Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Three Lines That Can Seal Your Fate

I know we've been spending a lot of time dwelling on openings. I know there comes a point where all this talk about openings might feel tedious. But there's a reason we keep harping on this. Actually, there are two reasons.

  1. The great majority of all manuscripts we buy need revisions to the openings. Meaning, even the good writers usually need help in this area. The percentage of manuscripts in this category is large enough that if this were an election, we'd be talking in terms of landslides.
  2. A seasoned editor can learn all she needs to know about a manuscript out of the opening lines. We don't need a whole chapter or scene. Three lines is usually more than I need to determine the rejectability of a manuscript.

Three lines. That's it. I parse those lines almost automatically, and I'm looking for specific red flags that will lead to a rejection. I am looking for a reason to reject, in other words, but that doesn't mean I'm closed off to a possible sale. I always want a sale with every single manuscript I read. I just know the odds are against it. Editorial fatalism.

If the first lines are decent but not as solid as we'd like, I'll frequently flip a few pages back and start reading at a random point. Sometimes the writing will improve once we're moving through a scene instead of just mucking around and trying to figure out how to get the wheels rolling.

But more often than not, any problems in the first three lines will repeat themselves throughout the text. My theory is that writers know how important the opening page is, and they make it as good as they can. If they're missing certain problems in the first page, it indicates they aren't aware that these things are problems, or at the very least, don't know how to fix these problems. Obviously rejectable manuscripts -- those with big red flags right from the outset -- usually deteriorate once you get past the openings.

Openings are hard. We know that. But we also know that openings are strong indicators of the condition of the rest of the text. So write a solid manuscript, of course, but do everything in your power to make that first page really dazzling. We'll be judging you on it -- and maybe on nothing besides it.

Do you want to know what the red flags are? Or are you sick of this subject and want to talk about other things?

Theresa

13 comments:

Ann Macela said...

More, more, more!!!!

Please!

Cheers,
Ann

Anonymous said...

Hmm maybe I better invest in "The first five pages" when pay day comes around.
Rae

Unhinged said...

Oh no, give us the red flags, please!

Selah March said...

Bring on the flags, already. :)

Anonymous said...

Red flags please!

Ian Thomas Healy said...

*offering myself up as a sacrificial lamb*

From my current ABNA entry Deep Six, these are my opening four lines-the first paragraph, actually-(minus a short quote that opens the chapter). I'd really like to know how you respond to it and why (I figure, it's already open for anyone to view here so why not share the joy?):

The airport was a pandemonium of police, journalists, and strange, beautiful people in colorful costumes. Katie Malone watched them in fascination from the comparative coolness of the concourse. The temperature was threatening to break the hundred-degree mark for the third day in a row, and the air conditioning strained to keep up. She watched the jet from Deep Six taxi across the tarmac, circled by a woman sporting feathered wings.

I prostrate myself before you in anticipation of great flogging to follow...

Ian

Shauna Roberts said...

I too am interested in the three red flags.

Writer & Cat said...

Wave those flags! Do you need us to submit you a bunch of real or made-up 3 line segues to get you in the mood? Just say so!

Jody W.

Dara Edmondson said...

Can't wait to hear what the red flags are.

Heather Wardell said...

Very interested in the flags. Bring 'em on!

Heather

Dave in SC said...

I'm revising the opening of my novel right now, so I'd love to know what not to do (especially since I'm probably doing it).

Patricia W. said...

Keep talking, keep talking...!

Edittorrent said...

>>>Hmm maybe I better invest in "The first five pages" when pay day comes around.
Rae>>>

LOL, Rae. We'll probably work our way to the first 5 pages eventually, but we're able to make whole chapters out of the first three lines. :)

And, seriously, that's often as much as the editor reads. We read on, but no doubt -- editors form an impression by line 4. Can this person write? Does he/she respect our language enough to use it well-- punctuation, grammar, but also tone and diction? Does he/she say something new, or at least in a new way? Does he/she make me care?

Trouble is, obsessing about the first few lines can drive a writer mad. I don't know how to help that-- but probably the best way is to write the opening, write the book, rewrite the opening, rewrite the book, rewrite the opening.... :)

Alicia