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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Classics in disguise

Publishers are trying to get young people to read the classics by dressing them up in modern, “Twilight-style” covers. Since many of these classics are in the public domain, the only expense is printing and the new covers. Not bad for the publishers, and if kids get sneakily introduced to some good books it sounds to me like a win all around.

News story here.