Alphabet Blogging Challenge Day 15

It’s day 15 of my September blogging challenge

The letter is O

and the subject is OPENINGS

I was worried that might seem a bit obvious, but I did have one lovely person who regularly reads my posts who thought the subject might be Ovaltine! No, I don’t understand the thinking either, but the off-the-wallness of it is brilliant. It almost made me want to write about Ovaltine, but as the sum total of my knowledge is the first line of the Ovaltiney’s song, I’d better give that a miss!

I’ve touched on the subject of openings before. During the alphabet challenge, the topic was linked to hooks and opening sentence.  But it’s such an important subject for both writers and readers that I thought it deserved a bigger role onstage.

Apparently a novel – if it’s not by an author the reader already knows, or a classic which some readers will persist with even if they’re not enjoying it – has four minutes to make its mark on the reader. 99% of readers will certainly have made up their mind by page 5 and they’re not going to change it. And this applies if it’s a purchase from a shop (not sure about internet)  or a borrow from the library. The front cover must attract; the title must intrigue; the blurb must excite, and the first paragraph must sell it.

Wow! For a writer, that’s scary. If I don’t manage to entice the reader with the cover, blurb and first paragraph/page, then my book stays on the shelf. However, I recognise that for me, as a reader, the four-minute rule largely holds true.

So, how am I going to do it? Make my reader pick up, sample, and then enter into a reader/writer contract with me? They will buy/borrow my book/they can trust me to deliver the goods – that is give them a book they’ll enjoy.

Sadly, there are no guarantees to this. Writing is obviously creative, and like all creative arts, it doesn’t always work, or the person who liked your work before doesn’t now. You’ve only got to think about going to a hairdresser who made your hair look a million dollars, so you go back and they fail to work their magic second time round. (Apologies – that’s probably a female-based comment, but I’m sure men have also experienced good/bad haircuts from the same person.)

But there are some key elements that all writers must consider – although they don’t all necessarily need to be there in the opening. These are:

  • character – readers need a character they can relate to straight away
  • hook – can be a question; something intriguing or ‘unusual’ in some way; interesting setting; writing that interests; or … ?
  • setting – can the reader find a place – physically, geographically, historically, emotionally, psychologically – that fixes the setting for thecharacter/action?
  • some sort of question. Is the book going to raise – and provide a perspective – on human experience?

So, let’s imagine that you the writer, with your reader’s hat on, having made sure that all those things are in place, send your manuscript off to an agent/publisher. What can you expect?

Presuming you’ve done your homework, and you’re only sending to someone who might at the very least have a passing interest in the sort of stuff you write, and you’ve made your manuscript as free from errors as you possibly can. – but they still say no. Presuming you’re not someone who has sent a children’s novel to an agent that deals with science fiction/fantasy; or you haven’t used some weird font in 10-point; or sent a covering letter in green ink saying how much your auntie and friends loved it. So, you’re as normal as any writer can be, but the agent still says ‘no’ and you wonder if they’ve even read the pages you printed so carefully, posted so carefully, waited for months their reaction so carefully.

Why, don’t they want it – even when they say, as very occasionally they do, that they loved it? Well, usually, they don’t want it. Full stop. No matter what it’s like. But it’s still worth remembeing something important:

Agents and publishers don’t read manuscripts for enjoyment. They read in order to REJECT a manuscript, so that they can get to the bottom of the pile. The first page/couple of pages is crucial. To the beginner writer, this might seem harsh, but with their ears/eyes attuned, writing professionals can make a judgement on the whole from the first pages.

‘If you find one line of extraneous dialogue on page one, you will likely find one line of extraneous dialogue on each page to come.’ (The First Five Pages Noah Lukeman) In other words, if the craft isn’t there on page one, it’s certainly not going to be there on subsequent pages.

Openings. So difficult. So important.

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  1. polly says:

    Could be quite dispiriting ~ no wonder they say one has to have a thick skin to be a writer!

  2. Lindsay says:

    Yes, rejection of any sort hurts, doesn’t it, but it’s better not to take this sort personally if possible.

  3. Christine says:

    I suppose we shouldn’t be at all surprised that the mind of a reader/agent/publisher is made up within 4 minutes. If anything, I tend to make my mind up faster than that. And if a writer can’t perfect those opening pages then perhaps they’re in the wrong job. I suspect that many writers believe they have a meaningful story to tell and that agents should recognise that and help them iron out any imperfections. But I guess that’s not the way it works any more.
    Great post, Lindsay!

  4. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Christine. And thanks for all your comments – lovely to receive them.

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