One of the most common things I see young writers doing (that was a classic mistake made by yours truly for many years) is trusting the reader to put their faith in you. Your work. Your characters. The promise of your enthusiasm. When you’re submitting a manuscript to a publisher, this will be the faith you assume they’ll have in the thickness of your manuscript, the blurb you’ve provided, your cover letter. If you’re a feature writer or a budding journalist, this will be your design, your pictures, your catchy headline. If you’re an academic writer, you’ll be relying on your good name and your bulky reference list. You think that, for this reason, you can take the time to develop your characters, set your scene, dilly-dally around with the glorious little world of ideas you created with your brilliant mind and your bare hands before you get to the action, the problem, the juicy bits, the money shot.
I’m here today to tell you, writers, that you’re wrong.
Classic newbie, teenage and generally untrained writers start their stories with an alarm clock going off. I’m sure you’ve all done this. It’s the start of a new day for your character, so why shouldn’t his adventure begin when he opens his eyes? Your surly detective, gorgeous businessman, stubbled half-wolf or whomever has become your new muse saunters to the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror, reflects on all his facial features one at a time, because you can’t begin telling the story until your reader knows what he looks like, right? He’ll shower and dress and go out for the day, be whipped by angry solar winds or duck through the rain to the nearest taxi or begin sweating immediately in the oppressive Florida heat. What you need to realise, however, is that by the time he’s chosen his tie your reader has put your work down. No matter how handsome, hungover, haggard, or hurried your hero is, he’s just a hero at this point next to thousands upon thousands of heroes littering the forgotten manuscripts of the world, and until he faces something, proves himself, wins the lady, whatever, he’s going to convulse and die on that page like a freshly-sprayed roach, the animation choked out of him by the toxicity of a short attention-span.
I’ve met quite a few people in the publishing industry over the last couple of years, and what I can tell you about them is that their fuse is short. The big publishing houses of Sydney are facing upwards of three thousand manuscripts a year, and taking about ten debut authors onto their books in your category per annum. Somewhere, right now, a young editor is sitting down at her desk with her morning coffee and her Weetbix to a three-foot high pile of slush pile hopefuls, and before she copyedits the major work in her list, sends forty emails, writes the company newsletter, books flights and dinners and hotel rooms for her boss, updates the company social media page, talks shop with her colleagues, makes a few rejection calls and fills in the staff survey that’s been haunting her inbox for a month, she’s going to give a half an hour to this pile, because that’s her quota. That means she’s got about three minutes for your work. That means you’ve got the first page to impress her. And your guy gets up out of bed and looks at himself in the mirror.
Give me a break, honey.
Always, always, always, start with a problem. A question. A cliffhanger. A drama. A fight. An escape. A fall. A deal going horribly wrong. If your people are going to rob a bank, start when they kick open the heavy glass doors. You can go back to their origins if you need to. If your man’s going to get shot in a prison escape, drag himself under a truck, fall down a sewer drain and be rescued by a woman with a hard jaw and a big gun, start with the sound of the blast. Don’t have your children sitting in class listening to the teacher on the morning of the day they’ll be kidnapped. Start with the feeling of the abductor’s hand gripping their arm out of nowhere, that stomach-flipping, sideways yank, the paint-chipped van door, the musty smell of the carpet. There’ll be time to tell me what your muse looks like. There’ll be time to set the scene. There’ll be time to explain what his apartment looks like and what brand of coffee he drinks, but until I’m hooked on his problem, I just don’t care. I Just. Don’t Care.
Years ago, I picked up a novel while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, and the first scene was a guy loading a gun and climbing into the bathtub to blow his brains out, pulling the shower curtain over so he didn’t make a mess, thinking about his wife and how she’d be home any minute and how he’d better do it quick before she could talk him down. He’s pulling the trigger (literally, the springs are creaking) and the phone rings. It’s work calling him in. A big case. A girl is missing. They need him. He looks at the gun in his hand and listens to his wife’s footsteps in the hall and thinks it’s all just too hard. He’s afraid. He doesn’t think he can do this anymore. I got to this point and the doctor called me into his office, and when I left I forgot to look at the name of the book. To this day, I wonder what that book was, what happened, whether he changed his mind about his life. That first page struck me dumb. What an intense problem. What a way to start.
If you’re a journalist, you’ve got less than a page to hook your reader, because your column, article, advertising strip is going to be crowded onto a double page spread full of pretty pictures and scary block headlines, or if it’s unpublished it’s going to be crammed onto a desk or into an inbox with miles of other freelancers, most of them actually free. If you’re an academic, you’ve got an even bigger problem: because most of your readers will be students, and it’s quite likely they’re only reading your work because someone’s got a gun to their head. Find the action, whether you’re writing about tea or the next James Bond, whether your work is designed to lull or get hearts thumping. Your reader will never care as much as you. They will never invest as much as you, imagine as well as you, or love, hate, hope, fear, or hang out on a solution as long as you. Never.
But you must make them care, if only a little, straight away. Because they won’t take the time to get there on their own.