Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Too Much Information

Some years ago I was asked to look at a friend of a friend's novel and innocently I accepted the manuscript. A few evenings later I settled down with a glass of chilled pinot grigio and began to read. It was one of the most awful things I've read, the account of a birth that goes wrong. Suffice to say that blood featured frequently, along with various other body parts.

But it wasn't the most awful thing I've read. That was the opening to another unpublished novel where the hero takes a gastric sample from a laboratory beagle. Even typing those words has given me a nauseous flashback moment.

I sympathise. It's hard. We know that the beginning of a novel needs to grab the reader's attention, especially if the novel is unpublished and has to somehow get itself off the slush pile. So we bring out the heavy stuff, the dramatic, the shocking and whoosh it all in front of the reader. Da dah! That'll get 'em!

But it doesn't, or at least, not in the way you intended. It's a bit like settling down for a long plane journey and the friendly person next to you pulls out their wallet to - you think - show you photographs of their grandchildren and instead - da dah! here's my abortion!

It's too much information, much much much too soon.

Later on in the novel, once we've got to know your characters, once we've begun to care, then we'll react as you wish to whatever horribleness you've got in store. But on the first page...? You're asking for someone to fling the manuscript down then bundle it back in the return envelope as soon as possible.


womagwriter said...

I've just discovered your blog, Sarah, and it looks like a good one! Agree with you about leaving the heavy stuff until later on in a novel. I wonder though, are these writers thinking of novels like Enduring Love, which has one of the most shocking and hard-hitting beginnings I've ever read, and trying to emulate it?

Sarah Duncan said...

Hi there, and thanks for the nice comments on the blog. I haven't got a copy of Enduring Love to hand, but doesn't it start with his proposal which is spoilt by the arrival of the balloon a few pages in? I think the shocking bit comes at the end to the 1st chapter so...

a) the main character has been established a bit before we get the shocking stuff
b) he is a witness, but not actually mashed himself.
c) Ian McEwen is an established writer so could get away with more or less anything (and some would argue that in Chesil Beach he did...)

The examples I was thinking of were pretty yuck from the first line. TMI!

womagwriter said...

Good point - the shocks are well into the first chapter (I was going from memory too, which is never a good idea in my case!)

badas2010 said...

I've just sat thinking back about the beginnings of as many of mine as I can remember, and luckily, nothing gory on any first page!

Sarah Duncan said...

You can get away with gore on the first page, it just can't be too yucky. And of course, there are different yuck levels for each genre. But best avoided IMO.