Tags:
  1. ruskaya

    ruskaya Member

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2020
    Messages:
    91
    Likes Received:
    51
    Location:
    not a pro, yet very curious

    predicting a novel from its first line vs. first paragraph

    Discussion in 'Publishing' started by ruskaya, Jul 21, 2020.

    I see a general trend developing, especially among agents, of critiquing novels and predicting how well they will do based on the first paragraph and even first line. By critiquing I mean someone submits, for instance, the first line of their novel to an agent who discusses how well that line hooks the reader and introduces the story. What it tells me is that there is an expectation that the first page in general will introduce the story well enough that people know what is expected and hooks them to continue reading. I know this is more a marketing trend, meaning that potential buyers (readers) decide on whether to buy a book after reading the first page. But now I see more and more agents discussing how well they can predict a novel can do based on first line alone . . . . While with a lot of experience you can guess where a story is going and how it develops, I am not persuaded by this argument.

    Do you get the same impression that this is what is happening? What do you think about it?
     
    keysersoze and Kyle Phoenix like this.
  2. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 30, 2006
    Messages:
    3,134
    Likes Received:
    1,304
    Location:
    Ohio, USA
    I have not followed what agents are looking for or their strategies for a while. But, from what you indicated, it appears to be a method intended to wade through the slew of submissions seeking representation.

    The theory used to be that the first line was important, in that it would key the reader (agent) to read further, to read the first paragraph, then page. If it hooked or engaged the reader (agent), then they would read further. What you described sounds like a variant of that.

    There are obvious things that might turn an agent off. Typos or grammar errors in the first line or paragraph or page. Excessive use of passive sentence structures, mix ups in tense.

    In a perfect world agents and editors would read the full first three chapters to get a solid feel for an author's story and storytelling style. But time is an important commodity, and agents/editors have a lot more to do than read unsolicited submissions. Often it is one of the lower priority tasks they perform.
     
    keysersoze and ruskaya like this.
  3. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    16,778
    Likes Received:
    18,612
    Location:
    Scotland
    I'm probably not typical, but I do buy books. When I buy one in the shop, I read the blurb, and then inevitably page through the book, reading little snippets here and there to see if the style suits me. I don't think I EVER read the first line, or even the first page.

    However, that has changed since Amazon gave us the 'look inside' feature. Now I do start reading at the beginning. Maybe that's why agents might have changed their approach.

    I hope they're keeping in mind the other side of the equation. The first line sells the book; the last line sells the next one!

    I have read articles from agents bemoaning the fact that many new authors spend tons of time polishing up their first lines, even their first chapters ...but then the expertise drops off, and the book is ultimately rejected. A book has to sustain interest all the way through and leave readers satisfied and wanting more from the same author, to be really successful.
     
  4. Lazaares

    Lazaares Active Member

    Joined:
    Apr 16, 2020
    Messages:
    167
    Likes Received:
    229
    Location:
    Europe
    Unfortunately, it isn't only literary agents drawing conclusions from a first line - the overabundance of information agents in any field have to process has them rely on less and less information to draw as much conclusions as possible. First lines are just our kind of marketing; the same as your first line in a job interview.
     
    Lifeline and jannert like this.
  5. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    2,045
    Likes Received:
    3,179
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    I think what you can tell from the first page is whether the writer is a good storyteller or not. Do they know how to hook the reader's attention, and to keep paying it off with little revelations but those bring up bigger questions that whet the appetite even more?

    I've posted this a few times before, but it really fits here, and I think it's very important:

    Bringing the Dead to Life—Notes on Twilight by Bill Johnson

    It's about what he calls the Question, Answer, Question process that can really draw readers in and set the hook hard.
     
    Lifeline and jannert like this.
  6. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    16,778
    Likes Received:
    18,612
    Location:
    Scotland
    <Seriously. Those sentences that grabbed his attention are from... a PREFACE? Isn't that like a P-P-Prologue? That nobody ever reads!!! OMG... so THAT's the secret to grabbing an agent's attention? OMG. Who knew?>

    (These < > are sarcastrophes, apparently. Just trying them out, to see if they work. :) )
     
    Kyle Phoenix, Cave Troll and Xoic like this.
  7. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    2,045
    Likes Received:
    3,179
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    LOL!! You know, I don't think it really works. Just giving my reaction here after reading that. I know what sarcastrophes are and what they mean (because you posed about them before), but there's still a kind of nasty tone to the sarcasm (that I know was intended just to be funny), and on top of that the little symbols come across as an extra layer of sarcasm. Plus most people won't know what they are.

    My thoughts—they maybe make things a little worse than just straight sarcasm (which is always a dangerous gambit, especially online).
     
    jannert likes this.
  8. Steve Rivers

    Steve Rivers Senior Member

    Joined:
    Dec 15, 2019
    Messages:
    556
    Likes Received:
    1,417
    Location:
    Quarantining before it was Cool
    I thought the sarcastrophes from your thread were upwards, @jannert ?

    ^I'm so knowledgable on these things.^

    :D
     
    keysersoze and Cave Troll like this.
  9. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    16,778
    Likes Received:
    18,612
    Location:
    Scotland
    Yeah, I would never use them for <serious> sarcasm. :) Ooops ...I mean ^serious^ sarcasm. That does look a bit more cheerfully cheeky, doesn't it? I will stop derailing this thread now....
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2020
    Cave Troll likes this.
  10. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    2,045
    Likes Received:
    3,179
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    ^ it actually does look better. (I didn't put a closing ^ in, so it's not a sarcastrophe, it's just an up arrow pointing to the reply I'm commenting on).

    And there's something funny about 'serious sarcasm'! :cool: Maybe ultimately smilies work the best?

    I'll also stop derailing now.
     
  11. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2010
    Messages:
    6,364
    Likes Received:
    4,349
    On the whole, I'd like to believe agents read the entire query and at least the entire sample, and a lot of agents really do ask for the first 3 chapters or first 50 pages, whichever is shorter. I was chatting with my neighbour, who is a Czech TV director, and even he said those loglines and queries are very important because if you can show you know how to structure a query, you garner trust from the agent that you actually know what you're doing.

    Assuming your writing skill is at a publishable standard, it is unlikely that you'd come up with a truly terrible first line or even first few pages. So if we set our standard at that, structure is really the next thing to focus on. Structure tells the agent if you can actually tell a story. Writing quality isn't really the issue here.

    Assuming the agent is at that point actively looking for new authors to represent, there's no reason to assume they wouldn't at least read the full query - because, again, if your writing was at publishable quality, it is unlikely that you'd write such a bad query that the agent can't even finish 300 words of what you've written.

    Basically, writing quality paired with good structure. I don't think it's magic and I don't think it's that elusive. It's a skill like any other and if you're good enough, you're get "hired" at some point. A certain measure of luck and meeting someone with whom your story resonates are definitely there, but if your story was to be successful in the book market, then logic goes it shouldn't really be THAT hard to find someone who resonates with your story, because the whole point is your book is supposed to capture a large and varied audience to begin with.
     
    keysersoze and Lifeline like this.
  12. ruskaya

    ruskaya Member

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2020
    Messages:
    91
    Likes Received:
    51
    Location:
    not a pro, yet very curious
    I do the same, but I also read the first page. I still cannot tell whether the book will satisfy me, so I know read more summary and reviews online to get a sense of what the story is like. I find that storylines in blurbs can be rather boring, but then the take of the author on the topic is great.

    At any rate, it does feel there is an excessive focus on the first page, which is often more like half a page, and even the first line. There is the benefit, though, that those critiques help dissect what makes a sentence more persuasive.
     
  13. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 7, 2016
    Messages:
    4,136
    Likes Received:
    3,524
    I don't expect agents or publishers to read everything I send them. I know they are going to stop reading at the first chance they get. I think you can tell pretty quickly how good something is early on. I used to be a slush reader. The unspoken rule was to read the first two paragraphs. If it was good, I would read on. If not, it was onto the next.

    There are more people who want to be writers than there are good writers. The gatekeepers are in their positions because they supposedly know what they're doing. You wouldn't be sending them your work if you didn't think they knew what they were doing. I don't think it's lazy not to read on. Their jobs do not focus on submissions as much the writers already on their roster. They know the marketplace and they know how easy or hard it will be to sell any given book. Sure, they're not always right, but isn't that why we try several agents or publishers at a time?

    Your first paragraph and first page need to show you can write. If you can, it will show. Good writing gets noticed. I think the emphasis on the beginning is important. It's your chance to prove yourself. It doesn't end there, but it is a clear hurdle (the first hurdle) you need to get through. Then every page or paragraph or sentence is yet another hurdle. We enter this game of sorts willingly. We are testing how are work stacks up. This is a test. I think it's wrong to blame the process if/when we don't pass the test.
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2020
    ruskaya, marshipan, Lifeline and 2 others like this.
  14. ruskaya

    ruskaya Member

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2020
    Messages:
    91
    Likes Received:
    51
    Location:
    not a pro, yet very curious
    You mean two paragraph of a novel? Or of a short story?

    I agree it is not laziness, but to me it feels a little pretentious to predict a whole novel just from the first line. I can see how there is now the convention, and so expectation, that every page of a book needs to be a page-turner, meaning that it has to be able to hook and maintain the interest of the reader. Although there are exceptions, overall to do that requires good writing skills, and you want to show you can write well from the beginning--the book should be consistent. So I am not surprised there is an emphasis on crafting each paragraph, especially now that so many people are writing and aspire to be published.

    It might as well be my impression, but my experience of reading has definitely changed from when I was a teenager (the time when I read the most in my life, having lots of spare time) and I suspect that it is in part due to the way the publishing world conceives what is worth publishing. When I was a teenager, I felt compelled to read a whole novel. I felt I owed it to the author. I read great classics of which I didn't feel the beginning was all that compelling, but along the way the story built in amazing ways on that so-so premise. I wasn't satisfied all the time about what was going on in a novel, but by reading the whole thing I was able to see the whole of the author's project. Now I feel more justified to drop reading a book in the middle if things are not working for me. What keeps you hooked might vary, as for example, I didn't finish reading The Circle because it continually went on on descriptive tangents: I particularly remember this scene in which the MC becomes ill and her roommate takes care of her, and the author goes on in great details for what felt pages to illustrate how the roommate does that to persuade the reader that the roommate indeed cares. I found the book tiresome and gave up. But clearly lots of readers loved that much description. Besides the curiosity of how it ends, I didn't feel there was a project behind the story that made my pulling through worth it. I wonder how much of that feeling is due to an expectation of being "entertained".
    Ok, this is just to show in part how I think my reading experience has changed.
     
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2020
  15. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    2,045
    Likes Received:
    3,179
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    Here's a statement Bill Johnson made in that article about Twilight that I think explains it pretty well:

    "A first sentence that is not compelling becomes a first step in a reader disengaging from a novel. I teach that it's three steps and the reader is gone."

    But it seems modern business practices seem to have moved largely in the wrong direction, especially when it comes to entertainment media. It seems most of them now try to predict success using computer algorithms and demographics etc, rather than relying on a skilled and highly experienced person using gut instinct, as was done before computers arrived on the scene. Speaking for the movie and music industries, they seem to want to play it safe, by only backing what they're very sure (according to the computer algorithms and demographics) is going to be a big popular success. I don't know if that's what the publishing industry is doing though.
     
  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 5, 2010
    Messages:
    13,110
    Likes Received:
    7,628
    Location:
    California, US
    I don't think it is so much a matter of the editor or agent claiming to 'predict' what the rest of the book is like. Seems more like a combination of business practicality and efficiency. If I'm an editor and the first few paragraphs or pages (whatever my metric) don't engage me and interest me in the work, the same may well be true of my readers. I also have a lot of submissions to read, so my time is better spent with those that engage me from the start. Some of those may not be acceptable either, if they don't live up to their promise, but at least I know they have a good opening going for them.
     
    TWErvin2 likes this.
  17. Kyle Phoenix

    Kyle Phoenix Member

    Joined:
    Jul 6, 2020
    Messages:
    59
    Likes Received:
    65
    Location:
    United Kingdom
    In terms of non-fiction, I have got in to the habit of looking up the contents page and seeing what the titles of each chapter is. If you know a subject well, you can anticipate what people are trying to say based on that and whether they are being direct and to the point. The word usages is also a dead giveaway, as if the chapter titles read like tabloid headlines, I'd generally run away from those kind of books as it will use lots of words to say very little. This is much easier now you can probably find a contents page online and get a first impression of what the book is going to be like.

    No idea if other people do that, but I know I do it fairly often when I'm weighing up whether the buy a book or read more in to it.
     
  18. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    2,045
    Likes Received:
    3,179
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    Also, I seriously doubt any book is accepted strictly on the strength of its opening line or even first page. I think the ones that pass that initial test are the ones they'll then invest more time in to see if it's worthy of publishing.
     
    Cave Troll likes this.
  19. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 7, 2016
    Messages:
    4,136
    Likes Received:
    3,524
    It doesn't matter if it's a short story or a novel. I have worked for both journals and a book publisher. You have to show you can write from the beginning. If you can't, there's really no point in reading on.
     
    ruskaya and Xoic like this.
  20. ruskaya

    ruskaya Member

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2020
    Messages:
    91
    Likes Received:
    51
    Location:
    not a pro, yet very curious
    I definitely don't think agents and publishers decide just on the opening line whether to publish a book. But I do agree with those saying that predicting from the first line is certainly a product of recent business practices.

    I think such claims of predicting abilities are part of a performance of what people think makes a good agent, including the ability to spot good novels and especially those that will sell well if published. It is an image in a kind of society where lots of people try to predict the future (success) of anything. Again, I think the advantage of that is that writers can find lots of videos about first line critiques that help practice what makes each sentence good writing.
     
    Xoic likes this.

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice