"You only get one chance to make a first impression—and that one chance with a reader lasts only minutes. It's no longer acceptable for a book to "get good on page 40." From your first sentence to the first pages of your novel, it's critical to hook readers immediately—whether that reader is an agent, editor, or patron in a bookstore. Not only do you want to quickly pull readers in with your story, you also need to establish your narrative voice as reliable, believable, talented, and authoritative. So how do you best accomplish this? In this brand new webinar, instructor and literary agent Kate McKean will show you how to catch a reader's eye with your first sentences and pages."As an old advertisement's headline ran: "Quick -- who has the razor?" The illustration below the headline showed commuters on a railcar, one of whom was black. The African-American wasn't the one holding the razor but your eye was drawn to him first, which was the advertisement's message: first impressions are unreliable.
Kate McKean's pitch looks good, but see if you can spot the razor. It's at the start. Of course there is only one chance to make a first impression: if you had a second chance, the impression would be the second, or later impression. The opening phrase is a truism: the premise is not logical. Pick at things after that and they begin to unravel.
It's no longer acceptable for a book to "get good on page 40."Kids these days. But when was it ever acceptable for 'a book to "get good on page 40?"' The Bible gets cracking pretty quick. As does Dickens. So do the pulps, so did Mills and Boon. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. If you think about it -- if you allow your mind to wander -- you will realise it's difficult to locate a period when it was ever 'acceptable for a book to "get good on page 40."'
But going with Kate: acceptable to whom?
whether that reader is an agent, editor, or patron in a bookstoreNub ahoy. And note the order: this is not about you. This is about a busy agent looking for product. In Kate's case, "contemporary women's fiction, middle grade and young adult fiction of all stripes, craft, sports, and pop culture." This is not reading; it's shopping.
In my experience the editor reads with a more general view, i.e. how does this fit my list. Sure, they want the book to start well, but they're hardly panicky OMG types. Who knows what they're looking for? Pray you find one who likes your voice. (The other kind of editor -- the sub or copy editor -- is being paid to stay awake.)
As for the patron in a bookstore, their hansom cab waiting on the pavement outside... Really? A lot of people won't pick up a book if they don't like the cover. Many read the first page: just as many flick through. My father's mother would turn immediately to the last chapter, but she was a woman who could take the fun out of anything.
But I digress. Quick, who has the razor?
Writing has to work and it has to last. It drives me insane when people cook up moden lite recipes for the act of writing as if creativity is a commodity to be farmed and groomed and sold in bulk. The movie industry has been starving itself on fad diets like this for decades -- Robert McKee's Story, Syd Field -- and now the same crazes are threatening prose writers, boxing them into the same narrow stalls. Look at the wretched state of the movie business. Is that what you really want your work to be like -- concocted in a blitzkrieg of panic about whether or not it will be instantly liked?
If it is, here is Kate McKean's webinar Awesome First Pages: How to Start Your Story Right.
A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it. A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes.
-- Aristotle, Poetics