Tuesday, December 9, 2008

First paragraph

Nathan Bransford is currently holding his second "first paragraph" contest (see link for details).

I was just thinking, how important it is to have a stellar first paragraph?  Ideally, an agent should read the entire first chapter (or sample chapters) before deciding on whether to ask for more or reject you. Realistically, I've read that an agent may not even get past the first paragraph.

So I went to Nathan's blog and checked out some of the entries. What I discovered was interesting. For a moment, I completely understood what an agent may go through day in and day out with hundreds, if not thousands of submissions a week. Reading through the contest entries, I started to skimp. I'd speed-read, and if the first few sentences (sometimes, even the FIRST sentence) did not grab me, or if the writing was not up to par, I would skip and go immediately to the next entry.

No, it's not fair. And you may think a professional agent should have more patience than that -- after all, you really can't judge a book by its first paragraph, right? Or should you? Are we encouraging short attention spans by putting everything into the first paragraph?  And what works? What doesn't?

I'm not an agent, but I'm a writer and reader, and I've read a lot. The thing I found out while reading the contest entries was that instinctively, I looked for something specific because I simply did not have the time to read every entry from the first word to last. I could see, often, within the first two sentences that the writer either a) did not have the writing chops, or b) did not understand effective storytelling, or c) tried too hard to impress. Many entries started with a body, or bloodshed, or murder, or some calamity. Some started with an outlandish "what if" scenario. Some started with a mundane description of the location or character and, by the end of the first paragraph, failed to advance the plot and tell me why I should read on. Some were littered with grammatical errors or overuse of conventions such as dangling participles, adverbs, vague adjectives, etc.

I also realized that the "voice" was very important, and I could sometimes overlook the lack of plot or conflict because the voice was intriguing enough. Also, if the writing was good (voice, style, tone, word choices, etc.), I'd be eager to read on even if the story was not something I'd read usually.

Simply reading through about 100 or so of the entries has taught me a few things, as I temporarily put myself in the shoes of an agent:

- We're vying for an agent's attention, competing with hundreds, if not thousands of other writers
- An agent only has so much time to decide if a manuscript is worth pursuing
- A good, well-read agent will likely to know the quality of the writing by the first paragraph, or sometimes the first sentence
- The first paragraph should excite, enthrall, and make the readers ask pertinent questions, so they'll be more likely to read on and find out what happens next
- The voice/style of the writing is just as important, if not more, than the actual plot movement
- Cliches that are taken straight out of a rule book is not particularly enticing:  a body or murder or explosion in the very first paragraph; descriptions of character or setting; some kind of internal angst before we even know the character; outlandish "what if" scenario right off the bat

The fact is, agents are human, and they only have so much time in a day and they want to maximize their effort while still find that gem in the huge piles of material. So, yes, they will skimp.

I did.


Nancy H said...

"The first paragraph should excite, enthrall, and make the readers ask pertinent questions, so they'll be more likely to read on and find out what happens next."

Hear hear! This goes not only for novels, but for ANY writing! I'm always trying to get students to think about a hook to draw the reader in. They think academic writing doesn't have to be interesting---that I as a teacher am automatically interested in whatever they have to say.


The world just doesn't work that way. In an age of information overload, the writer must compete against against every other text out there vying for the reader's attention.

Joe Iriarte said...

I didn't participate in the contest because I figured that there would be so much competition that an opening paragraph would have to be not merely effective, but gimmicky in some way to stand out.

Also because when I post there and subscribe to follow-up comments I get inundated with e-mail. ;)

Ray Wong said...

I think hook is good, but "gimmick" is not. Like I said, I've seen too many bloody bodies, flying bombs, and vampires and zombies or "end of days" -- they become parodies in themselves.

A good, solid beginning should make me want to read more, regardless if there are zombies or dead bodies.