Sunday, March 16, 2014

The First Ten Pages

Mickey Spillane (an under-rated writer) once said that the first chapter of a book sells it and the last chapter sells the next book. There's a recognition in that as to how important the opening of a book manuscript is. It's not a secret. People have been talking about this through much of the twentieth century, with increasing urgency toward the end. Given the rapidly escalating volume of material turned out by aspiring authors, and the tightening of standards by publishers, getting through the agent and editor gatekeepers became an area of special knowledge all its own.

This has come to mind as I'm preparing (well in advance) to teach an introductory course on writing the novel later this year. This notion of the importance of beginnings may be the single most critical idea to communicate to aspiring authors, and I've been thinking a lot about how to go about it.

One of the books produced over a dozen years ago in response to the narrowing of opportunities for writers trying to break in was The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (2000, Simon & Schuster), a treasure-trove of useful no-nonsense advise to any fiction author, written from the perspective of what editors and agents look for as a key to rejecting, rather than accepting manuscripts. His point is simple and clear: most submissions are rejected for specific reasons which are found in the first five pages of the manuscript. Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel (2001, Writer's Digest Books) makes a similar point, although he is prescriptive rather than proscriptive. He emphasizes what has to be established in those critical five pages rather than what has to be avoided.

So when I give craft talks at writers' groups, or sometimes when I critique a manuscript for someone, I'll frequently come back to the importance of a strong opening. Sometimes I get nods, but I can tell the person I'm talking to isn't completely sold. Readers need all this background information (they say, perhaps only to themselves) in order to understand the real story when it comes later. Besides (they say), many best-selling authors take their time getting started. Sure (I tell them) and when you're a best-selling author with a giant fan base, you can too. Until then, this is important.

But how important? Well, I think I finally know how to convince them. I was talking to another author in one of my writers' groups and his agent was telling him of an interesting development in publishing. Now that Barnes & Noble is effectively the only nationwide book chain, large publishers have a hard time making money from a traditionally-produced paper book unless B&N picks it up for their chain. A publisher needs that first big shot to justify the up-front investment in a print run. So at least one major publisher now has office space set aside for readers from B&N who vet manuscripts and give a thumbs-up or -down.

Now here's the really interesting part: they only read the first ten pages.

Before you go crazy with how unfair or unreasonable that sounds, remember that B&N knows how their customers shop. Customers come in to browse, they pick up a book, they read a few pages, and if it doesn't grab them, they return it to the shelf and move on.

I don't think they're crazy to think that. I've done exactly that many, many times. I remember picking up Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007, Harper Collins), reading the first two pages, and immediately going to the checkout lane and buying it.

If anything, by giving authors ten pages instead of five, they are being generous.

2 comments:

  1. I hear what you say. The publishing industry has changed so much since I was first published ten years ago, yet in many ways it stays the same. Getting and setting the 'hook' for a story is crucial.

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    1. The really heartening thing about publishing is that, as much as the technology and the business landscape has changed, at its heart it is still about good writing.

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