Thursday, April 21, 2011

The power of hasty grabbing

I went to Barnes and Noble yesterday. I was supposed to be buying something for the day job, but as is often the case when I’m allowed out in public, I got distracted.

I started out admiring all the Sourcebooks titles on the special display rack at the center of the store. Then I headed to the YA section (pausing en route to admire the sex books) and made certain agency sistah Kiersten White’s book was shelved front and center. Then I headed over to new releases and began picking up random books and reading first pages.

I’ll admit it – nothing grabbed me. That’s unfortunate, since I’m rather fond of being grabbed in public.

Eventually, my inner cheapskate led me to the clearance table where I spotted a familiar book. Johnathan Tropper’s How to Talk to a Widower delighted me several years ago when my book club read it, though I hadn’t seen my copy since I tipsily loaned it to someone whose name I’ve now forgotten.

I picked it up. I started reading. I forgot about the other books. I forgot about the ice cream melting in my car. I forgot about the very real possibility my dog would eat the sofa if I didn’t get home and walk her.

From the very first page, I was sucked in (feel free to insert the dirty joke here, since I already confessed to the fondness for public grabbing).

Before I knew it I was marching up to the cash register to purchase a book I ALREADY OWN.

That’s the power of a great opening paragraph.

And it’s something every writer needs to remember regardless of what stage you’re at in your career. When you’re querying agents or editors, you have a tiny number of words to catch someone’s attention. You might have the most magnificent novel on the planet, packed with swordfights and erotic sex and monkeys riding unicycles.

But if you don’t grab someone’s attention in the first few paragraphs, it doesn’t really matter. No one will read it.

It’s a lesson I sure as hell need to remember as I prepare to start putting words on the page for my next book. I’ll admit it, I’ve been known to start a book in the wrong place from time to time. The action lags or the sentences are too long or a joke falls flat as a flaccid beef baton.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten pretty good at catching myself before I show it to anyone. Years of writing snappy leads as a journalist fine-tuned my ability to do a decent job grabbing the eyes of ADD readers just like me.

Still, I have to work at it. We all do if we want someone to take that scary step that starts with picking up the book and ends with a reader upending her purse on the bookstore counter to paw through gum wrappers and penis pens to find exact change to purchase the book.

Not that I’ve done that.

Are you a picky reader when it comes to opening paragraphs? How long do you give a book to catch your attention? If you’re a writer, how do you make sure your opening paragraphs don’t just grab your reader, but reach out and give a friendly nipple tweak? Please share!

I’ll be skimming the Johnathan Tropper book for that scene where the narrator ends up without pants on a first date. Trust me, it’s worth buying the book twice just for that.


Shain Brown said...

I try to give it a couple pages, but honestly if I have chosen the book based on reviews, the cover, or a friends suggestion I read much more.

For instance last night I started Fast Women, by Jennifer Cruise. The start did not catch me, neither did her style, at first. After reading several pages I began to enjoy the way she told the story, along with her unique way of keeping the characters involved while telling the story.

I feel as though an opening sentence or introductory paragraph is important, but so are other factors.

Anonymous said...

I'm a lactating mom. If your book gives me a friendly nipple tweak, I'll shoot milk all over the pages. Just giving you a heads up.

Unknown said...

I think a book gets about one paragraph to make an impression on me. Sometimes the whole first page. I've been cheated both ways doing this (one book had a good page, and a lame continuation - the other didn't grab me in the beginning, but was fantastic later on, which I found out when I was forced to read it half a year later).

Have you seen the First Page Shooter offer that Suzie Townsend and others are offering in their blog? The link:

I'm now going to spend the rest of the day dreaming of being grabbed in a bookstore.

Sarah W said...

bettyfokker owes me a new keyboard . . .

Judy,Judy,Judy. said...

I can be completely turned off by a first paragraph. Or not quite turned on but enough to give it a page or 2. Beyond that if something, the writers voice, the start of a good story, an intriguing character, hasn't pulled me in, I'm not wasting my time.

Matthew MacNish said...

As a reader, I don't worry that much about openings. I mean if there is a great one, I'll certainly be pleased, but I don't mind if a story takes time to build, as long as there is a compelling character in there somewhere.

As a writer, especially as an aspiring debut author, I worry about it a lot. Obsess over it a little, perhaps. I've written several different opening lines, opening paragraphs and opening scenes. In fact, I'm thinking about switching it up again.

Anonymous said...

You're so right. The first page has to grab me, too. If it does, even a little, I'll read one. If the rest of the pages slow, then the book is put down.

A cover is really what grabs me, too! I hate it when I pick up a book because of the sweet cover only to be bored to tears with the first few pages.

Such a waste. Isn't it crazy how subjective this industry is? Such is life, though.

Great post.

Danielle Spears said...

Thanks for the reminder, Tawna! I think I'll be giving my first para a second glance!

Teri Anne Stanley said...

Betty Fokker HAS to start writing book review based on leakage volume. That's like a divining rod for fiction...the New York Times Book Review totally needs her on staff.

Me, I usually use the cover blurb method, which is truly less reliable.

Jason said...

Interesting. I so rarely blindly look for books I can't remember when I've cared what the first page did. If I am reading a book it's either one I've already decided to read or someone has recommended to me that I trust. Either way, I wouldn't put it down after one page (or, honestly, hardly at all before I finish it), so if the first page doesn't grab me it's not a big deal. And I haven't paid attention at all to whether the first page did grab me on the books I do read to say if, had I picked the book up randomly, it would qualify as grabbing me, publicly or privately.

That said...I'm trying to be a writer, and I 100% agree the first page SHOULD grab you to a certain extent, to at least make you flip to the next.

My WIP has a very grabbing end of the opening chapter with lots of action, but the first few paragraphs do not. I already know that when I get to the end of the first draft I'll be spending some serious time re-tooling the first chapter a bit...for this exact issue.

Right now this is my first paragraph:

'Damien almost spewed his mocha onto the table. “Um, what?” '

Does that grab you? Kind of short. :) Are you willing to give me more time? :)

Dana Strotheide said...

I'll fully admit that I'm a bit of a Pollyanna and always want to believe that it's going to get better, so I usually give books far longer than they deserve. That being said, that paragraph was good enough for me to hop right over to Amazon and download it immediately. Given the ability to download samples to my Kindle, that's probably about as long as I give books that I'm not sure about. If you haven't grabbed me by the end of the sample, I'm not going to buy it.

Anonymous said...

If the first two pages grab me, I'll stand there and read the first chapter or two (I read fast, so this only takes a few minutes). After that, I'll decide whether to buy.

But if the first couple of pages don't suck me in, the book gets reshelved, and I move on to the next.

So, yeah, first pages are critical, but there has to be something to back them up as well.