It is that time of year when I am asked to help read entries to the PNWA’s annual writing contest. Writing contests seem to attract submissions that are still very much woks in progress, or at least ought to be works in progress. I tend to personally avoid too much hard advice on fiction writing, but the one piece of advice that comes up over and over again with agents and editors in particular is to make sure your first five pages are strong. I would have to agree. In fact, I would agree standing on a chair and shouting until my teeth rattle. But let me back up. This kind of advice can be obnoxious. It assumes the worst of us. Yet it is born of readers of unpublished, unpolished work slogging through pages of back-story or dense, character-less exposition to finally get the actual story. Thus we have a phrase I have come to loathe: The Grabber Opening.
The literary agent Donald Maass and I discussed this very idea in this month’s interview. Don, who represents a lot of high concept fantasy and science fiction, pointed out that you needn’t have gunfire and sex on the first page to “grab” your reader’s attention. Tension, of some variety, and voice will usually do the trick.
To me, the first pages of a novel is where the writer gains the reader’s trust. Stories are driven by characters in conflict. Conflict creates tension. Readers, for the most part, need to trust that the writer understands this. Thus, from the very beginning, it is in fact important to show characters in conflict, even if that conflict is trying to decide which lipstick to wear. If the character doing the deciding thinks the wrong lipstick will ruin her first date, we have ourselves an opening.
Still, I don’t know how useful this advice really is. It can lead to writing outside yourself, to staring at your first five pages like a math equation to see if it adds up to Grabber. And grab is the wrong verb anyhow. You want to invite your readers to your book. It acknowledges that in the end the reader always has the choice to read or not to read. You can’t actually grab them. The best invitations are always honest, trusting that what the host actually has to offer is enough.