The first 250 words, Part Two

A while ago I did a post about judging a book by its first 250 words (it’s common for writing contests to pick this number for your writing sample). I showed that some famous books have beginnings that don’t really hit on the substance of the book. On the other hand, I showed that some books do manage to jump right into the meat of the book with the first 250 words. In either case, it’s interesting.

Since then, I’ve looked at some other well-known and best-selling books. After the break, another set of examples.

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The first 250 words

I’ve been involved in several writing contests where the entry calls for your pitch and the first 250 words, or sometimes just the first 250 words.

This is fine, and it’s kind of fun, but I’m worried that some new authors are getting the idea that if you don’t shoot the Sheriff in the first two paragraphs, you’re not going to get an agent’s attention. I suspect that many entries have been specifically “tuned” to the contests. There have been too many cases of the “hook” arriving in the last sentence of the 250 words to be a pure coincidence.

The way I see it, most readers buy a book for these main reasons:

  • It’s an author the reader likes and she knows what they’ll deliver.
  • The reader checked out the cover and the back of the book or the end papers.
  • The reader saw a review or a friend recommended it.

If they’ve gotten that far, most readers will happily plow through a few pages of gray, gray Kansas to get to Oz.

An agent can’t do these things when they’re checking out a new author, so they typically request a pitch/query to lay out the whole idea, and the first chapter to demonstrate writing ability. A whole chapter gives the writer a little more slack. The first 250 words in the examples I’ve collected below may be mundane, but almost all of the books they are taken from have you into some real action before the first chapter ends.

Usually only contests cram us down to the first quarter page, or even loglines or Twitter pitches. Again, I hastily add that I’m perfectly okay with that, especially since the judges are good-hearted volunteers who don’t deserve being buried in hundreds of pages.

Still, it’s important to remember that ultimately you’re writing for readers (and agents), not for contests. Make the pacing work for the story. There’s a lot to be said for “hooks” and “grabbing the reader right away,” but I’ve read many a good book that eased you into the story a lot more quietly.

A few 250 word examples after the break:

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Pitch+250

So, I enter Zorya into the “Pitch+250” contest, where everyone enters a pitch and then the first 250 words. I got cut in the first round, but they sent me a detailed scorecard (which was pretty cool of them) and this comment from the judge:

“This could be a really good story but I didn’t get enough sense of what happens or the stakes from the pitch. Since I’m guessing most of the action happens when Zorya’s exiled, I wanted to know more about this and the stakes to her.”

Everyone had to cut their pitch to 100 words for the contest. Much of what I had to cut was the action during Zorya’s exile.

*Sigh*