Monday, November 17, 2008

The First 250 Words

Over at Miss Snark's First Victim's blog last week, Authoress held a contest: can you hook an agent in 250 words?

It's fascinating to read the first few paragraphs of so many diverse kinds of stories, as well as the comments left by other aspiring writers and one anonymous agent. There were a few entries where the consensus seemed to lean one way or the other, but most of them, like real books in the real world, elicited a wide range of opinions. What does it take to hook you?

If you open a book and the first page is full of beautiful writing or colorful characters, but something doesn't happen before you turn the page, do you turn it? Are we as a society so ADD that we have to have a car chase, a dead body, a confrontation involving clear danger in the first 250 words or we dump the book for something racier? Do we have to know immediately what it is that makes this different than any other book?

After some good discussion with my writer's group over the difference between contests and real books, I went to my bookshelves and chose some of my favorite books in the past two years, published as either a debut novel or one of the early books of an author that went on to make the best seller list, and read the first 250 words.

So I'm adding them here for you to judge. The first 250 words, or closest to it without going over or breaking a sentence. Do you see what the hook is? In the words of many of the commenters in the contest (and the agent), is there conflict and tension? is something happening? Would you turn the page? And why?

The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

The hours of Walker and Daughter: Knitters were clearly displayed in multicolored letters on a white sandwich board placed just so at the top of the stair landing. Thought Georgia Walker – usually preoccupied with closing out the till and picking up the strays of yarn on the floor – rarely made a move to turn the lock until at least eight fifteen… or later.

Instead, she sat on her stool at the counter, tuning out the traffic noise from New York’s busy Broadway below, reflecting on the day’s sales or prepping for the beginner’s knitting class she taught every afternoon to the stay-at-homes looking for some seeming stamp of authentic motherliness. She crunched the numbers with a pencil and paper, and sighed. Business was good, but it could always be better. She tugged at her long chestnut curls. It was a habit from years ago she’d never quite grown out of and by the end of each day her bangs often stood straight up. Once the bookkeeping was in order, she’d smooth out her hair, brush off any bits of eraser from her jeans and soft jersey top, her face a bit pale from concentration and lack of sun, and stand up to her full six feet (thanks to the three-inch heels on her well-worn brown leather cowboy boots).

Lottery by Patricia Wood

My name is Perry L. Crandall and I am not retarded.

Gram always told me the L stood for Lucky.

“Mister Perry Lucky Crandall, quit your bellyaching!” she would scold. “You got two good eyes, two good legs, and you’re honest as the day is long.” She always called me lucky and honest.

Being honest means you don’t know any better.

My cousin-brother John called me lucky too, but he always snickered hard after he said it.

“You sure are a lucky b*****d. No high-pressure job, no mortgage, no worries. Yeah, you’re lucky all right.” Then he would look at his wife and laugh harder. He is a lawyer.

John said lawyers get people out of trouble. Gram said lawyers get people into trouble. She ought to know. It was a lawyer who gave her the crappy advice on what to do after Gramp died.

I am thirty-two years old and I am not retarded. You have to have an IQ number less than 75 to be retarded. I read that in Reader’s Digest. I am not Mine is 76.

“You have two good ears, Perry. Two! Count ‘em!” Gram would hold my chin and cheeks between her fingers so tight that my lips would feel like a fish. She stopped doing that because of evil arthritis. Arthritis is when you have to eat Aleve of Bayer and rub Bengay.

“You’re lucky,” she said. “No evil arthritis for you.”

Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin

I was in the fifth grade the first time I thought about turning thirty. My best friend Darcy and I came across a perpetual calendar in the back of the phone book, hwere you could look up any date inn the future, and by using this little grid determine what the day of the week would be. So we located our birthdays in the following year, mine in May and hers in September. I got Wednesday, a school night. She got a Friday. A small victory, but typical. Darcy was always the lucky one. Her skin tanned more quickly, her hair feathered more easily, and she didn’t need braces. Her moonwalk was superior, as were her cartwheels and her front handspring (I couldn’t do a handspring at all). She had a better sticker collection. More Michael Jackson pins. Forensa sweaters in turquoise, red, and peach (my mother allowed me none – said they were too trendy and expensive). And a pair of fifty-dollar Guess jeans with zippers at the ankles (ditto). Darcy had double-pierced ears and a sibling – even if it was just a brother, it was better than being an only child as I was.

But at least I was a few months older and she would never quite catch up. That’s when I decided to check out my thirtieth birthday – in a year so far away that it sounded like science fiction.

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why. The mechanics I understood – my older brother Jesse had filled me in – although at the time I was sure he’d heard half of it wrong. Other kids my age were busy looking up the words penis and vagina in the classroom dictionary when the teacher had her back turned, but I paid attention to different details. Like why some mothers only had one child while other families seemed to multiply before you eyes. Or how the new girl in school, Sedona, told anyone who’d listen that she was named for the place where her parents were vacationing when they made her (“Good thing the weren’t staying in Jersey City,” my father used to say.).

Now that I am thirteen, these distinctions are only more complicated: the eighth –grader who dropped out of school because she got into trouble; a neighbor who got herself pregnant in the hopes it would keep her husband from filing for divorce. I’m telling you, if aliens landed on earth today and took a good hard look at why babied get born, they’d conclude that most people have children by accident, or because they drink too much on a certain night, or because birth control isn’t one hundred percent, or far a thousand other reasons that really aren’t very flattering.

On the other hand, I was born for a very specific purpose.

Blue Water by A. Manette Ansay

Forget what you’ve read about the ocean. Forget white sails on a blue horizon, the romance of it, the beauty. A picnic basket in a quiet anchorage, the black-tipped flash of gulls. The sound of the wind like a pleasant song, the curved spine of the coast –


Such images belong to shore. They have nothing whatsoever to do with the sea.

Imagine a place of infinite absence. An empty ballroom, the colors muted, the edges lost in haze. The sort of dream you have when you’ve gone beyond exhaustion to a strange, otherworldly country, a place I’d visited once before in the months that followed the birth of my son, when days and nights blurred into a single lost cry, when I’d find myself standing over the crib, or rocking him, breathing the musk of his hair, or laying in bed beside Rex’s dark shape, unable to recall how I’d gotten there. As if I’d been plucked out of one life and dropped, wriggling and whole, into another. Day after day, week after week, the lack of sleep takes its toll. You begin to see things that may or may not be there. You understand how the sailors of old so willingly met their deaths on the rocks, believing in visions of beautiful women, sirens, mermaids with long, sparkling hair.

The crest of a wave becomes a human face, openmouthed, white-eyed, astonished. The spark of a headlight appears in the sky, edges closer, fades, edges closer still.


  1. Hey thanks for including my novel in here!!
    This is a terrific exercise- to examine the first few paragraphs of published novels- It's why many times it is the beginning of my novel I focus on at the start of my editing process (well after the first few drafts). I feel once you get the first few pages right the rest of the book falls into place-

  2. Hi Pat! I think I've read ten times more first pages this year than books, just trying to get an idea of what it is that makes an agent stand up and say, "Hey, I want that!" Of course, it's hard to know how much changed between the querying and the publishing.

    I love the beginning of Lottery. Immediately you get a fantastic sense of voice and characters - almost the entire family in 200 words! - and if I'd given you another sentence here, you'd be into the conflict too.

    I agree that those first paragraphs set the tone for the rest of the book, and help it fall into place. There are passages completely untouched by revision, but that first page has seen more face-lifts than a hollywood celebrity!

  3. Oh, right there is a perfect example. LOTTERY.

    The first line is killer, and those first few paragraphs are sooo enticing.

    Notice it's not ACTION but rather intriguing little details out of the narrator's mind.

    I don't know, it's just got IT.