Saturday, February 13, 2010

Turn the Page

First Impressions Part Two
by Kelli Collins, Editor-in-chief, Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc.

So you’ve sent your cover letter and it was short and sweet and contained a blurb that has me jumping up and down and squeeing like a fangirl to read your submission. I open the submission doc—delighted and impressed that you’ve read our guidelines and sent exactly the chapters we required—read the first line, which is appropriately enticing because you’ve read all about the importance of first lines and spent months dreaming up just the right one…

Only to come to a screeching halt at paragraph two—where you proceed to tell me the heroine’s name, age, height, weight, eye and hair color, distinguishing features, boob size, job title, hometown, names of her brothers and sisters, and how she used to be a Wiccan but gave it up when she couldn’t find the nerve to go skyclad during solstice gatherings.

Oh sure, you laugh…but it happens all the time. I routinely read books in which every detail about a character, or details about the room/house/town/state/planet in which the story opens, are all crammed into the first page. Some authors like to call it “setting the scene”.

Editors call it infodumping.

And infodumps aren’t reserved for first pages only; that just happens to be where they regularly appear.

Let me set my own scene for you: Editor X has 3 minutes to spare before she boards a plane, or attends a meeting, or gets to her stop on the subway. Though she’d rather whip out her iPhone and send a few tweets into the ether, she decides to use the time more wisely and takes a peek at your submission. And instead of being instantly caught up in the action of the story, she spends that precious time wading through details she could have learned anywhere in the book (preferably spread thoughtfully throughout), but instead the author decided to chunk it all on the first page, boring Editor X to tears and ensuring the first page she reads will also be her last.

That’s the reality of submission reading. It takes just a few minutes to read that first page, and if you haven’t hooked me immediately, there’s a great chance you never will. Sure, I’ll read several more pages, just to give you a fair shot, but I’m already suspecting the subsequent pages are going to be as ho-hum as the first, and already I’m not looking forward to them.

Leave routine details for later. Yes, I want to know what your heroine looks like so I can visualize her, but I don’t need to know from the first page. It can be discovered more naturally in her narrative later, spread throughout at the most appropriate moments. Or perhaps I’ll learn how lovely her deep red hair looks with her dark green eyes from the hero’s POV, when they first meet, etc.

I want to be in the middle of a breathless foot chase on the first page. Or in the midst of a screaming match between a sassy heroine and her soon-to-be ex. Or trepidatiously walking down a barely trodden path through a moonlit wood on the way to a séance that will hopefully unleash some sexy ghost. Or in a rodeo ring on the back of a bucking bronco with a thousand people cheering my name. Or in bed, the springs squeaking loudly, shouting someone’s name and just on the verge of…

Drop me in the middle of the action, and make me want to keep reading to see how that chase or fight or séance or bronco busting ends. Starting your book with an exciting scene straight from the guts of your plot not only keeps me moving forward—it keeps your story moving forward. And if you’re talented enough, it’ll scarcely stop long enough for readers to catch their breath.

And what reader doesn’t love being breathless?

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