Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Reader's Request

One of our readers has written in with a request. (Yes, this means I dug into our mailbag today. I intended to wait until Alicia returns from her vacation, and then she and I could divvy up the letters and questions, but I'm jumping the gun. We'll have to wait to see if she'll forgive me on her return.)

Our reader is pondering two different openings. The novel in question deals with a plus-sized heroine and her quest to find love. I was going to do a little comparative analysis of the two, but after closer inspection, I've decided to ask the blog what you all think.

Just so everyone understands this isn't a trick question, I'm going to start by sharing a few quick impressions. I think the openings are roughly equal in writing quality. Each sets up a strong viewpoint character. They share a strong voice, but the tone is different between them.

I think the key difference between them is tone. There are other minor differences, but I don't think they are as important. I have a strong preference, but it's not based on writing quality. It's based on a more instinctive, gut-level response to one of the pair. But not everyone will respond the same, and it might be an interesting exercise to see if my reaction is in line with the majority response. (Yes, as an editor, this is something I think about frequently. My taste is on the line with every story we buy.)

So, help a reader out. Which of these openings has the more compelling hook? Please vote in the comments.

Option One:
The average American woman is 5’4”, 164 pounds and wears a size 14. Let’s just say that I’m above average—and I’m not talking about my height. I didn’t start out this way, mind you. At birth, I was actually below average.

Option Two:
If I have to look at one more picture of a rail-thin “all-American girl”, I’m going to puke. Or eat another cupcake. Okay, the truth is I really hate to throw up.


P.S. Alicia emailed me from Ireland, en route to England. We must congratulate her when she returns. She has spent all this time driving on those narrow Irish lanes without putting a single scratch on her rental vehicle. That's impressive!


Unhinged said...

If this wasn't a story about a heroine's quest for love, I'd vote for #2. This tone feels more personal (to me), but also angry. Which would suggest the heroine isn't ready to look for love because she doesn't yet accept or love who she is.

Option #1 suggests she does. So that's my vote, based on what little we have to go on here.

Laura K. Curtis said...

I vote for #1...with reservations. Like Unhinged, I think #2 sounds angry. Given that we're talking about weight, I also think #2 hints at bulemia, which could be a problem if that's not the direction the character is going. If that's intentional, I'd rather see the hint be stronger. ("Okay, the truth is I really hate to throw up. And believe me when I say, I've tried to like it." or something along those lines.)

My reservation about #1 is that it's not as exciting as #2. Maybe start with "For years, I've told people I'm above average. And I am. Just not in height." (That's a toss-off...I don't mean that to be what the author uses, I'm just trying to mimic some of the tone I like in the second using the language of the first.)

Anonymous said...

Interesting exercise. I agree that the second one is much more personal. I had a kind of strange reaction to the first one. Being a woman, I immediately started wondering how *I* measure up against this average, further complicated by the fact that I'm not American and the imperial measurements baffle me somewhat. As in: 164 pound is *how many* kilograms? In any case, by the time I've googled it all, I may have become too distracted to read on.

Suggestion: nix the numbers - they confuse and befuddle the message which you're trying to get out: the heroine is overweight.

This is well-conveyed in the second beginning without the added 'judgement' value the average figure imposes on the reader.

I do agree, though, that the second beginning sounds angry, and suggests it's a book about weight loss.

Anonymous said...

Gut reaction...#2. I would keep reading #2 and I would put done #1. I don't think #2 sounds angry but instead it made me laugh...but it may just be me...I've always said I could never have been bulemic because I hate to throw-up. Plus #1 seems so generic and common...#2 sounds unique and different.

Anonymous said...

I vote for #2. It might come across as sounding "angry" but that's what gives it the more compelling hook.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Can I vote for option #3?

They both lack a voice I haven't seen somewhere else, sad to say.

The first one flounders in dry stats followed by the usual joke. Ha ha. I'm not average in the way you're thinking, stupid reader. Ha ha. Isn't that clever of me to twist your preconception?

The second one has attitude, sure. But it strikes me as the same bloody attitude I'm seeing in almost everything else I'm picking up -- and putting back down. Not to mention seeing win online writing contests of one sort or another. It's making me yawn because I've seen this attitude before. I'm not waiting for the narrator to talk about bulimia, unless she's going to be proud of her weight and have a superiority complex over the OCD gymnast who lives next door and pukes twice a day. (and yes, I knew that gymnast, although she lived down the hall. And it was three times a day.) I'm waiting for the narrator to excuse her cupcake addiction by saying that it's her only choice of action since she hates to puke. Like the character who said, "I can't stand being so broke! I'll go spend money to make myself feel better!"

Yeah. That's a character I walk away from, wishing I had the physical ability to run.

I hear lots of talk about wanting a fresh voice. I think #1 is closer to that -- until we get to that "I'm not talking about my height" joke. That's where it gets stale for me. Others, I'm sure, call it a snappy voice.

I'm calling it one I've seen too often. Yawn. I want something fresh.

Ian said...

I must agree with Susan. I didn't find either a particularly compelling hook.

#1 comes across as just kind of boring. I don't want to know about the average American woman first; I want to know who is this narrator and what's her deal. There are plenty of ways to get inside her head without going all clinical on us right from the start. My off-the-cuff example: "I hate shopping for plus sizes - everything looks like it was made at Tents-R-Us." I certainly don't care that she "didn't start out this way" or that at birth, she "was actually below average."

#2 certainly has more attitude, and I think is a stronger opening, but it seems more like a beginning to an overcoming-an-eating-disorder tale. And honestly, who really LIKES to throw up? I cut that very sentence out of one of my own manuscripts because it's an irrelevant phrase.

I think the author could come up with a stronger opening that is more emotionally visceral and less, uh, digestively so. I'd suggest starting with #2 and building upon that.


Anonymous said...

I'm writing this reply without reading the other comments. I read theoptions in reverse order, too, to see if that made a difference, but being only one person and there is only one first impression, I don't know if the order matters much.

Anyway, my preference is Option 2. Both are clever and end with a funny punch. But Option 1 had statistics, and was distant from the character, whereas Option 2 was right in the perspective of the MC from the get go. I like her and her sense of humor.

Now to read what the other commenters said.

green_knight said...

I found both openings unattractive. The first one tells me nothing that distinguishes this character from millions of other women. (The measure sounds familiar; I suspect it's the one used by the clothing industry.)

The second openening panders to the stereotype of fat people stuffing their faces and hating thin people for being thin while the solution to their weight problems is obvious. I'd probably read a couple more paragraphs of #1 to see whether the clumsyness will vanish; but I'd put #2 down there and then.

Wes said...

Option 2. It packs more emotion. While option 1 is clever, numbers don't communicate well.

PatriciaW said...

#1. Like the voice better. Does make me (as a woman and I assume therefore possibly part of the target market) consider how I measure up, which means you have my interest.

I think it needs a bit of work but I like it better than #2. #2 is angry. I don't mind anger in books but I'm not sure I want it to start out that way. And it is stereotypical. All overweight women don't automatically reach for food in anger. I don't. I clean. It's boredom or nervousness that gets me. Being overweight is a complex issue.

Cathy in AK said...

#1. The statistics didn't bother me, though the last two lines almost sound like she's apologizing for being "above average". Like Patricia W, I think the unhappy eater in the second opening is too sterotypical.

Dave Shaw said...

As it stands, number 1 doesn't work for me. If the second paragraph takes off from the 'below average at birth' statement, then maybe there's hope of recovery, but if that's a throwaway line, I'm afraid I'd throw away the whole thing.

Number 2 has a sense of humor and attitude that suits me better, but it seems a little too stereotypical. In the right mood I might go on; in the wrong mood, nah. I find it interesting that so many commenters consider it angry, as it strikes me that the MC is humorously feigning anger, when what she's feeling is probably more like resignation. Maybe I just respond to different cues than normal folks. LOL

So, of the two, I like the second better, but I think the author should experiment with a third option that gets us into the character quickly but doesn't make her sound so much like a stereotyped big woman.

I hope this helps.

Natalie Hatch said...

It sounds like both beginnings don't work very well with this audience. She sounds a bit bitter. Perhaps this is important in establishing her character, but how many novels about plus size heroines sell? Audiences want to escape from their normal lives, to be the thin/fit/voluptuous redhead who's fiery nature makes us irresistible to the opposite sex.
I'd say she needs to find an option three, use the second opening somewhere in her dialogue with a friend. Where she can laugh at herself once we know who she is.
Just my five cents worth.
Isn't there a book already out about being a size 12?

Serena said...

Option 1 hooked me right away. Option 2 seems trite to me. It sounds like many of the other novels and stories out there. Just my opinion.