Monday, November 15, 2010

The First 250 Words

Okay, what is it about the first 250 words? Why do they have to be stellar, amazing, awe-inspiring, hook-grabbing, and all that jazz?

I don't judge a book (or a writer, for that matter) by the first 250 words. I normally - bad on me - judge a book by, well, it's cover. Yes, I'm a cover snob. I'm more apt to pick up a book with an interesting cover, than one with not. Okay, a catchy title will grab me as well, but both combined . . . ah, the ambrosia that tickles my literary senses.

Now, after the cover and title, or a combo of both, I like to - whether in a book store or not - read the first chapter before making a definitive decision on the book.

So, to me, the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first 250 words or, well, whatever, really don't matter.

What does matter is the writing within the first chapter!

So, why is there this myth, perhaps a reality, that the first 250 words, or whatever, matter so much?

I don't have an answer to that question. I only have my own way of deciding if I'm going to buy a book, and the first 250 words really don't come into play with me. The cover, often the title, and, yes, the cover jacket or back cover blurb are taken into account as well, but, not, I repeat, not, the first 250 words.

Now, I understand agents getting a ton of submissions and having to make a decision quick. But, don't many of them ask for the first five pages, which, last time I checked, is greater than 250 words? Why, yes, it is. Hmmm . . .

Okay, I love me some Miss Snark's First Victim. I love her blog and what she does for all aspiring writers. I've submitted my first 250 words to contests in the past. I haven't recently because, well, the MS isn't complete. But . . . I couldn't submit my first 250 because I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the first 250 of the current project isn't the expected - wham, bam, right into the action - norm that I seem to see out there. The first chapter - 4 pages - sets the stage for everything. Yes, there's a bit of wham, bam, right into the action, but not in the first 250 words.

My readers - so my betas tell me - love this first chapter. They've all said they get a sense of the two lead characters within those first four pages, as well as who they are and what they, well, one of them, wants out of life, i.e., the goal of the book.

Trust me, they wouldn't get this in the first 250 words. Sorry, it's just not happening.

So, you tell me: are your first 25o words wham, bam, right into the action? Do you prefer this in the first 25o words? Do you prefer something a bit more subtle? Do you base your buying on the first few pages or the first few chapters of a book? Comment away.


p.s. Please note I'm not intending to dis' Authoress in any way, shape, or form. I love her blog, I'm friends with her on Facebook, and we've chatted back and forth in emails in the past. I think - heck, I know - the main reason for this post is the fact that I knew the first 250 words of my current manuscript would fail the litmus test of her blog, and really, just wanted some other input out there from my writerly brethren! : )


Justus M. Bowman said...

I don't need immediate action, but a writing style contrary to my sanity will make me drop a book.

Tess said...

I get what you're saying and agree that I will give a book a chapter or two to grab my interest. But, I think that is a luxury saved for established authors. If we are to stand out in the slush-pile-hell that is our bane then we need to have something at the start to compel the editor or agent to read on. It doesn't have to be BAM or SMASH or FLASH...but something compelling...even if it is just an image of a character or ability to create setting.

and, I had to come over and tell you WHY you like Green Eggs and you really not know? As soon as I read that as your favorite book (and perchance because it is one of mine as well) I knew.

ready for some pop psychology? You love it for two reasons:

1. Seuss broke ALL of the rules and still succeeded. No, not just succeeded but rocked the house.


2. you don't like being told what to do and that book is all about "don't tell me what to do!"

Charlie said...

I'm actually turned off by a book that starts with some shocking event.It's a shame there are so many of them.

Scott said...

Justus – agree 100%!

Tess – Do we diminish who we are as writers by falling for the myth that the first 250 words are uber important? Also, from reading some debut novels recently, the first 250 words definitely didn’t WOW me, but . . . I understand what you’re saying. I’m just keeping my fingers – when not typing, btw – crossed that the query and first five pages will stand out enough that the BAM doesn’t have to happen in the first 250 words.

And, you’re right about Seuss: he did break all the rules . . . and the book is about ‘don’t tell me what to do!’! Ha!

Charlie – me too, for the most part. I’ve read some books with a WOW opening that was, in fact, very subdued. Still, the first paragraph caught my attention and held me through the rest of the book. Then, there are the instances where the big WOW falls flat on it’s, well, nether regions. So, I give books a fair chance. I understand agents have slush piles of amazing proportions. I understand their need, at a glance, to make a quick decision. I’m just not sure the cost, to aspiring writers, is worth it if we sacrifice something of ourselves to create these WOW openings. Just some random thoughts!

Tess said...

Yes, so when you give that picture book to a baby niece or nephew maybe a small part of the gift is you saying "Don't let the world put limits on what you want, break the rules, don't let anyone tell you what to do or who to be"

okay, stepping out of the psych office.

And I totally agree about the BAM on the first page of a novel. It's almost trite to start with an explosion or huge event (imho) but take this start from one of my favorite (and a Newbery Award winning) MG novels, "Pictures of Hollis Woods" by Patricia Reilly Giff,

it starts with:

The house was falling apart. I could see that from the car window. But it didn't bother me. After a while the houses ran together, four now - no five."

this isn't a huge event but tell me you don't feel for this little girl who is going to her fifth foster home...once I read those first three sentences, I knew Hollis and wanted to go with her into that house.

okay, now I'm truly rambling. I guess my point is that I really believe the first words matter but they don't have to be about an explosive event. They just have to be right.

not that I can get them right, but I'm going to keep trying. and not that you have to agree. my favorite discussions are ones with opposing view points. the others are just plain boring.

Scott said...

Tess – aren’t you the rambler? Ha! My favorite book of all time is Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. I absolutely love, love, love the book and read it about every two years. I had the book for four years before I finally was able to get past the first few chapters. I’d start, put it down, start, put it down . . . until finally, nothing else to read, and . . . WOW! The book is so deep, so emotionally charged. The layers are many. The tears I shed every time I read the book are many as well. The prelude is okay, but it wasn’t enough to get me to keep reading. Eventually, I plowed through everything and am so glad I did.

So, the WOW wasn’t there on the first page, but it did exist.

I do agree that first words matter, but, like you, don’t think they have to be an explosive event. My current project opens very subtly, but, my betas love the opening, even though it isn’t explosive . . . because it sets the voice of the narrative, and in just a very few pages, shows the relationship between the main character and the prime secondary character, and, establishes the goal right from the beginning.

So, when I query – in 2011, early – I hope whatever agents read the first five pages get the same sense my betas did and request more and more and more pages.

The projects a mystery, and the first two chapters (6 pages total) introduces the amateur sleuths, the client, the crime, and the main reason the amateur sleuths want to solve the case. The next chapter introduces the suspects, and then I’m off and running.

So, first words matter, but, sometimes, those words – like your example – are subtle and gently pull the reader into the story.

“I do not like them, Sam I Am, I do not like Green Eggs and Ham!”

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

I'm late to the party, but I also don't care much for books that start out with an obvious hook and action. Maybe MONARCH does that...maybe not. I just start a book how I feel it should start. I don't worry about these rules so much anymore.

Scott said...

Michelle - better late than never, and what a dramatic entrance! Ha!

I agree. Granted, I did make a few changes, but . . . if 3 out of 4 betas say things get going in Chapter 4, and the first few chapters only compromise about 5 to 6 pages, and my own instinct was having a bit of an issue, well, delete, delete, delete. Still, no big dramatic moment, just a subtle slide into the story. Hook me slowly, and keep me hooked is my philosophy.