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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Literary Idol: The Dos and Don'ts of the First Page (The Muse, Part III)

This post is directly mainly at writers, but readers, please bear with me. I’d love to know if any of this makes sense to you!

The second highly instructive Muse and the Marketplace session I attended was something called Literary Idol. In that session, three literary agents and one editor from a highly regarded literary press acted as the judges. Steve Almond, author, “randomly” selected anonymous first pages of books to read aloud to the audience and judges. Imagining that the samples were part of a query, whenever the judges heard something that would make them stop reading, they raised their hand. If two hands went up, Steve stopped reading. If no hands went up, the sample went into a pool, and the winner among them received a free membership to Grub Street.

You can read about what happened when my first page of Seven Noble Knights got read and what I decided to do afterward at the other blog. In this post, I’ll share what happened to most of the other samples and what we might learn from their voluntary exposure to ridicule.

We’ll start with the worst and move to the best.

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The only page to receive four raised hands was a piece of fiction whose writing the judges described as vague. If the reader can’t picture (and ideally, hear, taste, smell, and feel) what you’re writing about, she’ll get bored more quickly than an agent’s intern gets a paper cut.

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The two pages to get three hands raised, a YA fiction and an NA fantasy, had in common a lack of freshness and a disorienting tendency to change scenes abruptly. If your subject has been done once for your genre, you can bet literary agents consider it overdone by the time they see your manuscript. Freshness needs to translate into the language you use, too — clichés and stale telling instead of showing were the first to be pointed out and reviled. The agents were additionally put off by the NA piece because it over-explained the life-and-death stakes of the story and opened with a graphically violent crime scene, leaving nothing positive about the characters for the reader to “invest in.” The investment referred to here is the reader’s attachment to the story and characters and resulting willingness to keep reading. The first pages must attract reader investment, or all the following ones, no matter how great, are wasted.

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By far, the biggest category included the pages that raised two hands.

An epistolary novel put the judges on high alert from the outset because that genre has a reputation as being hard to pull off. According to the agents, it too frequently results in an artificial, stilted reading experience. Hands were raised because the writing didn’t present a reason to care about the main characters, even though he was dying from an unnamed disease. It’s rough out there, I tell you!

A memoir was described as not different enough from others to be compelling. There was a kitten, which sparked some interest, but otherwise, they’d “heard it all before.” The authorial voice in memoir may be more important than in any other genre. This one seemed bitter, and caused resentment as the judges listened. Not the sympathetic reaction a writer usually goes for.

Both of the samples in the mystery genre tripped up the judges with over-description in the form of lists of objects in the room or types of people passing by. In spite of the necessity of red herrings in mysteries, there is such a thing as too much detail. The writers needed to include only those that were important or would appear to be important in the course of the story. Mystery also seems to be the most likely genre to fall into cliché. Just avoid cliché phrases and cliché situations. They're the hallmarks of stale writing.

A sample of literary fiction didn’t give enough context for the reader to know what was going on. Steve Almond said concisely, “Establish informational equity.” Don’t keep any essential information from the reader. “Disorientation kills the reading experience.” As opposed to this example, the mysteries took the amount of information a little too far. As with every other aspect of writing, it’s all about finding an elusive balance.

Two agents raised their hands upon hearing the title of a fantasy sample. Steve went ahead with the reading anyway, only to bear out that the text was as off-putting as the title. The details were disorienting and too gory to interest the judges. Anachronistic language and repetition added to their confusion.

A YA literary sample started unusually, with a quote from Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately, they weren't the right words. It’s important that all the words you choose be the right words, especially if they’re someone else’s. The rest of the introduction showed quite a bit of interesting pizzazz, but the quote made the page all wrong.

Finally, a sample that might be categorized as lad lit used song lyrics to move the story along. The technique was seen as boring and overdone. Pop culture has to arise organically in the story, they said. The song wasn’t one that would be accessible to a wide range of people, so they felt the story excluded the reader. The idea is definitely to draw the reader in, not keep him out.

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Two samples got one hand each. While a single hand did not cause Steve to stop reading or knock the sample out of the competition for the Grub Street membership, it certainly decreased the odds it would win.

The one agent to raise her hand for a MG fiction claimed a case of TMI (too much information). It was middle grade humor, admittedly. Though the others said it had a good hook with a hidden letter mystery, all agreed the foreshadowing was a real downer. They were talking about a sentence like, “Little did we know, that summer all our lives would change.” No one wants to read a sentence like that anymore.

A memoir from a cancer survivor provoked pleas for the writing — or something, anything — to really stand out. Most said they’d already seen too many cancer memoirs, aware and regretful that they sounded callous. Here we picked up a concept, thanks again to Steve Almond, known as “rate of revelation”: When a reader comes across new and essential information, she’s interested. When the information is not necessary or new, he’s bored. Over-explaining is a case of unnecessary and old information. The example given was that the reader did not need to be told the nurses were wearing scrubs because, what else would nurses be wearing, after all? It could become new or essential information with more details, but just the scrubs were a “duh” moment.

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And finally, the best samples: five pages provoked no hand-raising. I wish I had copies of all these so we could absorb their subtleties.

Two novels lacked a specific moment that caused any one to raise their hand, but they didn’t have a real hook, either. One of them inspired confidence in the writer’s talent, but had several fixable problems: unclear pronouns, wrong words, needed a better beginning. Something that leaves agents so passionless will never get representation. Sorry, but it’s true.

On the other hand, real enthusiasm entered the room with the remaining three pieces. One short story (never mind that I think short stories shouldn’t be competing with book-length pieces) had a “good voice,” that elusive commodity everyone was hoping for. Some revelatory declarations in this piece were good because they didn’t spell out exactly what the story was about, so they maintained a healthy air of mystery. A YA historical fiction had a strong hook, powerful, evocative language, clear stakes, and most unusually of all, variety of syntax. A second short story, about middle school experiences from the perspective of an adult looking back, had a “fabulous voice,” a unique take on the situation, appropriate humor, and good verbs. “Good verbs” make for strong writing. It’s a matter of choosing the most precise and vivid word for idea. In this case, instead of merely handing her friend a prized piece of lingerie, the character “palmed” it to her.

This last sample occurred midway through the session, but I had no doubt that it was going to win. Not only were there no negative comments about it, but it was so memorable, it might even stand out in an agent's slush pile. What did it have that the others lacked?

Writers: on your first page, you must not disorient or confuse the reader; over-explain; foreshadow; have typos or unclear pronouns; use the wrong words; or bore the reader.

Conversely, on your first page, you must have a unique voice and perspective; a strong hook; vivid imagery; powerful, evocative language; clear stakes; freshness in abundance; and if possible, a variety of syntax. All of this is just to draw the reader in and make the reader care what happens next. Not much to ask from about 200 words. (Ha ha.)

Readers: is there anything here you disagree with? How long do you give a book to draw you in? Most of the readers I know will spend fifty pages with a book before abandoning it for unreadable. Are they unusually tenacious?