Thursday, July 17, 2008

The first five sentences

On the Absolute Write forums, a writer suggested that even a questionable or amateur agent might be able to "get a clean query letter in front of an editorial assistant who reads all of the first five sentences of Chapter One before passing judgement".

Much of the resulting discussion focused on possible pitfalls of dealing with such agents, but I wanted to comment further about the first five sentences. It's quite possible that this is all the editorial assistants read - not only because they have stacks of manuscripts, partials or sample pages to get through, but because one bite is usually enough to tell whether you're eating an apple pie or a mud pie. As an example of first paragraphs that are a turnoff, check out this collection from POD-dy Mouth. My favorite is, "They called her Labia."

I've seen similar opening sentences in a lot more books and in manuscripts presented for critiques, so a good way to both stand out from the crowd and hold the editorial assistant's attention is to hone the start. Begin with a character in trouble, an unusual setting, a vivid image, a hint of danger.

The moss-ball bounced across the floor of the cavern towards Fernfeather. He lunged forward to sweep it aside, but stumbled at the crucial moment. It seemed to mock him as it rolled slowly past his outstretched leg and into the goal.
Roger Eldridge, The Shadow of the Gloom-World

Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place.
Dan Simmons, Song of Kali

It's easier to work a gripping hook into the first five sentences (maybe even the first sentence) than to deal with an inexperienced agent.


True said...

I don't know how hard it is to deal with an inexperienced agent, or any agent for that matter.

IMO, writing a gripping hook is not that easy, though. Putting tension or conflict at the beginning of a story isn't enough. I see that when I see these hook contests in the blogosphere, and you get a real taste of what going through a slushpile means.

Marian said...

Putting tension or conflict at the beginning of a story isn't enough.

I think tension and conflict would still distinguish the start of that particular story from the 60 to 75% of submissions in the slushpile which don't seem to do so (figure derived from Slushkiller).

And there's more which could go into the first five sentences - the examples I quoted have an unusual location (a cavern and Calcutta) as well to distinguish them.

It's not easy to write a gripping hook, that's true. But I think it would be easier than working with an inexperienced agent, because with the hook, you have control over the process. If your start isn't working, you can refine it or try another hook. Once the work is in an agent's hands, though, it's out of your grasp and all you can do from then on is trust the agent. And if you've made the wrong choice in agents... that's more difficult to correct than having made the wrong choice in hooks.

How Publishing Really Works said...

Marian, I love your blog, I really do: but all I can think of now is,

"They called her WHAT?"

I'm off to have a stiff drink and know I'll regret it if I click on that link--but I know I will.


Jordan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marian said...

"They called her WHAT?"

Oh, no worries, Jane. That sentence was all POD-dy Mouth read and quoted of the book, so we shall never know why they called her Labia... for which I'm kind of grateful.

Thanks for reading and commenting! :)