Writing Excuses 16.27: Nobody Wants to Read a Book
Key points: How do you start a novel? What kind of first page do you need? How do you keep them from throwing the book away? Three sales tools, the cover, the jacket copy, and the first page or first paragraph. That first experience is what closes the deal. Make sure you don’t bury the good stuff 30 pages in. Procedurally, give yourself the freedom to write the bits you think you will love, and what leads into that. Then, later, see if you have a hook, and go back and write that. The opening needs to communicate to the reader what kind of rollercoaster they are getting on. Set the hook and pull people into your story. Don’t start at the beginning! That’s often boring. Start with the interesting part. Don’t jump too fast to the big action, though. You may want to use an ice monster prologue, or cold open. Think musical theater overtures!
[Season 16, Episode 27]
[Dongwon] This is Writing Excuses, Nobody Wants to Read a Book.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And I don’t want to read your book.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And you can’t make me.
[Mary Robinette] That’s Howard.
[Dan] So this is the start of our new intensive course, brand-new subject with a brand-new teacher. Dongwon, tell us very briefly a little bit about yourself and about what we’re going to learn about for the next two months.
[Dongwon] Yeah. So, I’m Dongwon Song. I’m a literary agent with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. I do mostly science fiction and fantasy for adults, YA, middle grade. Some graphic novels [garbled] as well. So, we’re going to be talking about here how to start a novel. The importance of first pages, some of the techniques that really work, and we’re going to sort of break down different aspects and then get into some examples over the course of the next few episodes.
[Dan] Awesome. We’re excited. Dongwon’s also kind of the fifth Beatle, so to speak. I think…
[Dan] You’ve been in more Writing Excuses episodes than anyone except the four core hosts. So, we’re always happy to have you.
[Dongwon] I’ve done a couple of them. It’s always a delight to be here, so thank you.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. As you were asking him to introduce himself, I’m like, “I’m pretty sure these folks know him by now.”
[Dan] Well, take it away.
[Dongwon] I get a lot of emails that say I know you from Writing Excuses. So it’s quite lovely. But…
[Mary Robinette] Tell us about first pages, because we’ve got novels to write and we have to convince Howard to read them.
[Howard] Good luck with that.
[Dongwon] Well, so I picked a slightly controversial title for the start of this one, which is Nobody Wants to Read a Book. I pulled that from a quote that crossed my feet recently. There was an interview with this legendary comics writer, John Schwartzwelder, who’s mostly known for his work on The Simpsons. I’m going to read you the quote that was in this interview that was in the New Yorker. It’s “Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it.” This just like perfectly encapsulated how I think about the way you need to start a book. You sort of have to assume that the person who’s picked it up is not interested in what you have. Because in that moment, but they’re really doing is trying to make a decision about am I going to invest in this book. I think we think about that in the bookstore in terms of like I’m going to pay $20, $10, five dollars, whatever it is. But really, the thing you’re asking them to do is to give up hours of their life to spend with your words and your story. There’s a lot of things people can be doing with their time. They could be playing video games, they could be hanging out with their family, playing with their kids. So to get them to do that is a really big task.
[Mary Robinette] True story. Andy Weir gets a ton of ARCs. He got mine and was literally in the process of throwing it away. Like, it was in his hand on the way to the trashcan. Like, the trashcan was below it. He read the back cover copy and he’s like, “Hang on a minute. Apollo era science fiction? That sounds like my jam.”
[Dongwon] Because, I think… That’s a great example, because you really have three major sales tools to convince a reader. One is the cover of your book, right? Whatever shiny image is on there tells them this is the genre, this is the category, this looks cool to me. I like this painted Dragon, right? You have your jacket copy, which, as Mary Robinette was just talking about, is like that opportunity to be like this is what the book’s about in a really concrete way. But, I think the thing that really clinches it, the thing that closes the deal is they open it and they read that first page and say, “Yes, this is for me. This is exciting. I like this voice, I like these words.” So, really, if you think about it… I never encourage you to think about your audience as like a hostile engagement, but in this one case, if you think thinking about it on the way to the trashcan like flying out of their hands, how are you going to grab them in that moment, is such a useful way to approach it. So, I think, when you’re thinking about that, as you’re going into the publishing process, it’s not just readers in the bookstore, right? It’s agents, it’s editors, it’s really everyone in the process. When I’m looking at queries, I look at your pitch, and that is the first thing. But the thing I almost always do, even if I don’t like the pitch, 90% of the time, unless it’s like something truly terrible, I will scroll down and just read the first few sentences. Just to check, just to see, do you have the thing or not. Right? So, often times, even if I don’t like the pitch, if I like those first lines, I’m going to dig in more, I’m going to read that whole sample. I’m [inaudible] right? That is really the opportunity for me and so many people like me to make your case as clearly as possible of why you should be… Why I should be spending this time with you. Why I should be investing all this time and energy into reading your project, in your book, and probably going forward.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. One of the things, when I was… That was super instructive when I was… Before I had started selling novels was I had this children’s book, and I let a friend of mine… A friend of mine’s wife was an editor at a major house. She’s like, “Well, let me take a look at it.” Because I was sitting in… We were in a green room situation, and she’s like, “Well, hand me the manuscript. Let me take a look at it, and I’ll show you how I read things.” She’s like, “I want to make it clear, this is not me reading your manuscript. This is me demonstrating how I do it.” She started reading it. She read about the first page. Then she scrolled ahead real fast and she said, “Yeah. So, I always jump ahead 30 pages because what I find is that most debut authors bury the good stuff 30 pages in.”
[Mary Robinette] “Because the first part of the book is actually them writing their way into figuring out what the book is. Then they don’t cut it later.”
[Howard] Procedurally, the thing that I was going to offer, the tool that I use… I have a reason that I want to write a book. I have a reason I want to tell a story. There’s something about it that has hooked me. Often, my first sessions of writing are an effort to articulate that so that I remain hooked. Those are rarely really good first pages. They’re usually a voice, a couple of chapters in or something. So I allow myself the luxury of writing some of the bits that I think I will love. Then, writing the beginning material that leads into that. Then, at some point, I have chapters, I have scenes, I have material, I have whatever. Much of which deserves to be cut, because it’s a draft. But this discussion of what are the words that I want to put on the page that will prevent Andy Weir from dropping the book actually into the garbage… What are the things that will hook a reader? I don’t lead with that. Because coming up with that bit first is really difficult. But, once I have voice and worldbuilding and character and whatever else, the hook, whatever that hook is going to be, has often revealed itself and it’s not what I would have thought of at first blush.
[Mary Robinette] Which I think is a great segue for us to talking about our book of the week. Which is, The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes. I’m going to just… I’m going to give you a word picture of the cover. The cover is a deep black infinite space with words, The Last Watch, Advanced Reader Copy. But there’s a spaceship that is in the process of exploding. There’s a diagonal stripe of brilliant blue white light. On one half, the ship is exploding, and on the other half, it’s perfectly sound. Then, the blurb is, or the tagline is They’re Humanity’s Last Chance. So, this is the first line of the book, and this is part of… Or the first paragraph of the book. You’ll be getting a lot of these this episode, but this is part of why I was like, “Well, I’m going to keep reading this.”
“Spread your legs and bend over.”
Cavalon’s face flushed. Actually flushed. Embarrassing Cavalon Mercer was a feat few could boast. He was a little impressed.
He looked over his shoulder to grin at the guard, but the sour-faced man narrowed his eyes and jabbed Cavalon’s hip with his shock baton. A jolt of electricity shot along the nerves of his leg.
“Spread ‘em, soldier.”
[Mary Robinette] So what’s fun about this, and part of the reason I was like, “Oh, I’m in,” is because of… She’s just great with the voice of the character. He’s snarky all the way through. She’s also good at unexpected turns. Like, that paragraph goes… That opening goes several different places that you aren’t expecting it. The entire book is very much like that. It is not a predictable read. I just… It’s space opera, it’s great fun. It’s also heartbreaking and super fast-paced. Like these poor people, I think… Anyone who lives to the end of this and… There’s… Spoilers. People die in this book.
[Mary Robinette] Anyone who lives to the end of this book has got to be just packed with PTSD. But… They have snarky breaks. I’m getting there.
[Dongwon] I mean, I think that’s a great example, because so much of what you want to do in the opening of a book is to really communicate to the reader what kind of roller coaster ride they’re getting on. Right? You want to tell them up front this is the kind of book you’re going to be reading. So communicating that it’s snarky, there’s going to be twists, there is a sense of fun, but also there’s a real sense of menace and violence, right? That paragraph gets all of those elements across in very little space which is exactly what you need to be doing. We’re going to talk about this more in detail later, but, like that first paragraph, that first page needs to be doing so much work. It’s going to sound really intimidating as we talk about it, like, “Wait, how do we get all of those things in there,” but there are techniques to do this and there are ways to do this. I think the more you think about how do I put more into this opening page without overwhelming the reader, the more successful you’re going to be at like setting that hook and pulling people into your story.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s so tempting to get right into that, right away, but I know that we’re going to be talking about these tools as we get deeper in.
[Mary Robinette] So, let’s, I think, continue to focus on it from a reader experience. Which is, as you’re saying, the things that cause people to toss a novel away.
[Dongwon] Well, one thing I wanted to hit on, and, Mary Robinette, you and Howard are both touching on this, is a thing that I say a lot is, that the beginning is a terrible place to start. Right? Where the story begins for the characters is often incredibly boring for us as readers. Because nothing’s happening yet. Right? Where the characters are starting their story, they’re entering into the situation, so they’re not in a place that’s intrinsically interesting. There aren’t any stakes for them yet. There’s no tension for them there yet. So one thing I like to think about is how do you skip that proverbial 30 pages ahead, how do you skip to the part where the book is really happening now, and then backfill the information that you need that got the characters to that point? Which is, start at the interesting part. Start with the interesting, don’t start with the beginning.
[Mary Robinette] By the same token, you can start too quickly. One of the pieces of advice that I got specifically for murder mysteries from Hallie Ephron was that mostly the most common thing that she sees is that people start with the body drop, and that you actually have to take a little bit of time to let people see what normal is like before everything starts going completely sideways. So it is this fine line where it’s so tempting to start mise en place, which is… Or mise en scene, which is what this book does, where we are right in the middle of action. But this action that he’s right in the middle of sets promises, but it’s not the big action that is driving the book itself. It’s these breadcrumbs that you want to lay.
[Dongwon] Yeah, the tension in that scene feels like it’s a microcosm of what’s going to be happening, right? There are stakes in that scene of he’s under threat, he’s being shocked by the baton, he’s under some kind of investigation. But we as readers already feel that this is going to be a small thing inside of the greater space of the story. I think being able to communicate that is one of the ways to be really effective.
[Dan] There’s a principle that I talk about a lot, that I refer to as the ice monster prologue, which I stole from the first Game of Thrones book. Not that he calls it that, but that’s where I came up with this. Because sometimes I think you’re right and I would say most of the time, you need to jump ahead, skip those 30 pages and get to where the story gets good. But a lot of the time, especially if what you’re telling is an epic, you want to take a lot of time to establish the character and establish their life and let it breathe before things really get big. So, think about, for example, the opening of Star Wars: A New Hope. Like, if we started with Luke, we would be on a farm in a desert and there would be a good half hour before anything really interesting happened. So instead, they start a little bit before that, and we get a big space battle in the star destroyer and people shooting and droids escaping. It’s only about 10 minutes, but it helps us… It establishes that promise early on, like, stick with me. Were about to go to the boring farm stuff, and it’s obviously… It’s not boring. But just don’t worry. This is the kind of story that has space battles in robots and lasers in it. You just have to trust me while we get through this early farmboy sequence.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. James Bond actually does the same thing with the… It’s called a cold open.
[Mary Robinette] Where he is wrapping up another mission. Because if you actually start at the beginning of this mission, it’s a lot of office building.
[Dongwon] Law & Order is the other great example of you always start with that cold open of… You do have the body drop, but then you can wind back to the detective getting coffee or starting their whatever it is. Prologues are their own huge topic, but I think these are great examples of ways to quickly establish stakes and tone before you get into the characters going about their lives in a very… More gradually warming up to them and warming up to the world.
[Howard] In a… Procedurally, for the writer, I think it’s useful to look at musical theater overtures. If you’ve ever listened to one of those, those overtures will always have elements of some of your favorite pieces in the whole musical, strung together in this sort of medley that then leads into our first scene. That can’t be written, that can’t be composed until the rest of the musical has been written. That’s how hard these first pages may be for you to write.
[Mary Robinette] Metaphorically speaking, the other reason that that’s a good example is that the overtures were originally composed literally to get the audience into their seats. They were there to play while the audience was sitting down. So…
[Howard] Oh, wait. Early Apollo era trombone?
[Mary Robinette] So I think that that brings us to the end of the episode. Which means that we should give you some homework to prepare for next week. Dongwon, you have that for us, don’t you?
[Dongwon] Yeah. So, what I want all of you to do is to go back to the last three books that you read. Sit down and read that first page. Read the first paragraph. Read that first line. Then sit down with a notepad and take notes in a very literal way about what did you find exciting about them. What works for you and what didn’t work for you? What works about a first page is very subjective. So I want you to think about why did I decide to keep reading this or what almost made me throw this book in the trash. Right? What almost kicked you out of the experience in that way? I think as you start to be really analytical about that, you’ll be able to take some lessons and apply that to your own work.
[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.