Before I launch into what I anticipate will be a juicy discussion of today’s winning entry in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, I have some good news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community. Remember memoirist and blogger Shaun Attwood, whose guest blog on the difficulties of bringing horrific jail conditions to light moved in last year’s censorship series? If you don’t recall his first guest post here, perhaps you will recall his second post last summer, which I introduced by both celebrating the U.K. release of his memoir, HARD TIME: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail (Mainstream Press), and bemoaning the fact that although he was writing about his experience in a U.S. jail, his memoir was not available in this country.
I am delighted to announce that is about to change: an American edition of HARD TIME will be coming out from Skyhorse Publishing this coming spring. In fact, it is already available for preorder on Amazon, but so you may recognize it later in brick-and-mortar bookstores, it will look a little something like this:
And that’s not all: somewhat to my surprise, I am writing the introduction for it. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising to all of you, for I have been a tireless booster of Shaun’s writing since I first clapped eyes upon it, shortly after he left his first comment here.
Quite apart from the extraordinary subject matter, Shaun’s is a writing success story. As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for the last couple of years may recall, Shaun first joined us as a memoirist struggling to write his first book proposal — and as one of the most fascinating bloggers out there on the web. Shortly after he shared his extraordinary story with us here he landed an agent and a U.K. book deal. And soon, his story will be available in the land that gave rise to it.
Which just goes to show you, campers: it can be done. Congratulations, Shaun!
While we’re in a celebratory mood, let’s turn to another long-time member of the Author! Author! community, Linda McCabe. With genre-appropriate fanfare, even.
The co-third place winner in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, the first page of THE LEGEND OF THE WARRIOR MAID AND THE SARACEN KNIGHT struck the judges as a delightfully traditional addition to the epic fantasy market. At a time when so many fantasy submissions are stuffed to their proverbial gills with trendy paranormal elements — fine in themselves, naturally, but in the fifteenth similar work Millicent the agency screener sees on any given day, bound to seem a trifle on the common side — Linda has made the very interesting choice of grounding her tale’s opening in solid realism.
What renders it even more interesting is that the book itself contains a fairly untraditional twist. As Linda’s entry explained to the judges:
The Legend of the Warrior Maid and the Saracen Knight is an epic historical fantasy in the time of Charlemagne with a tale of impossible love between sworn enemies. It deviates from traditional quest stories by having the heroine, and not the hero, receive the call to adventure.
Piques your interest, doesn’t it? Given that laudable ambition, one would expect the heroine to appear on page 1, right?
That actually doesn’t happen here — leading the judges to wonder whether a rushed Millicent would read far enough to realize just how untraditional this traditionally-voiced tale actually is at its core. While the opening page was interesting, evocative, and promised excitement to come, it is very solidly in the tradition (there’s that word again) of male-centered battle epics.
Take a gander and judge for yourself. As always, if you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.
Engaging, certainly, but it doesn’t exactly display its most exotic wares up front, does it? Equally important, if you were the Millicent who requested this manuscript based upon the descriptive paragraph above, would you feel that the page fulfilled the description’s promise? Or even that this book was about the expected protagonist?
Pick your jaws off the floor, multiple character-jugglers. Sad but true, 99% of Millicents will simply assume that the first-named character in the manuscript — or at any rate, the primary actor in the opening scene — is the protagonist.
So what about this page 1 would alert her that this is a story that stretches the well-established boundaries of battle epics? Unfortunately, nothing. And that’s genuinely a problem, since Linda’s telling quite a story here.
Don’t believe me? Okay, take a peek at her synopsis, then glance again at that first page.
A love foretold between sworn enemies will determine the fate of Christendom.
Bradamante, the niece of Charlemagne, and Ruggiero, a Saracen knight descended from Hector of Troy, are renowned warriors who meet and fall in love on a battlefield before being separated.
Bradamante is later sent on a mission to rescue Ruggiero who is being held captive by the wizard Atallah. She learns of dueling magical forces trying to influence which of two prophecies regarding Ruggiero will come to pass. He is either destined to convert to Christianity, marry her, and sire a line of heroes before dying tragically or he will remain a Saracen and bring about the destruction of the Frankish Empire devastating Christendom. Atallah is aware of these divergent prophecies and is determined to protect Ruggiero from harm; he views Bradamante’s love as a threat to Ruggiero’s life.
The tale of impossible love between Bradamante and Ruggiero is set against the backdrop of a holy war between Islamic and Christian armies shown in bloody sieges in Marseille and Paris. Other legendary heroes such as Orlando and Renaud de Montauban are featured in this retelling of a classic tale of chivalry, betrayal, revenge and magic.
Sounds exciting, eh? But try to wiggle yourself into Millicent’s snow boots for a moment: does it seem as though there’s a slight disconnect between the story as told in the synopsis and the one that appears to be starting on page 1? To put it in another, more positive way, is this page 1 an effective salesperson for the unusual twist on a chivalric romance promised by the synopsis?
The judges reluctantly answered these questions no and yes — despite the fact that the writing here is clear (less common in submissions than one might think), the voice category-appropriate, and the opening a good hook into what is to come. Yet with the quirky logic that often dictates which entries end up as finalists and which place in literary contests, the judges decided to include this first page in the winners’ circle precisely because of this inherent marketing tension.
The fact is, well-written manuscripts fall into this trap all the time, and it places their work at a significant competitive disadvantage at submission time. By assuming that Millicent will not base her decision on whether to read, say, the truly genre-busting material in Chapter 5 upon her impression of page 1, a submitter runs the risk of having his fascinating premises, characters, and plot elements simply overlooked.
Well might you gnash your teeth. “But it’s clear by page 15 how different my story is from what’s currently available in my book category! Heck, by page 31, it’s completely apparent how it is better!”
I can well believe it, teeth-gnashers. You wouldn’t believe how many otherwise excellent submissions don’t really get going — or have a terrific opening line — until page 4. Or 14, or 44. But by then, alas, Millicent has probably already made up her mind about what kind of book it is and whether it adds something new to the market.
I can feel the laser-like heat of your glares through my computer screen, but it’s far, far better that you hear this from me than have your manuscript rejected on page 1, is it not?
So let’s go ahead and coin an axiom on the subject: unless it is pellucidly clear on page 1 what kind of book this is and who will want to read it, even a well-written, book category-appropriate story may get rejected. It’s savvier submission strategy, then, to open the book with the element that you feel is the most marketable, rather than hiding it later in the manuscript.
Yes, this may well run afoul of the way you originally envisioned telling the story, but pull it off, and trust me, you’ll bless Linda to your dying day for bringing this subtle submission problem to your attention.
Oh, and unless you happen to be writing in a book category where it is not the norm to open the book with a scene centered on the protagonist — which is to say, if you are not writing science fiction, fantasy, thriller, or literary fiction — you might want to structure your book so the first name Millicent sees is your hero/ine’s. Even in those categories, you might consider at least a prologue featuring your protagonist front and center.
Hey, Millicent reads a lot of submissions in your chosen book category in any given week. In that vast sea of characters, can you really blame her for wanting to latch onto a protagonist as soon as she possibly can.
I heard that. But the proper answer is: no, I can’t. She has a hard job, and honestly, it’s not her fault that she doesn’t have time to read all the way to page 15, let alone 30, to find out how genuinely innovative your premise is. Or how beautifully written that line that would have made a great opening is if it’s hidden on page 6.
She’s essentially a treasure-hunter, you know. Make her discovering you a trifle less challenging.
The classic means of correcting this problem — and I’m sure you’ve seen this in published novels — is to lift an exciting scene featuring the protagonist from later in the story and open the book with it. Such scenes are often presented as a very brief prologue, sometimes just a couple of pages long. The idea here is to toss the reader directly into the center of a conflict, bring it to the boiling point — then end it abruptly. Appetite whetted, the reader then will proceed to Chapter 1 more or less in its original form.
Another means of making your pot of gold shine better: impeccable formatting. There’s actually only a single formatting problem here — did you catch it?
No? Okay, let’s see how Millicent would have responded to this page:
What can we learn from this, other than that our Millie’s handwriting can get a trifle wobbly when she’s editing on a plane that’s just hit turbulence? (Don’t worry; I’ll mail Linda a more legible copy.) First, that single-spacing is not appropriate for a subtitle: if Linda simply double-spaced the first line on the page, it would be perfect.
Not certain what that would look like on the page? Here you go.
Millie’s turbulence-influenced scrawls also point up a couple fairly standard professional readers’ pet peeves. She’s noted the single-sentence paragraphs at the top and near the bottom of the page, for instance: a narrative paragraph in English prose is made up of at least two sentences, so many a Millicent would have flagged this one. (A single-sentence paragraph is perfectly acceptable in dialogue, of course.)
Yes, I know Joan Didion uses single-sentence paragraphs all the time. So do journalists. That doesn’t mean a novelist trying to land an agent for a first book should take the risk.
Let’s see, what else? In line 3, she’s crossed out and realized, which actually could have stayed. Any guesses why she recommended cutting this little bit of verbiage?
This is a subtle one: in a tight third-person narrative, what is described is generally assumed to be from the protagonist’s perspective — and thus conclusions drawn in the text are assumed to be his. But that’s not the only reason this cut might be a good idea: using short, choppy sentences at moments of stress echoes the breathlessness of surprise.
Hey, I wasn’t kidding about it being subtle.
There’s another element that might annoy some Millicents, although it clearly did not trouble ours: showing Ruggiero’s thoughts in italics. Some professional readers positively hate this; they feel, and with some justification, that a talented writer should be able to differentiate between thought, speech, and narrative without resorting to funky type.
“What’s wrong with he thought?” such Millicents fume — and their boss agents may even have instructed them to fume so. “Or just showing someone calling the guy’s name?”
As our Millicent’s leniency on this point demonstrates, however, such fuming is not universal amongst professional readers. There is no one-size-fits-all solution here; tolerance of italicized thought varies from book category to book category, and even agency to agency. Generally speaking, though, the more educated the intended readership, the lower the tolerance for this device.
What’s a good test for whether thought italicization acceptable in your chosen book category? Hie yourself to a brick-and-mortar bookstore well stocked in that category and start pulling volumes off the shelves. Not just any books in your category, mind you: stick to ones published within the last three years. If none of the first ten you select feature italicized thought within the first ten pages, I would avoid it.
Does this seem like a lot of possible pet peeves for just a first page of text? Actually, in practice, it’s remarkably few: the average submission tends to be rife with potential for Millicent-annoyance.
Admittedly, this particularly page 1 promises enough adventurous delights to come that Millie might turn down her annoyance meter a little — and turn to page 2. You know, just to see what happens.
And that, my friends, is how you know when a first page is a grabber: when a professional reader can’t wait to get to page 2. The writer won’t be there to see it, of course, but given how many submissions get rejected on page 1, it’s definitely a triumph.
Well done, Linda! Best of luck to your warrior princess and her knight.
Be sure to tune in tomorrow, when we shall be examining another grabber of a first page. In the meantime, keep up the good work!
P.S.: the nifty animation appears courtesy of the fine folks at Feebleminds. Let’s take another look at it before I sign off for the evening, shall we?