Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Grabbing the Reader's/Editor's/Agent's Attention

As writers we hear and read this all the time - that in order for a piece of writing to be successful, we
have to grab the reader's attention. That "reader" may be a member of the reading public, or she may be an editor or a publisher or an agent. It doesn't matter. The emphasis has been on how to grab them to keep them reading further into the essay, short story, novel.

photo from The Amusive Relationship
I don't disagree with that idea. Although I am also, as a reader, a fan of a slower start, where I get to know the characters and the place and the events surrounding the main event. But I "get" the big appeal at the opening to draw me in immediately and have read some great examples recently. The opening few hundred words were so strong, so poetic, so full of life that I couldn't put the book down for a while.

So this is not an argument about openings. Fast, slow, page-turner, sauntering stroll, is not my main criteria. It should be well written and whatever style is chosen should be supported by the story - the journey - the writer presents.

My question at this current moment, though, is about the endings. There have been three books in the last year where it started strong. I was engaged as a reader. The story moved along and I smiled, made notes (mental or physical), felt moved. It was good.

But when the story neared the end something changed.

In the case of one book, the style dramatically changed to the point that it could have been written by someone else. Perhaps it was. Or it felt like the outline or brainstorm for how the book could end. It would have been much more interesting and in keeping with the story if those near bullet point paragraphs were written out, written as was the rest of the book.

In another book the deus ex machina was invoked on several levels and I felt like I'd been robbed of an ending to go with the story I'd just read.

The book I just finished a couple of days ago sputtered out near the end. It was strong at the beginning; she nailed the opening scene and kept me going for a long time. It started to pale a couple of chapters from the end, like she'd lost steam, and I found my interest drifting here and there. The story I'd started stayed present to the last page, but the quality lessened. It wasn't as drastic, but the power and craft of writing was not the same.

Which led me to wonder about endings. There has been so much emphasis on the power punch at the beginning. I've heard agents and editors talk about their process and how, if they aren't grabbed in the first two sentences (no kidding, someone actually said that) or first paragraph or first page, they don't read on.

I understand that these people are very busy. It must be hard to have to read so many submissions and make a determination about what is good or not. I'm serious. It's not easy. There are so many writers and the styles and quality are so varied that it must be a very hard job to have to sort through everything they receive. They can't take it all and they have to wade through submissions where the writers have clearly not done their own research to see that this particular person is not a good match for their story.

As an aside, there was an agent speaking at a workshop who admitted that if he was hooked in the first two sentences he would read the first paragraph. If he was still hooked, he might read to the end of the page. If he was still impressed and hooked, he might take on the book and the author. He admitted in a room full of writers and authors that he almost never, ever, ever read the entire book. Ever!

So I understand that openings are important if you're looking to land a publishing deal.

Have endings gotten lost in all of this attention grabbing? I wonder. I don't have an answer and maybe I've just happened to pick a few books this year whose endings don't live up to the openings. Or maybe in all this emphasis on the beginning, some authors are letting the story slip quietly into The End and if they happen to have an I-never-read-the-whole-book agent, it goes unnoticed.

Have you noticed a problem with endings?