Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Gulp Factor

There's a great post on emerging writer's blog about an international literary contest, where brave writers anonymously submit the first page of their novel to be read aloud in front of a panel of agents, who all shout "STOP!" at the point where they'd cease reading. A sort of Britain's Got Talent for writers. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but it was interesting to read some of the reasons given for not wanting to read on...

Opened with rhetorical question(s).

The first line is about setting, not about story.

The first line’s hook did not work, because it was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene.

Took too long for anything to happen (a critique, incidentally, leveled several times at a submission after only the first paragraph had been read); the story taking time to warm up.

Not enough happens on page 1.

The opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch, rather than getting the reader into the story.

The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”

The opening contained the phrase, “This can’t be happening.”

The opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”

The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. Specifically singled out: a character who shakes her head to clear an image, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.”

The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse for a physical description.

The first paragraph was straight narration, rather than action.

Too much physical description in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict.

Opening spent too much time on environment, and not enough on character.

There are LOADS more reasons on the author author site and only 8 on why an agent WOULD read on. Blimey.

I'm guilty of one of the above, but I'm not going to say which (shakes head to clear cobwebs. No it wasn't that one.) I like to think I've done it in a lightly amusing fashion, rather than a cliched one though I'm probably wrong.

Either way it's definitely worth whipping out that first page again and trying to make it really stand out. Thing is, can I keep it up for the rest of the novel?


Lane said...

Gulpy gulpy!.

Off to check my first page and follow your links. Might be doing some more gulping too:-)

womagwriter said...

One of my favourite openings is, My name is Susie Salmon. Like the fish. (Start of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.)

And, Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again (start of Rebecca) would fail according to these criteria too!

There's no hope.

Suzanne said...


Harsh list.

Leigh said...

Oh, I read through those on Author Author feeling quite smug, until I hit one that kinda wipes out my whole novel...

Ah well. Better to be humiliated in the privacy of my own study, than in front of countless others, all rejoicing in my downfall.

Anna said...

ta love... I'm gonna go check right now... :)))

Calistro said...

Wow - that's a fairly terrifying list. Thank god I hadn't seen it before I subbed my novel as it starts with a question. Not a rhetorical question but a question never the less (following by a multiple choice). I'm sure the panel would have hated it!

Bernadette said...

Is it just me, or does it seem like they're looking for faults rather than looking for something to enjoy?

As Womag says, there's no hope!

SpiralSkies said...

Oh my good Lord. I can't bear to look. Only 8 that would make them read on? *Gulp*

L-Plate Author said...

Jeez, now I daren't even look at the first line of my novel...

Gret post Karen, cheers! Good luck with your first line! x

HelenMHunt said...

That is pretty scary. I wonder if Simon Cowell was one of the judges :)


Who pray judges the judges? Tommox

Dumdad said...

There are some good pointers there but all great novels start in their own peculiar way. At random, I leant across from my computer and picked up Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. The opening sentence:

"The boulevard du Cange was a broad, quiet street that marked the eastern flank of the city of Amiens."

What a gripper (not)! Yet this novel is a wonderful read and a bestseller.

Debs said...


Interesting post though. I'm now going off to read the eight that they would accept, or whatever it was.

Fionnuala said...


THere is no hope!

Why do we do it?

A similar post from another writer friend of mine said that first person present tense POV is completely out as well.

I'm with TF. Who judges the judges.

(Me! Me! Please? She says waving a hysterical hand in the air....)


KAREN said...

lane - I think I might have over-thought my first page now, it's starting to make no sense whatsoever!

womagwriter - It just shows there aren't any 'rules' really. Maybe it all depends what mood the judges are in?

suzanne - I've decided not to look at it any more!

leigh - That's what I thought when I realised my classic blooper. I was going to leave it in, but I don't want to risk ruining my chances altogether :oO

anna - Might be best not to on second thoughts!!

calistro - There's a lot to be said for ignoring such information until the novel's done and dusted. It's tempting to throw in the towel otherwise!

bernadette - Well, that's what I thought to be honest. It seems, from reading the site, that they were actually kinder than they were last year too. The mind boggles!

spiralskies - It made me briefly want to take up something simpler, like mountain-climbing...

l-plate - I think I've cracked it, but no doubt I'll have changed my mind by the end of the week!

helenmh - You are OBSESSED with that man - it's got to stop! Those teeth! They're just too white.

tommo - That's a damn good question :o) Maybe there should be an alternative competition?

dumdad - You're right. I had a look at a couple of novels that broke the so-called rules too, and it certainly hasn't done their popularity any harm. Soooooo confusing.

debs - It's interesting, but I'm not sure how much notice we should take. As Bernadette mentioned, it seemed more like they were looking for faults than anything positive!

fionnuala - Well, quite.
I remember Fay Weldon saying that in an interview about present tense POV, yet I've read a lot of novels recently that are, and they got published! Maybe we should just stop reading and listening to 'advice' altogether?

Amanda said...

Gulp! I shall have another look at my first page!!
Author, Author is a good blog - thanks for the link.

Alex Moore said...

glad i found your blog... interesting stuff here.

Susie Vereker said...

Oh dear, back to the drawing board. Trouble is, all these how-sites and books sap the confidence.
'It was a dark and stormy night...'

February New Year's Resolution (better late than never)

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