How long do you give a new book to hook you? Readers of contemporary fiction don’t have the attention span and discretionary time that readers had in the 1900s. Or even a decade ago. Now, readers will skim until they get to the point where something interesting happens. Or they put down the book and never finish it.
Thousands of pages have been written on the topic of the first five pages of your manuscript. According to agents and acquisition editors I hear speak at writer’s conferences, those first few pages are the make or break point. They determine whether you’re going to be offered a contract, or get a call from an agent willing to take you on.
If your fiction–short story, personal essay, or novel—doesn’t connect, the editor or agent will never get to the good part where the story really takes off. It may be there in chapter two, around page 20, but if there’s a typo, or a dream sequence, a flashback, your piece is flipped face down on a towering pile of rejects.
Sometimes there’s a typo on page one. A misspelled word. A cliché that’s so old and hoary the agent—or reader—groans. Something like: “Little did I know that today would be the day I would meet _____ and my life would change forever.” These are strong indicators that bad writing, more cliches and typos are piled high in the pages ahead.
Today we start the story when something happens to tip the protagonist—the teller of the story—into a world of trouble. He’s been sailing along in the world of finance, say, or kick boxing or Tenth Grade when something happens. Something big that’s going to knock him flying. This captures the reader’s attention.
The protagonist is presented with a problem that will carry him to the finish of the story, where to some extent he has solved the problem, done something that he couldn’t do in the first pages, grown and changed along the way.
New writers think they have to work in the back story, fill in what’s been happening to the central character or characters or readers for the last five years. They worry that readers will be left not knowing what’s going on. I’m of the opinion that readers are at least as smart as I am. What went before can be implied, or filled in later in the story.
But if I open with my character rambling around in his head about Wall Street or the Indochinese family of kickboxing sports, I’m losing readers who couldn’t care less. They want to see something happen.
They don’t have to know how my protagonist—the detective in my case—got his first job as a stockbroker, or became a kick boxing champion. If I throw a likable character into the fire in the first few pages, they’ll keep reading. We fill in ourselves. What would I do if I discovered a major fraud by my trusted employer friend? How would I enter the cage if I knew my opponent had all but killed the last guy who went up against him?
That’s part of the joy of picking up a new book. What would I do? Would I catch the clue the murderer left? Would you?
Check out for yourself how long you give a new book to hook you. Check out my first three Santa Monica crime novels in a boxed set.
Have I followed my own advice?