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May 7, 2011

3 Things Not to Do When Writing Your First Page

I was fortunate enough to attend the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Misque Press didn't have a booth, although I did bump into some fans and signed some print books. That was pretty sweet.

I was also given a free (unsolicited) book myself. I wasn't too surprised to flip over the book and see that the imprint was AuthorHouse, a vanity press. I accepted the book because (1) I never turn down a free book and (2) I was curious to know if this was actually a viable way to gain new readers. Is it worth the expense and trouble for an author who is vanity-press published, self-published or with a small press to foist books upon passing strangers?

My conclusion?


The problem is that passing strangers are likely to include only a tiny proportion of your target audience. This book, for instance, was not my usual genre. I'm still trying to figure out what genre it is. It's not even clear if it is supposed to be fiction or non-fiction. The back blurb doesn't tell me, the title makes no sense, and the cover art is generic. So the book is not off to a good start.

The first page made three mistakes which immediately made me want to stop reading. I don't mean grammatical errors or typos. I suppose those would have put me off as well, but that's so obvious, I don't think I'd bother to belabor the point. No, these were mistakes which I've seen newbie writers make, but seeing them in the relentless clarity of black on white reminded me of why these are not good writing.

Because I don't like writing negative reviews, I'm going to paraphrase the book rather than quote directly.

1. First and Second Paragraph:
Help! Help! Please don't kill me! (Scream - Scream) Don't chop off my foot! You monster, leave me alone! Oh! Oh! Not the other one too! Help! Please don't kill me!

Just kidding!! I gothchya! I just wrote that to get yur attention.

Mistake One: The book starts out with an apparent attack. There are no quotes, and the description formatting is odd: (Scream - Scream)...? Wtf? But anyway, some kind of assault seems to be in progress, a pretty bloody and gruesome assault. So I'm pegging the genre as horror, true crime, suspense, mystery, dark speculative or at least dark something. Although the cover, with its field of daisies, didn't exactly scream "dark" so, it's not without some head-scratching.

Then the second paragraph hits, and I realized the whole first paragraph is just a writer trying to be "clever." The writer even tells us so: you, Dear Reader, are so dumb, that I can only get your attention by blood and gore, even if that's not remotely related to my topic. So I'll deliver blood and gore in the all important First Paragraph, and then, once you're hooked, let you in on the secret of my actual topic.

Why This Doesn't Work: The reader, believe it or not, can actually close the book just as easily after the second paragraph as after the first. You cannot "trick" the reader into reading by offering false drama.

What You Should Do Instead: Begin as you mean to go on. By all means, start with torture and murder, if you are writing a thriller. If you are writing a sweet romance about a nurse and a millionaire and a secret baby, probably not. What good does it do to attract an audience to a show they won't like? Promise only what you deliver.

2. Third and Fourth Paragraphs:
Hello. My name is Star Jones. I'm a high school student at Dearling High. I have an important message for you that I need you to listen to and heed. You'll see. Right now, I am looking forward to going on a trip with my best friend. She's the greatest. But I have a bad feeling about this trip, like it might be cancelled.

There, what did I tell you? My mom just came in and said it was cancelled. Drat!

Mistake Two: Compared to the atrocity in the beginning, this is a minor annoyance. But addressing the reader is difficult to pull off. Discounting nineteenth century literature, I have seen it done with breathtaking aplomb to delicious effect one or two times. This was not one of them.

To add injury to insult, the sentence that follows is exactly what inspired that most repeated of all writing truisms, Show Don't Tell.

Why This Doesn't Work: The narrator is so busy speaking to the reader that we have no idea what the scene looks like, or if the narrator is even embedded in a scene. Is this a novel, with scenes and characters, or is the narrator telling us something meant to enlighten and persuade us, like a spiritual lesson? It's not clear here. (After skimming ahead, I reached the tentative conclusion that the author was trying to write some kind of extended parable, in which the main character would learn deep spiritual lessons and then pass them on to the reader. But it didn't work well, because the attempt to filter the message through the fiction format just came across as an awkward hybrid.)

What You Should Do Instead: Newbies in writing groups bludgeon one another with this moldy pickle of advice, Show-Don't-Tell, way too often, and sometimes not to the betterment of the piece of writing in question.

In this case, for instance, it would work just as well to say, Tell Don't Show. Because this paragraph is trying to do both, and doing neither well. If you're going to be relating the action blow-by-blow, then you should go all the way. Have mom poke her head in and say the trip is cancelled, describe the surroundings, etc. That would be "showing."

But you don't have to do it that way. If you want this to be an intimate conversation between the narrator and reader, you could also just tell the reader about the events. "I was looking forward to the trip, but shortly before I was to leave, my mom told me it had been cancelled." That's telling.

Either could serve the story. Just make up your mind.

3. Fifth Paragraph:
I think yur gonna like what you hear. Some people say I'm too young to be so wise, or that if I were so wise I wouldn't use words like "yur" and "gonna" but that's just how I speak. My mom has taught me how to use an adult vocabulary, though, so I can sound older when I want to, especially when discussing important matters. It doesn't matter to me if you believe I am a real teenager.

Mistake Three: For whatever incomprehensible reason, the author has decided that writing out slang words like "yur" and "gonna" makes her character/narrator sound like a teenager. It doesn't, but what's worse than the false note in slang is that the author is so uncomfortable with her character's vocabulary that the author feels the need to draw attention to the slang by trying to justify it.

Why This Doesn't Work: The author's "preemptive strike" against the reader's inability to believe the main character is authentic just makes the reader aware of how discomforting the whole mess is. Then the author becomes downright defensive and tells the reader she doesn't care if the reader believes in the character. Let me call that bluff. If I can't believe in your character, why should I read the book?

What You Should Do Instead: First of all, treat slang with caution. It's easy to sound like a doofus. But for goodness' sake, if you do try to use slang, don't draw attention to your weakness by trying to defend it. A preemptive strike is not a good policy in literature, especially if your attempt to bomb the enemy aircraft on the ground turns out more like Pakistan in 1971 than Israel in 1967.


In the author's bio, the author admits, "there was no plan as to how the subject matter was to be put across," and unfortunately, this shows. The book was first published on Amazon in 2004 and as yet has not one review. Of course, a better first page wouldn't help if there were not also another good three hundred some pages to follow. I'm not sure how good those pages are. I never reached page 2.


wannabuy said...

And thus illustrates why I won't buy books without reviews *except* from authors I already know. Well, authors I know below $6.49 excluding about 3 authors...

This sounds like a book that wasn't even reviewed by a peer author! Ugh... It is so easy for readers to find good books... It is a shame and silly to release an unproofed title.


Tara Maya said...

Every time I see those stats about how some self-published authors never even sell a single book... I think of books like this. There's also no kindle version and the book is sold for $22.

wannabuy said...

"There's also no kindle version and the book is sold for $22."

WHAT?!? (Bangs head on wall to try and comprehend...)

Hopefully my dad will let me edit his book he wants to publish. (At least he's been writing it for 20 years...)