Write Wow!

Writing tips and techniques from the publisher of Swimming Kangaroo Books. Send your 3-page writing sample to be critiqued to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com with the word "critique" in the subject heading. Your submission will be critiqued on the blog, but your name will not be used unless you give permission.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

If This Is a Mystery, Where's the Stiff?

"I knew right away something was wrong as I hauled my suitcases into the house after being gone for two weeks. It wasn't the fact that my five cats and one dog were all gathered around the door to greet me--that was only to be expected, after all. And it wasn't even the fact that my mail was scattered on the entry hall floor-- David, the man who watches my house while I'm gone tends to just drop my mail and papers on the entry hall floor, leaving me a sea of paper to wade through every time I come home. It wasn't even the smell-- in a house with six animals, one of them extremely elderly, I get used to odd smells. No, I immediately knew something was wrong because at the end of the entry hall I saw a foot with a blue-jeaned leg attached to it. Someone was lying on the floor of my living room. Glancing at the wall I saw splatters of brownish-red, which stood out in stark contrast to my recent "eggshell white" paint job. It's not for nothing that I am a mystery writer. Immediately I realized that there was a body on the floor of my living room, and from the smell and the look of the blood splatters, that body was probably a dead one."

The beginning paragraphs of your book are like a store display-- you want them to reach out and grab the reader and pull him/her into the story. I have a 100-page rule when I am reading for pleasure-- if I am not completely into the book after 100 pages, I stop reading it because my time is very valuable. When reading manuscripts, the bar is much lower. If the writer hasn't grabbed me within the first five pages, it's a huge blackmark against the submission. I go ahead and skim through the remaining sample pages to see if the weak beginning can be redeemed, but it's really hard to recover from a weak start.

Here's a good rule to remember, "If this is a mystery, where's the stiff?" I ask that because I once had someone submit a manuscript to me that they described as a mystery, but 100 pages into the manuscript, not only were there no dead bodies, but there was no element of suspense whatsoever. One good way to tell if your beginning is NOT a grabber is if you find yourself picking chapters from later in the book to send to the publisher because "that's where it really starts to get good." If your first three chapters are not the ones you are using to try to convince the publisher to offer you a contract, then you probably need to take a good look at the structure of your book. Maybe you need to move the "Really good" chapters up to the beginning.

Now if you'll excuse me, the police have come and gone, and I have to try to get the bloodstains off of my wall.


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