Monday, January 31, 2011

Judging a Book by Its...

...first paragraph?

So I was having some kicks, reading the entries for Nathan Bransford's Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Contest. No, I didn't read all of them. I read them when there were about 500 entered--and didn't get even close to finishing. I admire Bransford's fortitude, but the fifteen-hundred first-paragraph dash is not for me (but would make an incredible Olympic event).

Anyway. I was browsing, enjoying some and wishing I could peruse the whole book, confused by others, skipping after the first sentence of several that didn't interest me at all, and I kind of started to wonder. Are we (readers, publishing, everybody--not the inimitable Mr. Bransford only) judging a book by its first paragraph in the same erroneous ways we judge books by their covers?

I of course do not mean to imply that some quick assessment isn't warranted. After all, you can get a handle pretty quickly when something is definitely not your style--when you like romance novels and the book you just picked up starts right into a murder mystery (yep, that rose on the cover was a hint about the killer's identity, not an indicator of a romantic tale--proving again, cover-judging is not always accurate). And sometimes you know very soon that a writer's style or voice is not going to make the book an enjoyable read for you. Even more so with slush (and the paragraphs of the contest entries were remarkably, I suppose, like slush). With some pieces, it's apparent right from the first sentence that the writer needs to work on voice or grammar or basic syntax--it's just not there yet.

But beyond that--when nothing annoys the heck out of you or turns you off or bores you more than watching white paint on a blank white wall--can we judge the book by its first paragraph? Taking this from fun contest to mindsets in real life: Are we asking too much in a few sentences--and getting less than we deserve because we want instant satisfaction? When I think about the most important parts of a first paragraph, I do think about including hints at a compelling story, elements of vivid characters, and a healthy dose of voice and language. Yet, to me, the most important part of a first paragraph is the dozen or so paragraphs after that--it's the open door, and I want to know where it leads, not just stand in the doorframe.

Reading the entries, I started to wonder if that's where some of the writers were making a mistake--they put so much shebang and pizazz in those first paragraphs that it's as though they're expecting the reader to hang out in the doorway forever--there's no propulsion into the story, just a really nice doorjamb.

Granted, this is probably way too much to assume and think about based on a contest (which is, after all meant to be fun)--and I reminded myself that many of these entries may have been revised for, if not written for, the purpose of looking good as a standalone first paragraph for the contest. Still, as we're encouraged to write blazing first pages and immediately compelling hooks into our stories, I think it's worth thinking about whether we're shortchanging ourselves in the long run by putting too high a price on the beginning. There's something to be said for compelling openings with substance, not sparkle, and being sucked into a book by excellent writing, not an explosion front and center on page one, and having a slow build of tension rather than immediate angst.

Did I enter? Yeah, why not :) My first paragraph? Taken verbatim from a WIP, and, as I review some of the stellar entries, feels rather small and insignificant. And I'm ok with that--it's time to get back to writing and polishing all those paragraphs in the WIP, not just the first one!


Nicole MacDonald said...

I think the first chapter in general is hard to write and over focusing on the first paragraph might not help..

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Audra said...

Very interesting blog post esp as a reader, I v much judge that first paragraph. BUT that hasn't stopped me from reading a book and I only give up if I find myself dreading a book after more than a few chapters.

That said, I've noticed a few times that the first sentences of books are rather underwhelming. In my book reviews, I quote the opening line of novels, and some are quite catchy while others...not so much. I might sit down an compare which books I loved to how dynamic I felt their opening lines were.

Rowenna said...

Nicole--good point! It's often hard to get started, maybe that's one reason we have to go back over our first paragraphs so much.

Audra--true, I have put down bookstore potentials because the first paragraph didn't do it for me...but I usually read on for a page or so if I'm remotely interested. Good question--are my favorite books the ones with dynamic opening lines, or not so much?

Hema P. said...

Interesting observations, Rowenna! I agree that there is so much emphasis on hooking the reader with that first sentence, first paragraph, first chapter that it almost paralyzes some writers, even though they happen to have a good story to tell in the overall book.

When we read classics (even children's books from a few decades ago), they start very slowly and take their time to gather steam. Guess children and adults in those days, having fewer distractions, weren't in such a hurry to cast a book away after the first few sentences...

Ax said...

I always heard to write the first paragraph, even first chapter, last because how can you know what foreshadowing and symbols to put first if you don't have them later?

Good post, and good food for thought.

Caroline said...

I entered too! I'm ashamed to say that I took my first paragraph and jazzed it up so it would be more compelling. My first page is very compelling (IMHO), but you wouldn't know that by reading the original first paragraph.

I feel like a traitor now.

So I agree with you totally. And in the end, reading is in the eye of the beholder. While the finalists had well-written paragraphs, there was nothing in them that made me want to read more.

But that's me. :-)

Rowenna said...

Hema--awesome point, that maybe one of the reasons writing first pages is so hard is that there's so much pressure!

Ax--great idea! I write a first paragraph first...but it's never the final version lol.

Caroline--yay! Glad you entered, too. Nothing wrong with spicing up the first paragraph a little to enter! I just found it interesting how the entries in the contest probably didn't represent an "average/normal" first paragraph.