Monday, February 18, 2008

Search Lights

Near the Lighthouse, Atlantic City, New Jersey,
William Trost Richards,
watercolor with touches of Chinese white, 1873.

Another perennial controversy erupted after Nathan Bransford's First Page Challenge between those who write what is described sometimes as a "slow" beginning vs. those who begin with a bang.

Bang being taken, of course, in all it's idiomatic aspects.

As usual in these simplifications, the lines often quickly divide between those who fear dismissal if their story does not begin with a body (separated into its component parts or not) and those who resent having their bang-up beginning categorized as a parlour trick/gimmick by the more literary crowd.

The more vociferous of both camps appear to forget that the purpose of the beginning is to engage the reader. To interest the reader in what comes next.

It's the writer's prose/perceptions -- not always the particular incident -- which creates that interest.

And there is more than one way accomplish that end.

A body in a belfry is not particularly useful if the reader is immediately presented with a meandering dissertation about the architectural style and history of the belfry's construction and the order of service that particular day. Shock 'n awe may evaporate into boredom by three sentences.

Neither is the reader necessarily engaged by an esoteric description of the belfry's archetectural style, the color of the light reflecting off it, and a history of its construction before we get to the minor detail of the body hanging therefrom. Boredom may have set in at the beginning.

Either or neither, the slow build up or the in medias res beginning may engage the reader -- bearing in mind that certain genres promote reader expectation towards one method or another.

Nevertheless, an interesting first page is vital to a WIP.

Evil Editor frequently critiques first pages in his New Beginnings.

Ray Rhamey of Flogging the Quill does it three times a week for the moment.

And BookEnds is hosting a first 100 words contest conveniently broken down into different categories, so comparisons are more acute.


ChristineEldin said...

--Wow--Last time RR was doing this only on Fridays, if I remember correctly. Thanks for the reminder, I need to go check out his site from time to time.

My seven year old's writing advice is: "jump into the action and twist your words" 'twist your words' meaning that literary flair.


p.s. your animal avatar...hmmm...I see you as a meerkat.

Bernita said...

Chris, not being familiar with meerkats, I had to look them up.
I rather like that.

Sid Leavitt said...

I'm not familiar with Evil Editor and BookEnds (although I have just visited their sites after you mentioned them), but Ray Rhamey has been on our blogroll for quite a while now and has become an old friend.

As a fellow writer, may I say how much I respect and admire what he does. He's an excellent editor, and he shares his considerable skills freely.

As do you, for which I thank you as well.

StarvingWriteNow said...

A body in the belfry... I had this sudden image of a corpse, bats fluttering around it like worried little nursemaids.

Robyn said...

Again, it's all in the execution. I read a lot of suspense and mysteries, and I don't like tripping over a body in the first sentence. Many times it seems like an obligatory gimmick. But if feels like a natural part of the author's style and story, I'll buy into it.

BernardL said...

Writers no longer write openings for the reader as you point out. They write openings to get past the slush pile. It's a vicious circle.

December/Stacia said...

I do hate writing openings and first pages. I panic every time.

SzélsőFa said...

I've visited the third link to find many many really great entries for the first 100 words in mistery genre.

What I don't see though is that why should a writer stick to one particular genre?
If you have time Bernita, I'd like to hear your thoughts about that in a post.
Why not just write?
Why write 'mystery' or 'young adult mystery vampire romance' or things like that?
Why not 'just' write and let fans of labelling have their way?

Bernita said...

Thank you, Sid.
Indeed, Ray's comments are usually dead on.He always gives the reason/logic behind his comments. And still further, he's available all the time and is not an every few months, once a year wonder.

WriteNow, what a great image!Practically a plot bunny!

Robyn, I think it shows when the smash 'n crash is inserted just as a gimmick.

It has a certain benefit, Bernard, if the claims that readers often scan the first page and put it back on the shelf if the first page doesn't engage them are true.

Perhaps the best way to figure out the true opening, December is to wait until the story's more or less done.

Of course one should write the story first, Szelsofa.
But remember that agents like to know the general type so they can pitch the story effectively to an editor, and an editor/publisher likes to know the type so they can market effectively, and bookstores like to know so they can shelve the book in the appropriate section - because readers often have category/genre tastes.

writtenwyrdd said...

Once again, people go for dogma without understanding. A perpetual human tendency, I fear. Engaging the reader IS all, as you say Bernita.

SzélsőFa said...

So an author-to-be just claims that his/her work is Genre X, and keeps writing?
If it does not fit, s/he lets the editors do the re-labelling.
Is it how it goes?

Anonymous said...

Controversies over a single page seem like a tempest in a thimble, much less a teapot.

I'm glad I didn't dive into that contest. Too draining.

It seems to me that the greatest accomplishment is to have a voice, a recognizable vibe as an artist. I was watching a clip from 2001 A Space Odyssey the other day, and I realized I want to be like Kubrick. When you see his work, you just know it's him.

That kind of effect goes way beyond 1 page.

Josephine Damian said...

Bernita, it's taken me years to develop the confidence as a writer NOT to open with a bang or a body on the floor - especially since I write crime fiction.

Seems the goal is to get the reader emotionally involved with, and intrigued by the main character in the opener.... guess I have to wait and see what Jessica Faust thinks about my opener when the thriller contest rolls around.

Billy said...

The "100 word" contest sounds like a great idea, with narrower parameters. Might be more fun and/or informative. Thanks for the link, Bernita.

Bernita said...

Right, Written, and there's more than one way to do that.

Szelsofa, some agents claim that a writer should know the genre s/he's writing in and that it implies lack of professional attention if they do not.
Many novels contain elements of more than one genre. A writer may choose one over the other when presenting the novel for consideration.
However, it's not unknown for a publishing house to promote a novel as belonging to a genre entirely different from the one it actually is.

Jason, a great voice is not much help without a story to go with it.

Now, Josephine. Ms. Faust is only one agent - and she'd be the first to say that.
But you're right, body or no body.

Bernita said...

And much less unwieldly,Billy.
I always learn a lot just by reading the entries.

Rick said...

Once Upon a Time ...

It was easier - invoke the Muse, and you were off. No one knows how to begin stories, hence the common advice, probably better than much, that your beginning will probably turn out to be several pages or even a couple of chapters in.

And of course in fantasy there is a whole controversy about prologues.

Also (yes, I'm rambling), aren't we influenced by movies, and and our concept of beginnings shaped in part by opening sequences? But that is just part of a bigger question I don't see often discussed - how many of us are in effect writing the novelization of a movie we see in our heads? How does that effect our writing?

Bernita said...

Rick, I've seen it blamed for everything from distance/detachment in style to head-hopping.

SzélsőFa said...

I see the reasoning and I don't question the validity behind the points. Thank you for making it clear to me.

(But, well, I don't really agree with the concept.)

Anonymous said...

A great voice is not much help without a story to go with it.

True, but my point is that a story can't be captured on one page. Voice can be established a little more, perhaps, but in either case, I see the first page as more of a firm pull by the hand, not a Judo throw to the mat.

In retrospect, pulling together 600+ first pages in isolation may have nudged the focus in the wrong direction. I think Nathan himself has warned folks not to go for the shock factor. But that approach was understandable when one page is all the writers had to grab attention. Probably the truth is that you can lose an agent on the first page, but not win one.

I agree with Writtenwyrdd. I suppose I'm calling individualism, rather than dogma, "voice."

Travis Erwin said...

I'm wondering if all this first line, first paragraph, first page importance is jsut another sign of our declining attention spans.

raine said...

I think in writing, as in life, there is a balance to be found somewhere between the two extremes. So yes, the story's beginning should have a hook of some kind, but it doesn't necessarily have to go overboard.
As you said--it needs to be "interesting" enough to prompt the reader to want more.
I've entered one or two of these contests and done okay with them without blood, gore, the body in the belfry, etc.
What I find as a READER is that, if your story begins with a decapitation, or someone finding a town full of dead bodies, or an erotic heroine in ecstasy because she's having the greatest sex of her life with twelve guys she met at the library--anything afterward would seem almost anti-climactic (IMHO). What else could you have to offer that wouldn't be redundant?
Give me enough hook to reel me in, but it's not necessary to blow me immediately out of the water.

Bernita said...

It's natural for people to categorize, Szelsofa.

"I see the first page as more of a firm pull by the hand, not a Judo throw to the mat."
I like that description very much, Jason.
As far as "shock factor" goes, I don't like to see my zombie demeaned, but I do agree the cumulative effect of 600 pages could well give one a distate for it.

Travis, I think it's a sign of overworked agents in a highly competitive business, to whom queries are not a priority.

"-anything afterward would seem almost anti-climactic" - and that, Raine, is an excellent point that writer's do well to keep in mind.

Charles Gramlich said...

Given the degree of whining that occurs, I'm not sure why Nathan continues to run his contests.

Jaye Wells said...

A first page is like an invitation to a party. Make sure the invitation is appropriate to the type of party you're throwing. Don't engrave an invitation to a keg party.

Scott from Oregon said...

Double drats! There is no genre category for me on that contest...

I feel so genre-less!

Gabriele C. said...

Sure, the body should present some questions, and not give a reason to describe the belfry. But I admit that the winners left me cold. Sure, it's partly a question of genre, I don't read Women's Fiction and History that's so recent it has Coke, but I think there was more to it. Lovely writing alone doesn't hook me, what I missed were questions and a promise of interesting things to come. The only one that offered some of it was the trailer trash in space book - I might have given it a few more paragraphs to see if there was a strong element of either humour or really cool space stuff to come.

Looks like I'm more ob a Bang girl. :)

Bernita said...

If the whining bothers Nathan after the high number of entries, Charles, then I'd suggest that thick skin isn't just for writers.

I'm sure that bothers you, Scott.Terribly.
However EE takes on anyone.

"Don't engrave an invitation to a keg party."
Hilarity would ensue, Jaye.

I'm usually a Bang Girl too, Gabriele.

Suzanne Perazzini said...

I read a lot of the Bookends LLC 100 words entries and nearly all were competent IMHO but I did start to get quite bored with the dead body discovery right up front. If I were an agent, I think I would be looking for a beginning that captured me in a different way. There can be many subtle ways of capturing attention with unanswered questions without the all out, full on beginning. It will be interesting to see who wins - a dead body or not?

Bernita said...

Suzanne, Pro writer Mark Terry won, with the promise of a body, I believe.

Sam said...

So many writers seem to forget that all readers are not created equally. Nor are all agents the same. One person's poison is another's nectar (or something soppy like that)
I love both 'grabby' hooks and slow, thoughtful introductions. Good writing can usually carry off both effectively. I don't think there is much to argue about except I suspect some people justr love to argue.

Bernita said...

Sam, we often see a search for one-size-fits-all answers, the one True Grail.

Demon Hunter said...

Thanks for sharing this. Good post! It is all about engaging the reader. :*)

moonrat said...

thanks, bernita.

i'm going to post my two cents on this.

Bernita said...

Thank you, my Demon.

Moon Dear, your "two cents" are made of gold.

bookfraud said...

"you gotta grab the reader" -- it's blasted into every creative writing student from their first lesson, whether it's a short story or a novel. you can do it with plot (see "the mayor of casterbridge") language (see "lolita," "anna karenina"), or characterization (just about everything dickens ever wrote). i don't think it's a matter of "slow" vs. "fast," but the writer has to engage the reader from the first words, or else.

LadyBronco said...

It's all about presentation, don't you think?

I may not favor literary fiction, but if the words on that first page grab me, regardless of what is/is not happening, I will more than likely read the whole book.

Stephen King does that for me big time, every time.

Bernita said...

Quite, Book and Lady B.

One thing I don't get is why some readers fear they are "tricked' by something shiny on the first page.
If the writer follows up their body parts with good stuff, there should be no problem.
Some criticism sounds like an echo of "I don't know what all the men see in her."

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