8.04.2006

Treble in the clef notes

Dear Miss Snark:

I love the blog, the book and all the rest. (the book? the rest? huh?) But I'm e-mailing you this to get a reaction. The following paragraph was pasted, verbatim, from the web site of THE DRILL PRESS. It seems to question all the things we (writers) are trying to perfect these days.

Only a fool would expect a novel to command attention from the first word, sentence, paragraph, or several pages. It is akin to expecting a symphony to open with a wild flourish and maintain such tedium. Nonetheless, when an agent or editor judges a work by the first sentence or page or even chapter, it is the equivalent of judging a symphony by the first measure. Of course, the soulless masses prefer short, soulless ditties. And the mindless prefer empty-headed writing. We don't expect to find readers or authors within this faceless clot of bozos.



A symphony doesn't need to open with a wild flourish to command attention. Think of the last symphony you attended. The audience came into the hall, sat down, coughed 8 gazillion times, then turned their attention to the musicians. They gave their attention to the performance.

Now, if the musicians stink (and they aren't your precious loinfruit) your attention wanders pretty quickly.

Even if they don't stink, if they're just not very good, your attention wavers. And if you think you can't tell the difference between the Florence Jenkins Junior High Orchestra and the NY Philharmonic after six notes, you need to turn up your hearing trumpet.

I don't take anyone seriously when s/he starts throwing around phrases like "soulless masses" in a marketing statement. I prefer my frothing at the mouth hyperbole to be confined to gin tasting contests.

35 comments:

Suzanne Rorhus said...

Only a fool would expect to bore a reader but still retain him.

This applies to literary work as well as thrillers. Nothing has to explode for a piece of writing to command attention. Each sentence must compel the reader to the next, just as each note in a symphony compels the listener. A sour note signals the listener that he is in the hands of an incompetent, not a maestro. So it is with writing. If the prose is dull at the beginning, it is unlikely to be worth reading later in the text.

Look at the website excerpt itself. The first sentence begins with, "Only a fool would..." This follows the writing advice to put compelling conflict on every page. Conflict isn't melodrama. Rather, it is simply adversarial. In this case, the author has set up a dichonomy between people who agree with him and "fools". That's conflict, and therefore compelling writing.

By the way, the soulless, mindless masses don't buy books, so you needn't worry about them. Just focus on the highly intelligent, discerning group we call "readers".

Lyndyn said...

Speaking as a reader, life is too short (and there are too many great books out there) to plod very long through a book that doesn't grab me pretty quickly. I usually give it a page...maybe two...before moving on to the next one. (Happily, my days of having to read stuff and then write a book report on it are pretty much over.)

Do I miss out on great stuff...surely. I made myself push on with the rather gigantic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell when I would have set it aside and was very glad I did - but that is a pretty rare exception to my rule. So, yeah, I don't need clashing symbols and a camel to wander on stage in the first paragraph, but the writing needs to hook me somehow.

Lorra said...

Beethoven's Fifth

Stravinsky's Rite of Spring

Grieg Piano Concerto

And so forth and so on -

Lyndyn said...

Did I write Symbols? I meant (probably) cymbals...Hmmm...I shouldn't post on only half a cup of coffee. *G*

BuffySquirrel said...

I remember having to read Tess of the d'Urbervilles for English 'A' level. Hard as I tried, I couldn't get into that book, which starts with a long description of Matlock Vale and a man sitting on a bank. Once I finally got past that, I was hooked. Had I not HAD to read the book, I wouldn't have bothered struggling on with it.

Openings matter.

HawkOwl said...

It's a lame analogy for at least two reasons. One, a symphony doesn't need a "wild flourish" to get the audience's attention. Two, the best symphonies (i.e. Mendelssohn's, not that I'm biased or anything) do in fact start right in the thick of things.

Alphabet said...

If you're going to try elitistism, then you need to meet your own standards.

First,
"...akin to expecting a symphony to open with a wild flourish and maintain such tedium."

Tedium?

Second,
What about the opening of Beethoven's Fifth? Or Third? Or Mahler's Eighth? Of Janacek's Sinfonietta? I could go on and on.

Third,
Agents and readers aren't really looking to be hooked by a flourish - many great novels open quietly (as do many great symphonies). They're checking for a basic competence, a sense of purpose and craft without which the question of whether a novel is *really* worth fighting for an publishing will not arise. Does the prose sound like a first attempt at orchestration by someone whose grasp of harmony is tenuous, or does it sound like someone with a full grasp of the musical language they're deploying?

Sherry Decker said...

Every great book I've ever read interested me in the first paragraph - often the first line.
Those early words may not have been exciting or amazing, but they interested me. There was something there that made me blink, and say hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

suzanne rorhus said: "the soulless, mindless masses don't buy books, so you needn't worry about them."

I disagree. Those million-plus mindless idiots that bought Bridges of Madison County are living proof. So it is with the Davinci Code. Good ideas, crummy writing.

Ryan Field said...

As a reader I expect to be hooked on the first page. Though I once read where Rita Mae Brown will read the same amount of pages that equal her age when beginning a new novel, the older I get the less patience I have. When I write I simply assume people to be as impatient as I am.

magz said...

Ahem. Why do I feel as if a very basic point has been missed here?

Submitting a query is REQUESTING an opinion, from someone who's opinion you supposedly value.
Joining a critique group or hiring a book doctor is BUYING an opinion in one form of coin or another.

The first example's opinions are based upon their Percieved value of your work,
the second is based on Real value. Ask, and you may or may not recieve the instant gratification you seek,
pay for the opinion and you'll get what you paid for.

Seems fairly simple to me, unlike the exerpt from Drill Press which struck me as rather angst-ridden and pretentious. (Ya musta caught MS in a mellow mood, hehe)
Just sayin.. regards, Maggie

Pepper Smith said...

Erm...wow. The writer of that excerpted bit either doesn't have the ability to tell the difference between good and bad writing, or the company is trying to attract writers whose work doesn't have a good hook. If the latter's the case, I certainly wouldn't want to buy anything from them.

OOOOO, opening paragraph of the About Us page: "We're a new press with lofty ambition. The goal is to publish higher entertainment for those who enjoy using a brain, avoiding the milieu created by a US industry filtered by semi-literate agents pimping cliché-mongers to a few major houses printing so little of merit the probability of finding a book published within the last decade and worth reading is, for all intents and purposes, zero."

Ah, the light dawns. Perhaps they've already tried getting published the traditional routes and couldn't? Otherwise, this all sounds incredibly pretentious. (well, it sounds incredibly pretentious anyway, but...) When your publishing 'manifesto' as much as states that you're doing it to stick it to the big guys, you've pretty much branded yourself as someone who's tried, missed, and decided you're too good for them and they wouldn't know good writing if it bit them on the rear.

word verification: umybun Almost sounds like breakfast.

Dwight The Troubled Teen said...

"My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name Suzie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."

- The Lovely Bones/Sebold

Two sentences. I read two sentences standing in the aisle at Border's. Two sentences after which there was no doubt that I was going to buy the book and read every page.

I may have experienced mild disappointment with parts of the novel as I read along, but neither Alice Sebold nor Little, Brown has yet to send me even a partial refund.

Dave said...

As other have pointed out, the analogy presented in the quotation comparing books and music doesn't hold. One doesn't have to go back to the classics to realize that. Think back to the old game show "Name That Tune" and even the most mundane of popular music was known by its opening.

The opening of a literary work should engage the reader in some way. Anyone who says differently is wrong.

-c- said...

You know, readers get hooked because they care about characters. And readers only care about characters who care about something *themselves.* So if your writing is pretty good (if you can "play"), all you need to do is present a character right away who has some sort of issue--who cares about something. Any little teeny tiny insignificant thing. That's how you hook a reader. You don't need a murder, or a car crash, or a wild flourish. I don't know how the advice that "something has to happen on page 1" got distorted into "something earthshattering has to happen."

amy said...

Just curious -- Am I the only person who doesn't pick books by the first page?

If I'm standing in a book store, I check out the front cover, the back cover, and then I open the book up right in the middle. I'll look for a section of dialogue, a section of narrative, and if I like the style and content, I buy it.

I just think it's really hard to get the jist of a book from its first page. Am I the only one?

Anonymous said...

"Treble in the clef notes." Gotta love the title! I keep saying it over and over to myself, and smiling every time.

Bugwit Homilies said...

The novel doesn't have to grab you by the throat from the first words, it just has to be interesting. Buffysquirrel mentioned Tess. Well, no one's buying modern authors who write just like Hardy. If Hardy submitted that today, he'd be told to re-write the beginning, and a lot more, besides.

I'll tolerate that in a classic novel, but when I read something published last week, I expect to be engaged by something, anything, before a page or two has gone by.

Call me a cretin, but I think that's the market that we face.

overdog said...

When I start a book, I'm prepared to be entertained (or educated, enlightened, whatever). I want it, expect it, hope for it. I'm willing to believe what the author tells me. I'm ready to receive.

It's when my trust is broken that I put the book down. My trust is broken by anything from poor grammar to bad structure, weak characterization or just plain boredom. But if those things don't show up on the first page, I'll keep going until they do.

That means I'll read as long as the book is well-written, well-built and entertaining. I believe that begins in sentence number one.

archer said...

In this week's New Yorker, Alex Ross
refers to the opening chords of Don Giovanni as "punitive."

Michele Lee said...

The Drill Press has a three page "Mission Statement" about the soulessness of the publishing world and how horrible everyone involved in it is, just looking for the quick buck, and then how they are not like that. I was going to submit a story to them until I read it. I have to say it was the first time I ever crossed a market off my list because I didn't want the drama.

amicietta said...

Ha. If only the "soulless, mindless masses" were as enlightened and open-minded as we are, they would see the error of their ways and become just like us.

Jane Lebak said...

Clearly the person who wrote that never listened to Mozart. The overture to the Marriage of Figaro begins with a flourish and continues the intensity until you think the violins are throwing off heat. And it doesn't have to maintain that intensity the whole way through, but you're hooked.

The novel doesn't have to command your attention, but by golly, it kind of does need to *start.* Nothing makes me more crazy than reading a hundred pages of a 400 page work only to turn to my husband and say, "She could have included all this in one paragraph of backstory, because now the story is finally about to start. I think."

Deschanel said...

I'd like to point out that a large part of Miss Snark's many devotions are writers seeking advice as they begin to seek a home for their work.

When you're already an established author, you can be as leisurely as you like setting up your story.. but for a newbie like moi, I imagine it like the amateurs on "Showtime at the Apollo". You want to GRAB that audience's attention quickly, or Mr. Bojangles with the hook is going to escort you off to the delight of the crowd..

Anonymous said...

my precious loinfruit? After cleaning my screen and keyboard, I figured out you meant my kids. Now, however, I have another image for the hubby's ol' Still Life With Banana And Plums.

HiltonRC said...

HEY, READ THIS! It was a bright and blurry day when Sammy Soulless went to town and it was a bright and blurry day when he came back.

Now that I have your attention, I have nothing more to say until page 147. But if you skip to 147 you won't know that Sammy Soulless is really Sara Soulful, so the bunny hop with Dulles Messes won't mean much to you. BUT I got your attention. Now buy the damn book.

***

It doesn't matter if you're writing for the soulless masses or the eclectic elite, you have to get their attention and make them want to read or they won't buy. Although there are the soulless elite who buy books strictly because Binky Bright bought a book and the SE want to impress her/him.

To paraphrase the Duke: It don't mean a thing if the cash register don't ring.

Elektra said...

Even good ongs which don't start out with a bang will draw the listener in, because there's tension from the start--just like there should be in a novel. An amazing example of this is Frank ticheli's An American Elegy (if you've never heard it, go to manhattanbeachmusic RIGHT NOW and listen to it for free. It's phenomenally beautiful, written for the students of Columbine). It starts out quite small, but I defy you to stop the recording once it's begun.

Deb said...

I'm not sure whether I'm missing the point, or whether the previous posts do.

When we begin reading a book, we don't have a "stake" in stopping after the first paragraph. After all, we've paid good money or spent good time at the library choosing this book. We already have some minimal investment when we open to Page One.

Editors and others don't. They might quit reading after the first line. They might give it a whole paragraph before they move on to the next MS, in which they might, MIGHT give us an entire page before wallbanging!

A more valid comparison, I think.

T2

WitLiz Today said...

Here's what I do when looking for a new book to read.

I start at the end of the book, and if I like it, I check it out of the Library. No muss, no fuss and you save some money.

Newbie writers, just write. If it isn't the Wall Street Journal, what the hell are you doing finding websites, like the Drill Sergeant to further torture yourself.

How many more ways can newbie writers think up to torture themselves? I'm a newbie writer, and I follow this advice from a famous writer, that I took from one semester, 30 years ago.

"Now go write, and quit fucking around!"

They didn't even use the word fucking much back then. So he wasn't telling me politely.

Quit thinking and just write. Really, creative writing classes would be an excellent start if you have doubts about your writing.

MichaelPH said...

"To paraphrase the Duke: It don't mean a thing if the cash register don't ring."
Doo wop--doo wop--doo wop--doo wow!

--

Great Lovely Bones example, she had me hooked then and there with intriguing plot and character. With my novel I hit the ground running (literally) with a murder and subsequently introduce the main character in the light of day. I like grabbing the reader immediately. Entice then introduce.

Just Me said...

When we begin reading a book, we don't have a "stake" in stopping after the first paragraph. After all, we've paid good money or spent good time at the library choosing this book. We already have some minimal investment when we open to Page One.

I could have this wrong, but I don't think the moment under discussion is the moment when you get the book home and sit down to read it - at which point you would have some investment. I think it's the moment when you're standing in the bookshop, or the library, and flicking through a book, deciding whether or not you're going to take it home with you. At this point, you don't have any investment at all, and if it doesn't catch you, then yes, you'll put it down.

I'm like Amy - I flip to the middle of the book and read a bit of narration and a bit of dialogue, rather than looking at page 1 - but I read somewhere that the majority of browsers go for the opening page.

And one of the best opening sentences in the world:

'The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.' - Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Right away, bam, you know that someone's dead and that this puts the narrator and some other people into a very serious situation. Bunny doesn't actually die till halfway through the book, but believe me, you're willing to wait.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Miss Snark, you've misread the writer's point about a symphony. He wasn't referring to the competency of the musicians in interpreting the composition, but the value of the composition itself.

I think there is some validity to his analogy.

Anonymous said...

An anonymous said: I disagree. Those million-plus mindless idiots that bought Bridges of Madison County are living proof. So it is with the Davinci Code. Good ideas, crummy writing.

Damn! I'm a soulless mass. I read both these books, and while I could criticize endlessly, I couldn't put either one of them down.

And that's what we want from out readers, isn't it? Their not being able to put a book down.

PicAxe

Samuel Tinianow said...

Well, apparently I'm a fool, because I put dozens upon dozens of books back on the bookstore shelves every year based on the first sentence, paragraph, and few pages, and I make even more judgement calls on unpublished manuscripts for similar reasons.

Methinks the folks at Drill Press have grossly misinterpreted what is meant by the "hook." It doesn't have to be grand or over-the-top; it just has to be good. Hell, I'm even willing to settle for passable if I see anything the least bit promising in it. The fact is, a story that fails to hook the reader is a story that has done something very, very basic very, very wrong, very, very early on; to say that this doesn't bode well for the rest of it is an understatement.

More importantly, I think they've forgotten that even the most educated, literate people are looking, first and foremost, to be entertained by what they read. Believe me, it is possible to write unconventional, thought-provoking fiction that is still highly entertaining.

Justine Musk said...

Can't help thinking that too much focus is put on 'grabbing' or 'hooking' the reader -- using these violent terms that suggest explosions, murdered fourteen-year-olds, etc.; until it would appear that you can't have a story without blowing something up or having your protagonist wake up as a cockroach within the very first lines. Sometimes these are fine -- when they genuinely set up the story and aren't there as 'look at me!' gimmicks -- but the purpose of a good opening is not to punish the reader. Especially today, when most readers also happen to be jaded movie-goers who have seen it all done before, with killer special effects, in the movie theatre.

A good beginning is about intriguing the reader: introducing him or her to a situation on the tilt of change; raising a question that the reader finds he or she wants answered. And, of course, doing this with some feel for style and place and character. When you know what your story truly is -- and often it takes a complete draft or two to figure this out -- then you also know where it truly starts. As for this idea that it must start with an 'explosion' or 'shock' of one kind or another -- the problem there is: the reader has no reason to care (yet) about the people in the explosion, so beyond a general love for humanity (which the reader might or might not share), why care? -- and also, you've just set the starting point for the book's rising action, so that there must be more and bigger and more and bigger explosions (or shocks) from that point forward. That is not necessarily a book. That is a Jerry Bruckheimer film. And not even one of the good ones. What you want to do is set off a chain reaction of interesting and ever-involving questions, where each answer opens up into another question and the reader moves deeper and deeper into the story.

I'm reading 'Lost Hearts of Italy' (Andrea Lee) -- published by Big Soulless Company for Soulless Reader/Writer such as myself -- and this is the opening:

The call comes three or four times a year. Always in the morning, when Mira's husband and children have left the house and she is at work in her study, in the dangerous company of words -- words that are sometimes docile companions and at other times bolt off like schizophrenic lovers and leave you stranded on a street corner somewhere.


All the woman is doing is sitting at her desk writing, and listening to the phone -- and yet I the reader want to know more. By heading off with the mention of the calls that 'only' come a few times a year -- and yet they do, always, come -- you sense a cosy domestic situation at risk here -- her family's out, she's alone, and this other presence is sliding in via the phone when she is at her most vulnerable and unsure (as suggested by her writing, the link of language to dangerous eroticism).

I'm hooked. (Very good book, by the way).


And now I'm off to write for the soulless masses. And feeling damned lucky to do so.