04 November 2020

Paint-by-numbers novel writing

What should the opening page of a novel look like? If you read many of the recently-published books about how to write fiction, the first page should plunge you into action, and any story that doesn't conform to the template isn't worth publishing. That certainly seems to be the view of this blogger Flog a Pro: Would You Pay to Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?:
Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre or content—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength. This novel was number one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for October 18, 2020. How strong is the opening page—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?

The cognitive dissonance here is that this book, which the blogger clearly thinks the agent should have rejected, is a best seller. In other words, the agent picked a winner by not conforming to the stereotype. 

The blogger invites you to read the first page of the novel and indicate whether you would like to read further. Most readers of the blog voted no, but people still bought the book and gave it 4,6 stars on GoodReads. 

If I were a literary agent (which I'm not), I would turn the page. I won't say I "couldn't wait" to turn the page, but my reaction to the first page would be that the narrator tells ways in which he has changed and that provokes me to want to know more about what those changes were, and what brought them about, and thus to read at least a few more pages before dismissing the book. 

The book I finished reading recently, Tristram Shandy, is without doubt the most discursive book I've ever read. I really cannot imagine any literary agent accepting it for publication if it were submitted today. Yet it goes on being reprinted year after year, 250 years after it was first published. 

A while back I re-read the first Enid Blyton fiction story I owned as a child (see The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton) | Notes from underground), to try to see what factors had made it attractive to children, and whatever it was, action on the first page wasn't one of them. The action only began on page 80. The beginning was Enid Blyton food porn,. and condescending remarks about the funny speech habits of Welsh people. Nevertheless child readers seemed to love it.

But there seem to be a few incestuous "how to write a novel" memes floating around, and "action on the first page" seems to be one of them. So never mind that the book is a best seller. Readers won't buy it, because the first page is a turn-off. Never mind that it got 4.6 stars on GoodReads. Readers won't like it, because the first page is a turn-off. This fashionable factoid seems to be doing the rounds of the "how to write a novel" blogs and books. And it's incestuous because they all seem to copy from each other. And it's untrue, because if it were as true as the article linked above says, it would have got fewer than 3 stars on GoodReads, and never have been a best seller. 

Some stories work with tension on the first page, but many of the ones I've enjoyed most have a gradual build-up of tension. Make a list of your ten favourite novels, ones that you've read three times or more, and see how many of them have dramatic action on the first page.

The other common meme among the "how to write a novel" crowd, which is related to the first, is is the nead for the main character to have goals. I won't say much about that, because I've written about it here On writing: conflict and goals in fiction | Khanya

But it strikes me that all this incestuous advice, if would-be authors take it seriously, is going to lead to a lot of monochrome and monotonous books, a bit like the "paint-by-numbers" pictures you used to see, where if you filled in the numbered spaces with the paint of the same number, you'd get a picture of sorts, but one you wouldn't want to hang on your wall. 

If you want to write novels worth reading, read 500 novels written by other people for every "How to write a book" you read. You'll learn far more that way.

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