stage.

    It was one of those 'oh yes' moments. I was thinking about what I was trying to say & all at once the word was there.

    'Oi knobhead!' made me laugh out loud!