12 July 2010

Polish your first page till it sparkles!

I find it interesting, that in writing courses you're always told that the first page and the first chapter of your book have to be absolutely captivating if you want to get it published. "You must have a hook!" "It must be easy to read." "Publishers will stop reading if they're not won over by the first page." "Readers will give up, and give bad word-of-mouth, if the first chapter doesn't grab them."

And yet everyone I know who's read the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy says the first couple of chapters of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are slow, difficult, boring, annoying - but once you get past them, the rest of the trilogy is fab.

So are Swedish publishers different? Do readers feel a sense of pride in slogging through difficult text? Or is Larsson the exception that proves the rule?


Lookafar said...

I have to ask, if this fellow can write so marvelously well, why didn't someone (say, an editor) at some time just say to him, "Hey dude, how's about working up your first two chapters now that we have a deal. Cos, like, they're pretty sucky."
And when I teach my creative writing classes, I always pull out a fine example of the most boring first three pages ever published; 'The Hobbit'.
Then I explain why I think they are so.
BUT, the advice is still good, i reckon. And I try and stick to it too.

greenspace said...

I agree, Lookafar, that it is good advice - it just intrigues me how often books that are published, and sell reasonably well, have really dull and/or difficult openings.

Georgette Heyer wrote many lovely Regency romance novels, with wonderful historical detail, exciting adventures, and satisfying romances - not everyone's cup of tea, but they've sold well for decades. Yet some of her novels start with a page or two of overly-detailed description of an estate - not even the characters, but the buildings and lawns! Yawn-inducing for most readers, unless they're studying late 18th century or early 19th century architecture and landscaping.

It's a while since I've read The Hobbit, but I vaguely remember it starting with tea-making, and genealogical details. Maybe readers have become more impatient in the decades since Tolkien wrote it?

Sheep Rustler said...

I still haven't read them, but quite a lot of people have said that they aren't actually that well written and might not have been such a huge success had he not died and had not the inheritance story caused such a splash. I cannot comment yet. I'm sure that an excellent first page helps with slush pile submitting but how many writers make it through a slush pile, and how many have contacts that they use instead? Wasn't Swedish man a journo or something?

greenspace said...

Sheep Rustler (hiya!), that's quite possible, both that Larsson had contact that helped him get published, and that his death gave the trilogy an edge in marketing...

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting! I must admit to not having read the Stieg Larsson-books despite being Swedish myself. Partly because they're so hyped up, partly because I a few years ago read far too many crime novels and ended up never wanting to see one again in my life, and partly because I read the first couple of pages, thought "meh" and put the book down again.

(Wow, that is a long sentence!)

I actually went to my book shelf and pulled out a couple of different Swedish crime novels to look at the first page. Most of the ones I checked out rather quickly are, if not extremely exciting so at least enough to keep you reading.

Then again, most of them are written by women about female police officers/lawyers/journalists etc, and it is almost a fact that crime novels written by men, especially those about the clichéd middle-aged, divorced, bitter dude with alcohol problems are... dense. To say the least. Now, I know that the Millennium books are about a woman, but I think the pages I read way back when made it feel like a typical "male" crime novel.

Just my personal opinion, of course, and not having read the books I probably shouldn't be so dismissive, but it's hard not to be, after some criticism I've read about!

greenspace said...

Kaia, that's so interesting, what you say about the differences between typical 'male' Swedish crime novels, with the embittered middle-aged guy with drinking problems as the central character, and the crime novels written by women, with female lawyers/cops/journos as the central characters. I'd like to read some of 'female' crime novels - which authors would you recommend?

Anonymous said...

Okay, have had a look on what Swedish female crime writers there are... My favourite, Anna Jansson, has not been translated as far as I can see, but a few others:

Åsa Larsson - http://www.amazon.com/Sun-Storm-Asa-Larsson/dp/0385340788/

Sometimes you have to search for her as "Asa", Amazon does not like ÅÄÖ, our extra letters in the alphabet. Her books are about a female lawyer who is not practicing law after a mental breakdown, if I remember correctly, and take place in the very far north. Feet upon feet of snow and ice!

Liza Marklund -

She is kind of legendary for writing about a crime solver (a journalist, in this case) who is a mum with two small children. That almost never happens. A few of her books has been made in to movies here in Sweden, although I haven't seen them.

Camilla Läckberg is also well-known. She has been criticized for being too formulaic (is that even a word?), and her books doesn't quite have the depth and gritty of the other two. Still, her books takes place on the west coast of Sweden, in a very tiny town, and are quite quaint for that reason only.

And then there is of course Anne Holt, who is Norwegian. Her heroine is quite hard and tough, very similar to the bitter old police detective that is usually male. Her novels can verge on the gross, but I still read a ton of them, during my crime novel phase.

A few suggestions, if you're into crime. No supernatural themes in any of them, though, but as we have more crime writers than any other country in the world (or so I've heard), we have quite a few to choose from. And I have a hard time believing Stieg Larsson is the best one.

Anonymous said...

Ack, forgot the link to Läckberg's books. Here it is: