MOVE ME NOW OR I’M MOVING ON

45844_482113340992_6896901_nI’m supposed to impress you in these first few words with shocking, dazzling prose that will wreck your heart and send laughter spilling out of you like Niagara so you’ll keep reading. Have I done it? If I haven’t by now, chances are, I’ve already lost you as a reader.

Ooo! You just folded your arms up onto your chest, pursed your lips and scowled didn’t you? No need to pout like that. It’s not going to change the fact that you have one chance and a few characters to impress the judges. Think of it as the Twitter post of your lifetime.

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I was reading at  AndyRossAgency.wordpress.com  and here is what he had to say about making your first paragraph count.

If your first paragraph is characterized by clunky style, pretentious and flowery figures of speech, clichés, literary throat clearing, descriptions of the weather, clumsy efforts to shoehorn backstory into the narrative,  or other stylistic bads, it’s going to take a lot of brilliant writing to dispel that first impression.

I automatically began examining my own writing after reading this quote.

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  • Clunky style– Does my first paragraph read smoothly? Are there sentences that have to be read over again so they can be understood.
  • Pretentious and flowery figures of speech- Does my work have an overabundance of phrases like: The grandiloquence of this discourse nauseates my very soul; if ever a soul could be sickened by such foul text. Sometimes we become very attached to statements like this in our writing because we work so hard on developing them. The fact is people don’t talk like this and while a profound statement here and there is thought provoking, too many can just seem heady and arrogant. Make sure your writing is something people can identify with at the same time as being beautiful and stimulating to the mind.
  • Clichés- Just know what they are and AVOID THEM. You are a talented writer. Surely, you can come up with a better way of saying it.
  • Literary throat clearing– Empty words  and phrases, as well as repetitive descriptions can slow down our stories and cause people to stop reading. (Check out OneWildWord.com for some great pointers on cutting our literary throat clearings.)
  • Descriptions of the weather: Again, just don’t do it. If we talk about the weather when we’re bored out of our minds or when we’re trying to avoid real conversations with people then the topic does not belong in our writing.
  • Clumsy efforts to shoehorn backstory into the narrative- we’ve all read a book where the entire first chapter was used to catch us up on everything the main character has thought or eaten and the consistency of their bowel movements for the last 16 years. These are sometimes things we need to know, however there is a method to getting the information on paper in a way the reader doesn’t even know they are getting it. As writers, we must master this art.

As an author, I want to write  moments that rip the reader’s hearts out, make them throw the book across the room then walk back over to pick it up and read more. I want to write humor that surprises the reader. No lead up, no warnings, just outrageous unexpected humor that people can identify with in their own lives. You and I have to indicate we can do these things in the first few paragraphs in order to get a chance to share our work with the world.

How do you catch a reader’s attention, whether it’s an agent or fan? Do you use these techniques outside of your writing?

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16 thoughts on “MOVE ME NOW OR I’M MOVING ON

  1. Margie, what you are doing with your own beginning is definitely on the right track. I find that a lot of inexperienced writers sort of show off their writing by doing a lot of metaphors and similes. (Sometimes a green tree is just a green tree). I have to struggle against this kind of stuff even from experienced writers. These kinds of metaphorical descriptors are occasionally good, but only when they really make the description clearer, not just highlight the writers style. It’s usually an indicator that the writer has much to learn about style.

  2. Thank you. I remember feeling like I needed to use a simile every few paragraphs to show my talent as a writer.When one of my editors pointed it out I realized I don’t enjoy reading those things, so why do I write them? Like you said, there are moments where a comparison enlightens the reader and paints a picture of the scene but I’ve learned to save the metaphors for those moments so they don’t lose their value!

  3. It is so important to do and so easy to fail at. I remember a writing teacher once telling me, “If you’re writing a murder mystery, kill ’em in the first sentence and solve the crime in the last.”

  4. Thank you for these great reminders! I’ll have to go over my WIP again to make sure I haven’t committed one of these and make that first paragraph even stronger!

  5. A good post Margie, although I disagree about the weather. I always disagree about the weather. Time and again you hear that you shouldn’t talk about the weather, yet there are any number of great works where the weather sets the tone, enhances mood, foreshadows action, evokes a character’s mental state etc. etc. etc. I’d qualify it as “don’t talk about the weather for the lack of anything else to talk about.” Rant over, getting off my high horse now. It’s just a personal bugbear 😀

    • Rant away! All opinions welcome here! I have read pieces where authors have mentioned the weather in successful ways. Nicholas Sparks describes the weather and surroundings of the south in a his novels in a way that takes you there – you can feel it. I suppose, unless you are secure in your writing, beginning authors should avoid overuse of descriptions of weather but, as you said, weather can foreshadow and set the mood.

  6. Great post, Margie! And I had to laugh about the “Pretentious and flowery figures of speech.” I wrote a pretentious paragraph, thinking it sounded beautiful and elegant. I handed the pages to my advisor who wrote, “I hate this” in the margin. Sigh. She was right. I was trying to sound “writerly” and already had my Printz award speech written. But she called me out, because she was not moved by the pretense. I have since moved on to another novel. I’ve rewritten the first chapter several times. Each time, I found myself going deeper and deeper into the character’s voice. Because that was the antidote: weeding myself out, and planting the seed of the main character’s personality in that opening paragraph.

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