What grabs you?

I just spent a great weekend in Gettysburg, PA, at an SCBWI conference—incredibly well organized, plus delightful, inspiring keynote addresses by Patricia MacLachlan and E.B. Lewis. My only regret is that I wish I could have sat in on the break-out workshops and speeches, but I was booked solid with one-on-one manuscript critiques all day Saturday and Sunday morning. For each critique, I was sent the first 10 pages of a YA or MG novel, plus a one-page synopsis, in advance of a 15-minute session with the author. Which leads me to the question at hand…

Whenever I have a lot of critiques in a row (fifteen, in this case), as the day goes on I usually end up identifying one or two key issues that come up in multiple manuscripts. This time out, it seemed like a lot of the openings were rushed—to me, it almost felt like authors were consciously trying to smush all the key ingredients of characterization, setting, conflict, symbolism, voice, etc., into those precious ten pages for my review. However, when I asked if any had tailored their samples specifically for the critique, the answer was a resounding “no.”

Hence, I’m wondering: What’s the main thing you look for in a story? Do you want to meet the main character? Find out the central issue of the book? Dive right into the plot? Or do you want it all? I will say, in several of these critiques I found myself advocating for the author to slow down and let us get to know the main character before diving headfirst into the plot. But maybe that’s just me—which element gets you turning the pages?

18 Responses to What grabs you?

  1. Sounds like a great, but exhausting weekend.

    Would it be cheating if I said main character with plot? I like to care about who I’m going to read about, but I also want to get a hint as to where the story is going. That said, I do like “set up” openings for “big” books, like the opening of ERAGON, for example.

  2. It’s all about character for me. Unless I know who I’m going on this journey with, I’m not interested in going…. That said, sometimes you learn more about the character by seeing them deal with some massive piece of action than if you were introduced more slowly, but in general, I prefer learning about the character before they get tossed into a whirlwind.

  3. RamseyH says:

    I can’t really pick one thing I like in an opening of a book; whatever hooks me works. And of course what works is different for every book.

    Even if your authors didn’t tailor their openings for critiques, there’s a lot of pressure to put everything you’ve got into those first pages – because that’s often the first and only thing an agent sees.

    Often I think writers get critiques that go like this: “Well, this is all very nice characterization, but where’s the PLOT?” or “This is all very exciting, which is nice, but I really want to know the character more!” So then what do we do? Go home and try to put more character/plot/whatever was missing into those opening pages.

    What a critique like that really means, I think, is simply “This didn’t hook me.” The critiquer is trying to find something constructive to say, so they pinpoint the first thing that seems to be missing. But adding in various elements is not going to fix the fundamental issue, which is that it just didn’t hook.

  4. Have you read “Made to Stick”? It has a great chapter on how to get someone’s attention. The key is the “knowledge gap.” But just a gap in knowledge isn’t enough, you have to let the reader know enough so that she’s *aware* that she has a knowledge gap in the first place. I think you can create a knowledge gap in many ways at the beginning — with an interesting character or setting or with an unanswered plot question. And for me, any of of those can work. I blogged about this in more detail here http://blog.liviablackburne.com/2010/05/how-to-get-and-keep-peoples-attention.html

  5. I think it all depends on the ‘tone’ of the story being told; that voice playing with the words.

    For instance, the slow, quirky bleed into Death’s narration of Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF had me, pardon the cheek, dying to read more. But that sort of voice I’m not certain would work in Andrew Smith’s gut check intro to THE MARBURY LENS, which I’m reading right now. (Amazing, btw.)

    Both are different, but like all great books, both manage to seize the reader in distinctive ways. In the end though, for me, it’s about big ideas and how they’re expressed.

  6. Andrea says:

    There needs to be an interesting character (not necessarily the protagonist) and something that makes me care about him or her. It´s hard to pinpoint what that “something” is exactly… I´m quite a patient reader, so I don´t have to have the protagonist nearly killed on page 2 for example, but I like to have an idea where the story is going pretty quickly.

    The stories that grab me most are those where the author gives me the feeling that he or she has something to tell me, to share with me, some kind of perspective on the world that is new to me. Those stories tend to have characters with a lot of emotional and psychological depth, which makes them truly come to life.

  7. Tamara says:

    I’d say that the two most important things are that the author doesn’t play coy and I want the protagonist to want something. First, by playing coy, I don’t want the author to withhold information just because they think it’s going to get me curious. It works sometimes, but usually it’s just frustrating and gimmicky. I’d rather know what the protagonist knows so I know what’s at stake. Second, if the protagonist wants something, I’m there. It could be as simple or huge, but if the character wants something, I want it too.

    Oh, and I think voice has a lot to do with it. It doesn’t have to be “voicey” but I like it to feel like an individual person is talking and telling a story.

    I say this, and then I’m going to immediately think of 10 coy placid characters without much personality that I love. :-)

  8. Linda says:

    Character. Absolutely. If I don’t care about the character, I have a difficult time getting involved with the story. If I fall in love with the character, the rest falls into place.

  9. Like Andrea said, it needs to be an interesting character or a really interesting scenario. Usually this is the main character, but I’m quite accustomed to epic fantasies that open with sort of a one-off chapter or a prologue that foreshadows a bigger conflict in the world. I’m OK with this as long as it’s interesting.

    I think people try to cram a lot into their openings because of the fear that agents and editors will put down their manuscript on the first page or, as pointed out above, offer lots of questions about the entire backstory or character profile before the story even has time to breathe. It’s drilled into our heads that you have to hook, hook, hook, and writers start to think it isn’t possible to do this at a slower pace.

  10. Hillsy says:

    I’ll qualify what I’m about to say by stating I think there’s a huge difference in evaluating a writer’s ability in the first 10 pages, and judging the quality of the book. An Agent making a business call has to almost equate the two, whereas a reader can be a bit more forgiving.

    An example of this would be ‘The Banned and the Banished’ series by James Clemens. Bit of a powder puff opening, not brilliantly written, not great characterisation – and little improved through the 5 book series. However, I bought them all because the story was so good. Mr Clemens has 40 quid of my money, and I’m happy to part with it for the enjoyment of his plot. If I’d given in ten pages and bombed it purely on writing ability, I would have missed out.

    More personally, I want to know what’s going on. I’m not ready to make a judgment about character arc, plot, pacing etc etc in the first ten pages – I just want to know what’s happening, why it’s happening, and to whom. It could be feeding ducks on a park bench, or battling through an alien hanger in 15 foot power armour, but I want clarity. Bland characters can come alive later on….hell a great plot can overcome characters who are always bland. But if I’ve no clue what’s happening in those first few pages, that’s when I start to doubt if I ever will.

    Well, of course they’ve got to have SOME kind of writing ability.

  11. For me, it’s the author’s voice and vision, both of which benefit from being a little bit skewed.

  12. Based on the responses so far, what grabs a reader is as different as the readers themselves. The issue that really stuck with me, as it has in so many other areas, it the increased impatience in this generation. I know this is a huge generalization that may or may not be accurate. But with the cell companies emphasizing their faster and faster information flow, instant gratification seems to be expected from everyone and everything, including whether or not a reader will continue to read a book past the first chapter.
    Doesn’t really answer the question tho….

  13. John says:

    First off, thanks all for chiming in–great discussion! And indeed, it does seem like “different strokes for different folks” is the takeaway here…

    Just to comment, though, on the point that authors are encouraged to “hook” editors and agents right off the bat–while obviously you want the agent/editor to want to read more, I do think it’s a misconception that speed is of the essence. Certainly most of you don’t feel the need for speed in published works–it shouldn’t be any different on submission. And while I agree with Susan that we live in sped-up times, books are still one area where people slow down–for example, as was pointed out to me in a critique on Sunday, we don’t even hear the word “wizard” in the first Harry Potter audiobook until disc 2!

    Okay, speaking for myself as an acquirer, I think several of the above elements could do the trick to get me reading more–a strong character, a high-concept situation, the knowledge gap (great point, Livia), or even an intriguing setting. But as far as plot goes–what about the cover letter/synopsis? Isn’t that meant to show what happens?

    If the plot promised by the synopsis sounds dynamic and exciting, then I’ll certainly entertain a slower beginning that shows me a different element.

  14. Kim says:

    What usually draws me in is place and language. I don’t want to get bogged down by the language, but I love when a scene is painted in a unique way by the author’s words. After the place hooks me, something needs to happen in a reasonable amount of time. I will probably have an idea if the characters are people I want to spend time with before I actually acquire the book.

  15. Andrea says:

    Thanks John, for your comment about “hooking” agents and publishers. It´s good to hear a different view on the dogma (that´s what it seems to be in the land of writing advice, writing workshops and ´how to write´ books).

  16. Stephanie P says:

    the writing…. I can read a book simply because the writing style grabs me.

  17. Linda says:

    Stephanie P -I agree. I have been known to totally lose myself in a book that has wonderful writing. Whether its Robert Parker’s sparse but packed text or Dicken’s wonderful sentences (It was the best of times…”), sometimes it is simply the words that capture me.

  18. Laurel Houck says:

    It’s an interesting take on the usual agent/editor response. I’ve been told over and over that today’s kids can’t focus long enough to get into a story, and everything needs to be up front to grab them, a la video game mentality. I hate that. In my experience as a reader, it’s the build up that hangs on, long after the grab has faded. I hope this is an upcoming trend, that permits the writer to fully develop characters and plot, without having to stuff it into page one!

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