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ENTRY

Gripping writing
February 28, 2013

I recently got feedback from an agent on a proposal for a novel. The proposal consisted of a two-page synopsis and a few pages of sample writing. She said my premise was strong, but the first pages of the beginning didn't draw her into the story. Of course, I know that it's critical to get the reader hooked into the story sooner rather than later, and I thought that's what I was doing with my opening paragraphs: A sympathetic young woman meets a mysterious man who intrigues her but there is also a whisper of danger about him. I think that should work, shouldn't it? Here's a little bit from the first page (the story opens in Paris in 1680):

The stranger's reflection floated through the afternoon haze and settled next to her reflection in the fabric shop window. The man was gazing at her, studying her, so she turned away from the glass and addressed him over her shoulder. "Do I know you, monsieur?"

"No, mademoiselle, but that unfortunate situation will soon be corrected."?
She shifted to face him but within that instant he was at her side. "You move quickly,"? she said. "In more ways than one."

Rather than shrug off the agent's response and send the proposal elsewhere, I decided to try to figure out why it didn't work. The first thing I found in a publisher's newsletter was a few brief comments about what editors mean by gripping writing: "I want to be engaged by a rough draft's early pages, and I want the sense of anticipation to either sustain or grow as the work unfolds. It should be an immersive experience. For a novel, if I come out of it sure I'm another person (I'm on trial for murder, or I've spent three days in a bombed-out hospital hiding a little girl from death), and it takes me a while to shake off that other life, I am hooked."

Again, I thought I was doing that kind of engaging storytelling. Of course, it's difficult for me to be objective about my own writing. So I asked a friend to read my proposal for signs of less-than-gripping writing. My friend is a published novelist, a writing teacher, and a writing consultant. After reading my proposal, she had several comments and suggestions. A few excerpts from her feedback are:

"There seems to be too much exposition and explanation of backstory overall and I think this should be avoided, especially in the opening chapters. Some of the detail may be unnecessary and other parts can possibly be revealed later."

"The next chapter could then be Lorete's (the current Chapter 1), which I consider to be largely backstory and why I suggest not leading with it. The tension should also be amped up here in her meeting with Langorium and only the necessary backstory woven throughout the scene instead of in expository chunks with white space."?

"I'm also wondering if you need Langorium's POV at this point (or at all) in the present part of the story. Yes, he is a Maar [a monster] and this is important but is it possible that this can be discovered eventually by Troy and Loralee in some mysterious way that builds suspense instead of it being given away so early?"

After reading and digesting her feedback, I realized what the agent was talking about. The feedback also gave me clear direction in how to improve not only the opening pages, but also the whole novel. Now, I just have to get back to work on it.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 2
click here to add a comment

Lee Witte
I can see your friend's points as valid, although the agent might have different reasons for her (brief) criticisms. One never really knows!

Jo Reed
Although in the end, you need to write the book you envision.

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