Friday, April 24, 2009

Start Off Strong

Have you ever been looking for something to eat and get your choices narrowed down to one, only to take the first bite and be disappointed? It’s okay, but sort of bland. You can take it or leave it. Have you had the opposite experience? Your first bite is delicious. You want more. You keep eating. Smiling while you chew. Eating until it’s all gone. Disappointed when you’re done. Thinking maybe you’ll get some more of that. Mmm.

I’m not talking about dark chocolate covered pomegranates. I’m talking books.

That first bite a reader takes of your book can decide whether they keep reading or set it down and look for something more enticing. It can decide whether they look for another book by you or go on to their next author on their to-be-read list.

Most of us have short attention spans, also called very busy lives. We have to be pulled in by the first words in a book, or by the end of the first chapter at the latest. Hook ‘em or lose ‘em. That doesn’t have to mean a death or tossing us into the middle of a firefight or a sex scene. It means whetting our appetites, showing us this will be an interesting book or an amazing character or a fabulous locale.

Books do not start off as slowly as they used to. Readers have too many choices, too little time, and too many distractions.

Think about your beginnings. Work on them. Do you want to serve your readers bland white bread or dark chocolate covered pomegranate bites?

Man, I knew I should not have gotten out that bag to see how to spell “pomegranate.” Curses on those delicious little brown devils!
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  1. I do agree with you here! I find I can do the hook really well in short stories--finding it more difficult to do for a whole chapter in a book.

  2. Yes the first bite must be delicious. And the second and third, especially in this fast-paced day and age of multi-tasking and so much to do. I agree. Some of the greatest classics featured the slow build loooooong time coming to the real meat of the plot. But that's hard to pull off anymore. The last great book I read that held my attention for several chapters before it got into the nitty gritty was Shogun by James Clavell. And I read that like 25 years ago.

  3. I used to give books more of a chance to get me interested. For some reason once I started them, I felt loyal and obligated to finish them. Not any more. I have no trouble putting down a book that turns dull. Also, if a book doesn't grab me right away, I won't read it.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. Good point. And I loved the analogy - between bland white bread and dark chocolate covered pomegrante bites.

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  5. I've gotten better at putting down a book that doesn't "catch" me. I was like you, Morgan. Once I started it, I plowed through. Now, I move on.

  6. We do have such short attention spans now! Marvin's right - it's gotta grab all the way through.

    L. Diane Wolfe

  7. When I'm browsing the bookstore, I will often pick up a book if the title catches me, then I check the cover, then read the back cover blurb, then the first page. If the first page doesn't catch me, the book goes back on the shelf.

  8. Like Morgan, I used to feel obligated to finish what I started. I blame it on the "clean your plate" dictates I was brought up on, which of course applied to anything, not just food.

    Now I quit reading if I get bored. I don't need an action adventure, but I do need engaging writing. Strong plot, interesting characters, beautiful writing or any combination of the three will generally keep me going. But I'm a slow reader, so I can't afford the time it takes to plow through a boring book.

  9. So true, Helen. And starting off with a killer first page certainly challenges the writer to pick up the pace and write even more attention-grabbing prose.

  10. That's true. Whether you hook the reader with suspense, humor, characters, whatever, you then have to keep them hooked and reading.

  11. Yes! I tend to cringe when I receive manuscripts that start off with a rote description of the character, job, the room they are in, etc. I'm also no fan of prologues, which often serve as a boring info dump of back story.

    I'm also surprised at how many variations of "It was a dark and stormy night" I see for opening lines.


  12. I forget which agent at a Murder in the Grove contest who said "Used to be, a novel writer had the first 10-20 pages to interest an agent or publisher. Then it got down to first 10 pages, then five, then one page and now, you've got the first paragraph IF the first line is fabulous!"

    Talk about pressure--but the publishing world is only doing what readers do now.

  13. That is scary, Conda, but true. Shoot, some agents may not even give you past the first line of your query!

  14. It's scary as an author thinking about this but as a reader it is exactly what I do. I only go to the bookstore when I have time to browse. When I'm looking for a new author to read, I gather up two or three books and take them to the cafe. I order a drink and read the first few pages in all of them. Sometimes I buy one and sometimes I put them all back. I try to note what works for the ones I buy. How do they grab and hold my attention? I have been tricked though and bought a book because of a great opening and then put it down later when the pace or plotting bogs down in the muddle in the middle.

  15. mmm, sounds good, I want one.

    You're so right though, books don't start out as slow as they used to, which is a shame sometimes. I miss some of those.

    Today, an author really has to give thought to that first chapter, even the first few paragraphs. Hook em and draw them in and don't let go.

    Enjoyed the post, Helen.

  16. That's a good idea, Susan -- noting what grabbed your attention. I'm going to start a file for that.

    Sia, I wonder if our attention spans got shorter or if we got to be too busy or we got used to hooks early in the book or what.


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