Sunday, October 14, 2007

Q & A 121

If I were told I would shortly be stranded on a desert island, and I would only be able to take five books along with me, and I didn’t have an end date for the stranding (in other words, there would be none of that bullshit crap-TV-show pretend-stranding going on, where there’s really a swank Third World hotel with hot and running showers on the other side of the island), I already know what my first choice of the five would be. Even after all of the time that has passed since my first reading of it, I know which one I’d choose. [I think I know which book you mean, and I would choose the same book. Nothing quite picks up the spirits like rereading Novel Deviations.]

I mention this because, with all the talk of hooks and hooking we all find ourselves needing to do, [If you've been hooking in hopes of getting published, you've been sadly misguided.] (and how if we don’t hook the hell of our first readers there will be no further reading, and thus, no second readers, and so on), the first line of this book is no blow out. It knocks no socks off. It’s simple, although it does leave a reader wondering a quiet little ‘why’. This is the line: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” [How did that happen? Excuse me while I put my socks back on.] [Told someone named Jem got his arm broken, I wouldn't wonder why; I'd assume it wasn't his idea. I'd further assume it was broken in a fight by a bully who'd been teasing him about having a girl's name.]

I find simple lines that draw the reader on down the page to be the most powerful, rather than the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am stuff. [Translation: My novel has a simple, yet powerful opening that draws the reader on down the page.] But I’m not the one who’ll be making the decision to read on - the decision that counts.

What do you think? Is there still room for a quiet, draw-your-eyes-down-the-page kind of hook, or do so many things clamber for attention now that the small and building beginning could be considered a losing art?

That there has to be an explosion of some sort to garner favorable attention?


You need to hook the agent or editor in your query letter, not your first sentence. I suppose you could unhook me in your first sentence, if it had three misspellings, but if your opening paragraphs have the qualities of good writing--focus, specificity, organization, good word choice, a logical narrative progression--and you've started the story in the right place, the explosion can come on page two.

21 comments:

BuffySquirrel said...

Clamber for attention? That must be why they need the hooks!

merper said...

Do publishers ever do market studies with books, like other media publishers do focus groups for TV shows and movies?

Or are the launch costs low enough that they just run the book and see how it does?

amy said...

Are you close friends with a famous, critically acclaimed, and best-selling writer (say, Truman Capote)? Then your first book can start as quietly as you'd like. Otherwise, you better find a way to hook your reader.

Anonymous said...

Whenever something clambers for my attention, I brush it off and stomp on it.

blogless_troll said...

I've heard many authors complain about the death of the quiet opening, and I just don't get it. You're assuming a handful of publishing blogs make up the entire publishing industry. But if you go to a bookstore and pull books off the shelf at random, you'll find lots of quiet openings. Some published authors write entire novels without including a single explosion. But these authors realize that quiet does not equal boring, and their stories deliver on the promises their quiet openings make.

For example, the first sentence of your question had me completely hooked. I was ready to read on and find out what your top five books were (so I could compare them to my top five and show you where you went wrong). Instead, I got the bait and switch in paragraph two when you started whining about what everyone else was doing. Frankly, the only thing that drew my eyes down the page was the bracketed blue text. And I have no idea what a "losing art" is. If you spend more time on making your story interesting and less time worrying about what everyone else's opinions are, you could probably start with a freakin silent beginning and still get published.

December/Stacia said...

in other words, there would be none of that bullshit crap-TV-show pretend-stranding going on, where there’s really a swank Third World hotel with hot and running showers on the other side of the island

Lol, or like in Stevenson's Kidnapped? Although that wasn't swank.

I agree. I think too much gets made of snappy catchy opening lines. I just want to get a sense from the beginning that the writer has a point, and knows how he's going to get there.

Pete said...

I think complaints about the death about the quiet opening is more a sign of someone not paying proper attention.

Go look at those quiet openings. I mean, go REALLY LOOK at them. They may be quiet, they may have a lot more than a single line to the first paragraph and a lot of information within them...but I guarantee you, they have a hook.

A hook doesn't have to be an explosion-James-Bond-opening-scene which makes your reader go "WOW! I can't wait to see what blows up next!" and I think that's a lousy idea.

It just has to make the reader interested. It has to draw back the tent flap and bid them enter, and then hold their hand as they come into the darkness. That's all.

Rudyard Kipling, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, Jack London, Umberto Eco...read their books and think harder about what a hook and an opening is. They're hooking with the skill of an expert fisherman, where too many books (Hi, Dan Brown) have the grace and subtly of fishing with dynamite.

jjdebenedictis said...

Do publishers ever do market studies with books, like other media publishers do focus groups for TV shows and movies?

Or are the launch costs low enough that they just run the book and see how it does?


No, launch costs for books are not low enough to just run the book. The industry tries to find good, enjoyable books to print, and then desperately hopes a few of them will be hits to pay for all the misses and modest successes.

And it's pretty hard to do market research for books, because what worked last time will not work indefinitely. Readers get bored and want something new (yet well-written.) No one could have predicted that anyone would want to read about Neanderthals before Clan of the Cave Bear. No one could have predicted a memoir about a dog could become a #1 NYT bestseller before Marley & Me.

It's a crapshoot. The common denominator for success is a great book--but the book can be about almost anything.

Anonymous said...

There needs to be a hook. That is all. Loud or soft, the hook you use depends upon the fish you want to catch. Fortunately, not everyone wants to read exactly the same stuff as everyone else. Lots of fish in the sea. It's the craft that counts. It ain't no fish in a barrel shoot.

BuffySquirrel said...

Uh...The Inheritors?

Bernita said...

I'm not sure you're really looking for an answer, or simply affirmation of an opinion.
But if you really are, try checking out the opening paragraphs of published debut novelists in your genre for the last couple of years to see if your hypothesis is vindicated.

Elissa said...

I just finished reading Certain Women by Madeleine L'Engle. The first sentence of the book is: "The Portia, a shabbily comfortable fifty-foot boat, was tied up at the dock of a Haida Indian village a day's sail out of Prince Rupert."

There's nary an explosion in the whole book, either literal or figurative. Descriptions are spare and subtle. The most action we get is a walk across Manhattan.

Yet I found the book and the writing captivating. The kind of book I put down (only reluctantly and preferably only when I've finished it) and say, "I wish I could write like that."

But then, L'Engle's most famous first sentence is "It was a dark and stormy night." She seemed able to buck every trend and get away with it beautifully.

I've lost my train of thought. If you find it, please send it home.

I wish I could write like that...

ME said...

I felt a clamant need to clamber down into the pit at the clambake, but the clamor of the clamjamfry made my hands so clammy that I slipped. Calmly, I climbed back up, into the clamorus crowd of my clan, the Clampetts.

~Nancy said...

An opening sentence has to be interesting; it doesn't have to be something like "Glenlivet took the knife and plunged into John McFart's chest, then ran off laughing."

As long as it draws the reader in, what difference does it make if it's a quiet introduction or a loud one?

As long as it's the right one for your particular story.

~jerseygirl

merper said...

No, launch costs for books are not low enough to just run the book. The industry tries to find good, enjoyable books to print, and then desperately hopes a few of them will be hits to pay for all the misses and modest successes.

Well clearly they don't just take any book. That's why we're here to learn from pros like EE. But it doesn't cost the tens of millions to launch most new authors, like it might for films from new actors or new directors.


And it's pretty hard to do market research for books, because what worked last time will not work indefinitely. Readers get bored and want something new (yet well-written.) No one could have predicted that anyone would want to read about Neanderthals before Clan of the Cave Bear. No one could have predicted a memoir about a dog could become a #1 NYT bestseller before Marley & Me.

And people don't get tired of the same in other forms of media? Some types of books will always sell, other types will shock people when they hit it big. Again, this isn't unique to just novels.

So if they don't do market studies even at the bigger houses, is it just for cost and that by the time the launch costs merit a focus group, the writer will already have a legion of readers?

Phoenix said...

Nathan has had a couple of posts on market research for those interested:

http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2007/05/secret-formula-of-bestsellers.html

http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2007/05/you-tell-me-how-could-publishing.html

As for "clamber" -- oh my, guys. Can we spell t-y-p-o? I was impressed this person knew to use "were" instead of "was" in If I were told at the beginning of the post. And they got the commas and hyphens right, even in wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am stuff. They obviously know their mechanics. Jumping all over a typo is just not nice. (OK, the comments were funny, just not nice.)

Poster: I think Bernita has it right. Check out the openings of novels published in your genre in the last couple of years to see what's de rigeur in today's market. The classics will, of course, always endure. I would have been more surprised if you'd chosen a midlist novel from the 60s as your example. Would you buy that book today? Midlisters have to play to the conventions of the day.

And I'm not sure I've ever seen where anyone says it's mandatory to hook your reader with the first sentence. At the risk of sounding like a fangirl, I shall direct you to Nathan's blog once more. He recently held a "first line" contest. Lines and comments may be informative:

http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2007/09/stupendously-ultimate-first-line.html

Nathan's comment about first lines in his post at:
http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2007/09/and-nominees-are.html

Anonymous said...

I believe clamber for attention was used correctly. A secondary meaning for clamber is scramble.

Google the phrase.

jjdebenedictis said...

So if they don't do market studies even at the bigger houses, is it just for cost and that by the time the launch costs merit a focus group, the writer will already have a legion of readers?

There is no indication that market research could help sell novels. That's why they don't do it. Book publishers do not make enormous profits and they can't waste money on practices that are unhelpful.

Also, they already know what types of books people enjoy; those are called "genres". The trick is finding well-written, enjoyable books.

Market research is very important for non-fiction books, however. My apologies if you're referring to non-fiction.

BuffySquirrel said...

Hmm, well, I suppose it was unkind. To EE, anyway, he's supposed to make the jokes!

But, given the common phrase is "clamour for attention", I'll stick to believing it was a malapropism.

Anonymous said...

I find simple lines that draw the reader on down the page to be the most powerful, rather than the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am stuff.

I agree with you. The problem is...

"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

The above line doesn't do it for me.

Lots of kids break their arms and there isn't anything mysterious about how they do it. I don't need a dead body to make me interested in reading more, but a kid falling off his skateboard is not gripping either. This does not draw my eyes down the page.

BuffySquirrel said...

Yeah, that book'd never be published today :). I don't even know why the supermarkets still carry it.