Monday, 22 June 2015

300 Words to Unputdownable - Leila Rasheed

(Here's an unexpected treat; for unforeseen reasons, today's slot was going spare - so I decided to have a rootle through the archives and find a post to revisit. This, by Leila Rasheed, formed part of the ABBA Online Literary Festival in 2011. It has some very helpful advice concerning beginnings...)

Here’s the thing: it isn’t that hard to get an editor or an agent to read your unsolicited submission. What’s hard is getting them to read beyond the first paragraph. Lack of time and the sheer number of manuscripts they receive mean that they will reject a submission as soon as it loses their attention.

Your challenge as a writer is to grab that attention and hold it. You have to make them think: “I must read on.”  - the sooner, the better. My theory is that you can do it in under 300 words. Sound impossible? Read on.

I learned that my first book, Chips Beans and Limousines, was one of only two unsolicited submissions that had been published, out of 5000 unsolicited manuscripts received in the five years the list had been running. The numbers made my mind boggle a bit, so I went back to the book to see what might have worked in this case that didn’t in 99.06% of others.

The first line is:

Dear new Diary,

Have I got your attention yet? Probably not. It’s slightly interesting that it is a diary because you know you’re going to get the character’s unedited thoughts – but also not exactly original. Diaries can be deadly dull, too.

The second line is:

I have a surprise for you.

When I read my book to a class of 9 – 10 year olds, you can feel their attention switch on at this line. They want to know what the surprise is. On a subtler level, they want to know why this writer is talking to her diary as if it is a real person.

So there you go – it is possible to get the readers’ attention in as little as two sentences. And it doesn’t even require a startling event as in the first line of Iain Banks’ Crow Road:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.  

Of course having one of those is great – but then you have to live up to it. What you don’t want is for your first line to be the best line in the book, so the rest of the reading is a progressively more disappointing experience. You want it to tease, to promise, to set the scene, to lay out the red carpet. Like this:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

When I first opened Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, I stopped right there and read it again, aloud, noticing for the first time ever how the name Lo-li-ta does exactly what he says on the palate. I was hooked – not by plot, for no event has been mentioned - but by the promise of rich, original language that re-shapes the world for me.

I am Sam. Sam I am.

Shorter but equally irresistible!

But a good first line is not enough. You have to deliver on your promises; show that your characters are people we don’t want to walk away from, stir up a language soup that tastes so good the reader wants more and more and more.

220 words into Chips, Beans and Limousines, the surprise for the diary turns out to be:

You never thought you would belong to a celebrity, did you? (The whole first page can be read at:

As it happens, that isn’t the-truth-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but it pays off  the debt to the reader created by the original promise of a surprise, and also builds on it to promise more exciting things to come. The reader is probably interested to find out what kind of things a child celebrity gets up to and confides to her diary (and why she persists in talking to that diary as if it was her best friend). And so they read on.

Over the time that I was composing this blog post, I was also re-reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. These are the first 276 words of that classic, first published in 1865:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation? Notice how the writer builds his character. She is a natural, rebellious, realistic little girl who gets bored by the same things his readers do. She is someone they would want to play with, someone we would want to spend a book with. He neatly mirrors (pun intended) the reader’s own feelings – who doesn’t remember checking through a book to find the illustrations before starting to read? – and reassures them that this author understands the kind of book they want. So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy- chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.  The sudden physical movement ups the pace. We sit up and take notice just as Alice does. There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so verymuch out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!' This is the most overt attention-grabber, the ‘Why? How? What next?’ moment for the reader – but charater and voice have been working their subtle attention-getting magic even before now.  (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat- pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity,wouldn’t the reader too be burning with curiosity? she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.  At this point  I would defy any child to put the book down. How is she to get out and what on earth is down there?
Obviously, C.L. Dodgson was a genius and I’m not. But I do think it interesting that our first passages, though so very different and separated by nearly 150 years, both make a clear play for the reader’s attention well within 300 words. It makes me think there must be some kind of universal rule there. And I think that practicing getting those first 300 words right can only help set high standards for the rest of your novel.

My advice
· Dare to be bold – but remember that you have to pay your debts to the reader. Only blow your grandmother up if you are absolutely certain that you can live up to it.
· Alternatively, challenge yourself. Blow your elderly relative sky high in the first line and set yourself the task of constantly being even more interesting than that in the rest of the book.
· Think about creating an impression with voice rather than event.
· Don’t be afraid of subtlety. A seductive glance can make more of an impression than streaking.
· Remember to build pace and tension, don’t just pile incident on incident.
· Be true to your whole story. It’s not about showing all your cards at once, it’s about making a good entrance.


Julie Sykes said...

'A seductive glance can make more of an impression than streaking,' an especially good one to remember!

Joan Lennon said...

Excellent idea, resurrecting this - there have been so many great posts down the years and it's wonderful to meet them again! Thanks Sue and Leila!

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Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great that this one came up agin. What a selection of fantastic beginings! Thank you! Use voice instead of event to draw the reader... great idea.