Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Cutting of Slack: Why You Get None on Your First Five Pages

Me and my analogies. I’ve got them squirreled away in every drawer in my house. Half the time I’m looking for a pen or some Scotch tape -- can’t find it. Why? Because my junk drawer is overstuffed with analogies.

But I’ll hold off on the analogy for just a wee bit so I can properly introduce today’s topic, which is, The First Five Pages. Or, perhaps, more accurately, The First *&^%$! Five Pages. We hear about them all the time. They’ve got to be top notch. Unforgettable. So irresistible they cause agents and editors to have that 4-hour problem you hear about on those Cialis commercials.

Yeah, we kinda get it. First impressions and all.

And yet we ask ourselves why? *headdesk*

Why? *headdesk again, only harder*

Why? *OK, now my pupils seem to be dilating ominously*

Why are agents and editors so hung up on those first few pages?

Who among us has not said, “But once you get into the story, it really gets going...?” Or we point to any number of popular books as examples of slow-starting novels. Matter of fact, I’m reading a book like that right now. The plot has advanced maybe five microns so far, and I’m on page 156. There’s so much backstory, there’s no front story. But I’m soldiering on.

Which brings me to a revelation regarding the first five pages and to my analogy du jour.

First, the revelation. When you write those first 5 pages, you must remember this: You are writing for a hostile audience.

OK, maybe hostile’s too strong a word.

On second thought, no, it’s not, although the audience isn’t hostile in the sense that they’re mean or aggressive. It’s just that they have no incentive to “give you a chance” if the writing isn’t justifying that chance right off the bat.

And now for that analogy I promised. It’s Susan Boyle.

You remember her, right? She’s that dowdy British lady who sang “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent and then her performance got 5 bazillion hits on You Tube. In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that I loathe every aspect of musical theatre. I’ve never even seen Les Misérables because all that singing sounds like a lot of melodramatic caterwauling to me, but I do believe her performance on that talent show is the finest example of artistic triumph you’ll ever hope to find. Here she is, waddling out on stage to openly expressed derision, and within 2 minutes, she has that crowd eating out of her hand.

That’s kind of what those first five pages have to replicate.

You’re writing for an audience that is tired, possibly cranky, and has been thoroughly disappointed. Repeatedly. And, yes, they’ve heard, “But once you get into the story…” a million dang times.

Agents and editors are not normal readers. They’re professional readers. The bar to grab their attention is way, way up there. Like, take a left at the International Space Station and you'll come to it in another few miles. I’m not saying it’s right, it simply is.

So the question is, how do you do that? Grab their attention, I mean.

Well, that’s for you to figure out. And you will. You’ll just need to revise, condense, and distill googolplex times to get there. And polish until your right arm is twice the size as your left and you can answer the question, “Why would the reader care?” with a non-stop volley of bitchin’ prose.

Easy? A thousand times no.

But this is exactly why I wear a helmet when I’m in revision mode. So I don’t cause any long-term damage to my pretty little head when it hits the desk over and over and over....