Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Authors Revealed -- Let's Talk!

The results of this small critique experiment have exceeded my expectations. Really, I don't know why things around here keep exceeding my expectations. I need an expectation adjustment.

At any rate, here's what you've been reading and critiquing since yesterday morning:

Critique #1: from from Airman by Eoin Colfer
Hyperion, 2008

Highlights from the comment box:

  • I am not hooked at all.
  • I like the last paragraph, but the rest is just telling.
  • I'm not interested in the character yet.
  • I read all three paragraphs, and I have no idea what’s going on here.
  • With the right back-of-book blurb or query I could keep reading for a few more pages just to see where this is going.
  • This is all telling.
  • Not quite my genre of choice...but it is very well written for sure.
  • I'm also not hooked and bored.
  • Connor may be remarkable, but unfortunately, this writing isn't.
  • Didn't like this much at all.
  • All tell and no show, and by the third paragraph I'm bored.
  • There is a simplicity in this writing that I like, that takes me to another time, another place. I would read on.
The response to this excerpt was overwhelmingly negative. Most of you would not want to continue reading. Yet this novel was written by the bestselling author of the Artemis Fowl series. He's a prolific, well-known author with lots of sales.

To be sure, the novel has a Prologue that tells us more of Conor's unusual start in life (he was born in a hot air balloon -- in the air). Reading the prologue may or may not have had an impact on whether or not the above paragraphs drew you in.

Critique #2: from Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo by Obert Skye
Aladdin, 2005

Highlights from the comment box:

  • I liked it.
  • Get to the point already!
  • I really really liked the first sentence, but I think everything after it is redundant.
  • This didn’t hold my attention.
  • This excerpt didn't have a classic hook, but I liked the writing and the voice!
  • I'm not inclined to read further.
  • Sorry, but I couldn't find a hook and probably wouldn't read any more.
  • Nice imagery. Interesting start, but there's no protagonist and no hook.
  • I wouldn't say it's very hook-y per se, but it doesn't turn me off, either.
  • I like the literary feel of it! I would definitely read on.
  • I would read on.
  • I didn't mind the writing. I also like the first line - but I'm not hooked.
  • This is the kind of writing I love, so I'm already hooked.
  • No way. This is drowning in useless description and information.
  • I love the voice, but I got a little bored after a while.
  • Not a fan, sorry.
  • The voice is fantastic, and would carry me on for a while longer.
The response to this excerpt was more mixed -- some hooked, some not. Many of you complained about the inordinate amount of description on the weather (to be honest, this novel's first paragraph is what inspired me to post the excerpts for critique). Yet this book, published in 2005, is the first in a series of five -- and I suspect there are more on the way. (And when you think about it, less than four years to crank out five novels is astonishingly quick.)

Critique #3: from Current Work In Progress by Authoress
Miss Snark's First Victim, 2009

Highlights from the comment box:
  • I'm interested in the content, but not in the style or voice.
  • I would read on.
  • It's close, but not quite.
  • I want to read this. I love dystopian fiction.
  • I wouldn't read further, because I haven't been given a reason to care about Eric...yet.
  • I found this excerpt to be confusing.
  • Yes. I love this. I was snagged right at the first line.
  • I think the writing is good, but not special.
  • I do like this, and I would definitely read on.
  • The writer projects good imagery, but the voice wavers a bit here and there.
  • I'm absolutely hooked. I love the premise, the narrative voice, and the internal narrative.
  • In the end, not hooked, sorry.
  • See, this I like. This grabs me.
  • I really like this. The writer has created an atmosphere which requires enormous skill to do.
I threw this excerpt in as an afterthought. Why not make the discussion more lively, thought I, by placing an unfinished work alongside the published ones?

It was terrifying. Believe me, I had no delusions of grandeur. I knew I was setting myself up for some potentially crushing blows.

But it was worth the terror. And much to my delight, many of you were hooked and want to read more! (I'm sorry, there isn't any more. I mean, not much. I'm still in the middle of the first chapter.)

So my rough, barely begun WIP grabbed as much -- or more -- attention than two already-on-the-shelves books.

It's not because my excerpt is stellar. It isn't. It's a first pass with a minor tweak or two before I posted it yesterday morning. I didn't knock you all over with my Amazing Writing Abilities. (Well, maybe I knocked over Joe Novella. I'm nominating him for the president of my fan club, I swear.)

In fact, some of you were quick to point out the weaknesses in my writing. I can't argue with you. I mean, it's a first draft. First, with a capital "F". Yes, there's some awkward writing. Yes, there's a cliche or two. The refining process hasn't even begun.

Despite all that, some of you were drawn into the story.

What's my point?

My point is this: The utter subjectivity of Readers At Large is alive and well. As we struggle to perfect our craft, to tighten our prose, to create the Perfect Hook to grab an agent's attention, we must continually bear in mind the fact that there is no such thing as the perfect formula.

I'll say it again.

There is no such thing as the perfect formula!

There is something about effective writing that goes beyond the well-known "HOOK ME!" that we almost always look for in the first page or two of a novel. Then, too, there is something to be said for already-published novels that don't do anything for us -- and may even cause us to wonder how in the world they ever did anything for an agent, let alone a publisher.

So what, then, should we be striving for as we spin our tales? How do we know where to find that "perfect" beginning for our novels? How do we achieve tension, voice, world-building...all within the first couple of pages?

Let's talk.

What are your thoughts, now that I've disclosed the authors? What have you learned? What insight can you share?

Methinks this comment box is going to give us a lot on which to chew.


  1. I don't know if I posted my comments in before you posted this, Authoress, or after. I was late because I had to go to hospital for day surgery and only just got back.

    I'm so glad I didn't say mean things about your post. Hehe, 'cause I did about the middle one and I loved the first one.

    I enjoyed this game after the horid few days I've just had. It cheered me up.

  2. One thing is for sure...

    I've never heard of Levan Thumps, and I'll be cringing if I ever do see or hear of it. That book reminded me of one of those HORRIBLE books they make you read in college. Like Grapes of Wrath or something.

    Authoress! Write that novel right now. I want to read it. Now. :p

  3. Oh, wow, wow, wow!!!! This is so great! It just goes to show how much you CANNOT cater to your audience. I have been struggling with this for the past two weeks, trying to decide what is the best way to tell my story.

    The way I want to!

    I may do a post on this later, if that is okay?

    It doesn't surprise me, then, that I didn't like #1. I hate the Artemis Fowl series. I couldn't get through them at all. #2 was my favorite because it just held that "voice" for me that I like. I might have to check out that author! #3, like I said in my comment, it's not my genre, but I was intrigued enough that I might keep reading. I'm trying to branch out of my specific genre-reading shell. :)

    That brings me to a question, Authoress: Does knowing the author of a work make a difference as to whether or not you will read their work and like it?

  4. Just goes to enforce that what one reader likes, another doesn’t. Unsupportive feedback isn’t something that should break any writer. Agent Kristin Nelson reinforced this important fact in her post “When You Really Mean That The Work Is Not Right For You”. That’s why writers must query their entire list of agents. They shouldn’t stop half-way through just because they’ve gotten tired of form rejects.

    I’m one reader who hasn’t jumped on a recent fantasy craze (I refuse to elaborate because my sister is a rabid fan) because I couldn’t get past the first chapter. That first chapter went against everything I’ve learned on my journey towards hooking an agent. And still. Millions of fans. Shows what I know, right?

    Publishing is a subjective business. No way around it. Writers must keep sending their ms out until it lands on the desk of its soul-mate. Take heart from this exercise!

  5. First, I'm going to respond to Lady Glamis' question - for me, yes. I absolutely love Guy Gavriel Kay and have read everything he has every written. Have I absolutely loved everything he has ever written? No, but I am more likely to buy something new of his versus an unknown author.

    Now, for the questions posed by Authoress.

    1) What should we be striving for as we spin our tales? Easy - the best writing we can possibly do, catering to ourselves and not the industry. Yes, I know, an almost insurmountable feat. The best fun I ever had with a project (the one currently in the middle of the query process) was the one I wrote without giving a thought to what people might think about it. I didn't care. It was absolutely freeing and one of the best writing experiences of my life. Sometimes, a writer (a person for that matter) just has to do what they think is best.

    2) How do we know where to find that 'perfet' beginning for our novels? My response: Is there a perfect beginning? No. There are beginnings that capture a reader's attention, and beginnings that hint at something more to come. There are some beginnings that are absolutely horrible, but further reading reveals a wonderful story. So, subjectivity comes into a play. A writer can only write what they consider 'their' perfect beginning and hope the readers think so as well.

    Lastly, after the last Secret Agent contest, I was all set to redo my entire project currely out in query-land. In the end, I decided not to touch the 'perfection'(big grin and wink) I had written other than a few tweaks here and there. I'm proud of what I have written and have received positive feedback on the entire manuscript. Why bow down to insecurities? Perfection does not exist, no matter how hard we want to believe it does. The world is a subjective place and every book has (or will have) its own following. All we can do is write the best we can write, and then maybe just a little bit better than that! I'm just saying . . .


  6. Authoress, I didn't comment on your excerpt, but it was my favorite! Hang on…wiping the brown off my nose. Seriously though, I love "dome city" stories and would read on. Keep writing! I have a mercifully abandoned short of my own about a "utopian" civilization living unknowingly inside a dome languishing somewhere. Pray, for everyone's sake, that it remain buried and unfinished.

  7. I figured this exercise was intended to show us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that there will be things to nit and dislike about even already-published works. I've been thinking about the drop the needle exercise and how if you try, you can probably find something to nit about even the greatest writers.

    I guess what counts in the end is whether an agent/publisher thinks they can sell your novel. Each reader has their own taste and what one reader thinks is great, another will think sux.

    Take home message for us aspirants? Write what you want to write, write what you love, write it the best you can, finish your novel, revise until you think it's the best it can be and then send the damn thing out. And keep sending it out until it sells. Heinlein's rules for writing still apply.

    And kudos for having the guts to post your own excerpt. :D

  8. I think that a successful published author like Eion Colfer can get away with any kind of opening he wants to. I try not to compare my openings with the openings of established authors.

    On agents' blogs they have talked about the workshopped query. A formulaic query that even though does the job - sounds like all the other ones that are coming into their mailboxes lately. I have to wonder about a workshopped opening. I've critiqued works where I felt the writer was trying too hard to have that perfect opening and it came across overwritten and too suspenseful without enough background. I've done them myself. :)

    I think that great openings come sometimes right away; sometimes through days of rewriting; sometimes with some help from friends and cool blogs like this one. I do try and stay away from the character waking up and starting the day though.

    I agree that as a writer, you know your work and have to consider every crit that suggests major changes with a grain of salt. It could push you into an endless cycle of rewriting or it could be the nudge that pushes your work to new levels.

    I can definitely look past a boring beginning if I'm interested in the story after reading the blurb. So some of these stories I might have kept reading, even though I said I wasn't hooked. I try and give a promising book a few chapters or more.

  9. I think it reflects our different tastes in what we like to read.

    I find many people on this site are into YA and vampires, and like works. Although I have noticed a widening in participants. I didn't comment on the first or third pieces because they weren't something I normally read..

    Although both had strong writing skills I did not feel knowledgable enough in that genre to make a critque.

    I go to a real life writing group. It's small but even with five - eight people the comments and suggestions are varied.

    One thing you need to be careful is not to lose your own voice. It can happen when too many people influence on how you write your story.

    A couple paragraphs is really not enough to get a story.

    I am reading two book currently. Dog On It by Spencer Quinn and The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. Entirely different. As I was reading Sparks book, it started slow... but it was building up.

    I remember thinking if the paragraphs were posted here what kind of response you would get.

    A great experiment, but not sure if it established anything. Kudos to you for your innovative thinking.

  10. I honestly don't care how famous, best-selling or "great" an author is. If the book doesn't hook me, it doesn't hook me, and I'm not interested in reading it for the "name" alone. *shrugs*

    If I'm interested in a series, I might be more forgiving towards weaker books in it. (Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, for example. I love the series, despite a few weaker books, but his Codex series didn't grab me when I tried to read the first book, so I've not read it yet. So yeah, a book itself has to prove I should want to read it, and I'm not making that many decisions based solely on the author's name.)

    Anyway, thanks, Authoress, it was a great crit round as usual and interesting discussion (also as usual).


  11. Be happy with what you write and keep trying to grow in your skills as you go. It's all we can control.

    For me, if the character, subject/ main concept, or voice resonates strongly with me I'll overlook problems with the writing because I'm drawn into the story, but if I'm less hooked in then the writing problems ruin the experience for me. Fair? Probably not, but engage me enough and I don't have time to 'listen' to my critic :)

    Regarding Lady Glamis' question, I'm more likely to give an author whose works I've liked in the past more of a chance than someone I just found. For instance, there is a writer whose first series hooked me and their writing has improved with each book. Their second series I was only so-so on the first two books, when the third comes out i'll give it a try but if it still doesn't hook me i'll probably stop buying that series. I'll keep sticking with the first series though since i'm still hooked. However, if the first book I pick up by an author doesn't grab me i'm unlikely to pick up any more unless available at the library.

    As a reader I do tend to be more forgiving of writing problems for a first book (we know how hard that is!), but I look hard at whether the characters, concept, or voice has hooked me enough to keep following. But if I keep reading that author, I do expect improvements in the writing if there were problems with the first. If improvements don't occur i'm less likely to continue.

    I've never really consciously thought about why I stick with certain writers and abandon others. Thanks for the topic, I just learned something about myself today :D

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. I agree with Merc, btw.

    I'm a finicky reader - even when it comes to authors who I love. If I'm not crazy about a book, I won't read it. It doesn't matter if everyone else is, or if the author wrote something I worshipped. And I read all genres I can get my hands on***, including literary. ;)

    *** Correction, there are a couple genres I will not read for lack of interest. Most romances, for example. Also westerns. But I'm not a single genre gal. :]

    I should point out that minor mistakes and sloppy writing don't necessarily ruin the experience for me. Unless it is nothing but monotonous description of everything right down to the weather which nobody cares about, unless we're reading about the Wizard of Oz and house is about to twitch and unhitch. :]

    I tend to think this round of crits could be taken as a confidence booster for people who just suffered through some harsh crits.

    It can also be a source of irritation (not at you Authoress, more like the universe), considering the nasty fact that THOSE books got published and yet some of my excellent crit-mates keep getting rejected.

  14. Authoress, you are brilliant. :-)

    Out of all three, your story hooked me the most because I love dystopian lit. So, finish already! I want to read it. Also, I wanted to know if it's YA? I am assuming so.

    Furthermore, this exercise prompted a great discussion amongst my lit students last night. SO, thank you! :-)

  15. I Googled the openings to ID the works; I should have known something was up when I couldn't find the third opening. Kudos to you, Authoress!

    I'm not a YA reader; I read mostly SF and fantasy. Perhaps that partially explains why I didn't care for the first two openings; the conventions may be different in that genre. One good thing about participating in Drop the Needle is that it got me to read outside my genre.

    I personally think we unpublished authors have to write better books than published authors to break out. To be fair, we can spend years perfecting a book, but once we get a contract, we might not have that much time to devote to the sequel.

    I have given up on certain authors when I feel that their works are getting weaker, or when they recycle the same tropes in all of their books and I get bored. But sometimes once you start reading a certain author, they become a habit that's hard to break.

  16. I think what I've learned so far is that 250 words just isn't enough to judge a novel! In most cases, I read at least the first full chapter before I made a decision about a book.

    But it does give us as writers a lot to think about. After all, things are bleak out in the publishing world right now, so there's something to be said about capturing your audience (aka a potential agent), heart and whole, with a few paragraphs.

    Thanks again Authoress, for running such an awesome blog. :) And put on the list of people very interested in seeing more of your WIP.

  17. Kudos on the bravery, Authoress. Also, great idea!

    This experiment confirmed what I've already known, but am glad to have confirmed. Based on feedback I've received, I now know that my work is comparable to published works. No better, no worse. About 50 percent of readers love it, another 50 think it's not for them. It strengthens my resolve to find an agent, an editor, and a publisher who are enthusiastic members of that first group.

  18. Well, I didn't comment. I've been sick and swamped all through February and now trying to catch up.

    But I must say, that book by Eoin colfer--Airman--is one of my favorite novels of all times. It was really, really good. My son loved it also. So I'm not sure about the hook in the first three paragraphs, but the book itself is well worth the read.

  19. A hook for me anymore is almost always more about the author's voice than about anything else. Even if the world is in imminent danger of exploding right there on the first page, if the author doesn't have a unique way of presenting that in a voice that really stands out, I probably won't read any further. Consequently, I have no problem with a "slow" opening if the author's voice is enchanting.

    However, even the most fabulous voice in the world won't overcome shortcomings in plotting, logic and pacing, so stories must be worked from a number of angles.

    One of the biggest gripes I have with critique groups in general is that all writers, understandably, have biases toward the way things work best in their genres. For sci-fi and fantasy, fast-paced action and imminent physical peril may need to be right up front. Women's fiction and literary writers, on the other hand, may be more interested in psychological exploration. Suspense writers want mystery. Sometimes I think all of us forget the role genre plays in an opening when we critique, and so we're tempted to just give a blanket "not hooked" when what we really mean is that the genre's traditions, not the story's structure, are what fail to intrigue us.

    Seriously, if we're all going to critique outside our genres, we probably need to get out a little more. ;-)

    **steps down from soapbox, blushing**

  20. Dude, Airman by Colfer...I couldn't get through the first chapter, and I adored the Artemis Fowl series. I didn't do any crits, but now I'm going to have to go do yours, Authoress!

  21. For sci-fi and fantasy, fast-paced action and imminent physical peril may need to be right up front. Women's fiction and literary writers, on the other hand, may be more interested in psychological exploration. Suspense writers want mystery.

    The interesting thing is I want all of those things, no matter what genre or nongenre book I'm reading.

    From my crit group, and even here - the feedback is helpful, even if the person doesn't get something because of genre-barriers.

    The role of the writer is to understand the genre they write in. Know what works or doesn't. That arms them when they get the odd crit that suggests they change something integral for the genre.

    For example - erotica. If I critted an erotic romance novel that has lovemaking in every single scene, I'd rant about how all of that needs to be chopped out and replaced by a solid non-sex related plot.

    That obviously wouldn't be very helpful advice on my part. The author needs to know their genre so they can shrug off bad advice and make their novel saleable.

    On the other hand - I think that cross genre critting is extremely helpful for improving the genres. Making them more palatable to a wider audience.

    I write in various genres, including fantasy. For the fantasy novels, the habit is to spend a lot of time setting scenes and worldbuilding.

    I've gotten crits from people from other genres (young adult mainstream/contemp, in particular), suggesting that I cut my word counts down and drive the plot forward instead of dwelling in chunky spots.

    That is extremely helpful advice. Obviously, fantasy allows for higher novel word counts than mainstream books. But there is a thought that with a little tightening and focus, I can write something that will appeal to a bigger audience besides just strictly-fantasy readers.

  22. Once upon a time . . . fantasy was my main genre. One day, in the way of fairy tales and happy endings, I picked up a book outside my 'fave' genre . . . and thus began my reading adventures in all genres versus a single genre.

    With that said, I agree with Disorderly that critiquing outside a person's genre of choice can be difficult . . .however, a hook is a hook, and a good opening is a good opening, no matter the genre. : )

    Again, as Authoress said early, everything is subjective. I resisted reading Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay for many years because I did not like the opening. The book sat on my shelves collecting dust until one day I ploughed through the opening and discovered one of my all time favorite books. The same thing goes with Gregory Maguires 'Wicked'. Lessons learned - a bad opening does not necessarily make a bad book. A great opening, however, might sell a few more books. : )


  23. My daughter's reading Leven Thumps and begs me to read it. I didn't mind the beginning, so maybe one day soon.
    Yours however was by far my favorite. I am glad you shared it with us. Now quit being distracted and write this book! This one I want to read!

  24. All I have to say (cuz I'm on my lunch break) is you are freaking awesome Authoress!!

    Thanks for reminding us, AND showing us, how subjective this industry is.

  25. I was pressed for time yesterday, so I only scanned the post. Not even reading-scanning, but word-grabbing-scanning.

    I still want to go back and find out why the tomato was gold. xD Nothing negative at all, just something that caught my eye. Something about golden tomatoes. :)

    Write on! I'm also in the middle of chapter one, waiting to get out of this dull part. Ugh. Maybe I'll just cut it.

  26. I think this shows us just how attached to genres we can be. And why you query an agent who likes your genre rather than simply a good agent.

    The first two were okay. Forced at gun point or out of boredom, I could read them. But neither was something I'd actively look for. The WIP is more in my genre and I would give it a try.

    I've seen the same thing during AYH contests and the endings contests. People who like literary would pan a sci-fi or fantasy piece. Romance lovers didn't get hooked on the MG and YA.

    We all know what we like to read. There's a reason most of us write in only one or two genres and our shelves are stocked predominantly by one genre. It isn't the other books are better or worse, it's just that our tastes run to a certain style of literature.

    Good writing is good writing, that doesn't mean I'll enjoy reading it. In the right mood, I can find it tolerable, but I'm not hooked. And most days I could care less. Neither of the first two hooks were good enough for me to bother recalling names or hunting the books down.

    Jessica Mine- Yellow tomatoes are called golds. You can grow tomatoes in a variety of colors including gold, black, white, red, green, and purple.

  27. I didn't have time yesterday to critique more than opening #1. But I did read all three, and I liked yours best. Why? Because it drew me right into a character's plight, rather than telling me things about a character I'd rather see for myself (#1) or describing the weather, no matter how nicely done (#2).

    But as I thought about which opening I liked best, another thought struck me. Would my decision have been different several years ago, before I began learning the craft in earnest, before I frequented writing sites and authors'/agents' blogs which espouse the same "rules" on how to "hook" a reader? (Show not tell, in medias res, draw the reader into a character, avoid descriptions of the weather etc. etc.) I wonder how biased I've become to look so closely for the breaking of these "rules" and the "right" way to do things, that I let it cloud my vision and allow good writing to take a second seat. I'm going to ponder that a bit.

  28. Judging by some of the above comments, my stewardship as president of your fan club is in danger of being usurped.

    Yes, no such thing as a perfect formula, AND, by extension, no such thing as a perfect beginning.

    For us to strive for the big-bang hook is fraught with danger as we consume ourselves with that goal and do not pay enough attention to the 'big picture' or other elements of connection - in my humble opinion at least.

    There will always be exceptions. In today's fast-everything culture an increasing market segment demands hooks and action right here, right now. Books that "tell" and read like screenplays find massive audiences. Some readers won't buy a book if the cover isn't jazzy enough let alone read the first page.

    So how do we get them interested if the above is not for us? I can only speak from my experience as a reader, and the answer is connection, resonance and illumination.

    In my experience, I have been drawn to read on when I find some form of connection with the first few pages of a book. It may be the style of writing, the character, the surrounds. It rarely has anything to do with one too many commas.

    In the last 3 excerpts posted for critique, in two of them it was the unique cadence of the narrator's voice for one, and the atmosphere and imagery for the other that connected with me, the vision of the colour in a bleak world that illuminated my imagination to allow it to paint that picture.

    The big-bang hook isn't what makes me want to read more. Connection in some form is more powerful. But that's just me.

    Joe Novella

  29. Fascinating, Authoress. Thanks for doing this. What an eye opener!

    There's no formula, but I bet these published authors had stellar query letters. :0)

  30. Great blog,Authoress.
    I think one reason so many of us liked your beginning is because you let us know your character. You gave him feelings that we could identify with and placed him firmly in his environment. This beginning promises a good, curl-up-&-read book. I not only want to find out what happens to him, but what goes on in that strange place and why. (Good luck with future chapters.)

    #2 is almost an essay. I don't mind 'telling,' but all I heard was the writer's voice droning on and on. Yawn.

    Great to read everyone's comments; to be reminded how important it is to stick with our own inner voice.

  31. Just_Me: Thanks! XD I feel more than a bit naiive at this point, but you have to learn somehow, eh? :)

  32. Whew! I picked the right one to be hooked on. Never like Artemis Fowl, so it doesn't suprise me the first one didn't hook me.

    So, Authoress, can you remind us that there is no such thing as the perfect formula for the next SA contest? ;)