Wednesday, March 3, 2010

First Impression, Last Chance

by Nathan Norton

Certain things in life are kind-hearted enough to extend to you a second chance. Your story’s initial impact on editors is not one of those kind-hearted things.

You get one little lonesome chance. A chance. Not chances . . . chance. One. That’s it. One chance to hook the editor, assistant editor, reading intern, or whatever other English-savvy entity that might be holding your publishing future in the palm of their usually rather opinionated hand.

As a reader for Third Coast, I can say with a certain degree of experience that this is resoundingly and inescapably true. If you don’t believe me, talk to some editors or other lit mag readers. They’ll tell you the same thing. Page one—often sentence one—is where you need to start shining, or else you’ll be discarded like Hillary Duff’s musical relevance.

The first line of a story has a hefty workload. Raise questions, introduce conflict, establish tone and voice, and many times introduce your primary player(s). It doesn’t have to do them all, but it has to do a handful of them. Without most of these elements in the first one or two lines, your reader is already asking, “Why am I reading this?”

The hairy and entirely realistic nature of the beast is that editors don’t have time to sift through your story looking for potential. Fluff is for pillows. Fat is for Albert. Cut them both. Be interesting and direct immediately.

Most editors I’ve spoken with and read advice columns from will give a short story one page to get them interested. The most generous among them ventured as far as three. The cruelest among them said if the first sentence isn’t unique and intriguing, they toss the piece immediately. That means that no matter how amazing your story might get on page twelve when your ninja-wizard detective launches a Montana-shaped fireball out of his Mysterious Trench Coat of Mystery and disintegrates the Dreaded Duck of Doom, the editor didn’t get that far. There wasn’t enough spice in the first page to keep him wanting more.

It really is quite a tall order. And if it crushes your soul just a little to know that many editors may be reading nothing more than a few paragraphs of that masterpiece you’ve been working on . . . well, it should. You have to be at the top of your craft at the top of your product. Evocative language, original voice, conflictive first sentences, they’re all early attention grabbers that seize readers by their easily distracted haunches and demand “I’M WORTH READING!”

Consider some of the following first sentences:

The Zamboni had to go around Joey Cooper, the man thinking about omelets. – Misha Angrist, “So Much the Better”

It was half-past love on New Day in Zenith and the clocks were striking Heaven. – J.G. Ballard, “Passport to Eternity”

A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house. – Raymond Carver, “Viewfinder”

During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. – Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”

I stood in my filthy overalls and boots serving deviled eggs to a woman who had lost her rabbit. – Peyton Marshall, “Bunnymoon”

I know, right? Don’t you just want to read all of those stories right this very moment to find out what in G. Gordon Liddy’s name is going on? These are great examples of mere sentences—not paragraphs, but sentences—that capture attention quicker than Tiger Woods’ personal infidelity captured frenzied media coverage. This is the kind of effect you want to have on your readers. You want a reader to say, “Tell me more, Master Storyteller!” not “Who cares, ya hack?”

Polish that first page. Read it over and over again. If you don’t find yourself grinning just a little at your accomplishments in the preliminary sentences every time the words pass your eyeballs, re-write them until you do. Then re-write them again until your friends and family do. Then re-write them again until complete strangers do. Be sure to make it sparkle. Your first impression could be your last chance.

Nathan Norton serves as intern to the Third Coast fiction editors.


Anonymous said...

Indeed! Great insight Nathan. And two thumbs up for your choice of example sentences. "Fluff is for pillows. Fat is for Albert." Ha ha ha, I LOLed.

Cassie said...

This honestly terrifies me to no end as I wonder whether any thing I write will be published but I also want to find a way to write a first line then one by Khafka about a guy who starves himself! Ha!One things for sure-this blog caught my attention and took me all the way through.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I have to remind myself to walk away from every piece of writing asking the questions "so what, who cares?" and "why should they care?" If it doesn't already answer those questions for a reader, you're in trouble. Every sentence should have a purpose- to "make it sparkle," as you say. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I love this article! It was excellent.