Saturday, September 30, 2006

Prize Inside

A well-meaning friend sent me a copy of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian over the summer. He viewed this as a gift; I did not. I've been dodging this elephantine bloodsucker since I first spotted its Susanna Clarkish dimensions causing a book dump to collapse in the center at BAM. Also, a first novel that exceeds 500 pages, in my experience, has either not been adequately edited, and/or was written by someone with whom I have as much in common as I do, say, Anne Coulter.

Finally this week I opened the book and read the first line. She got a lot of money for this book, and I truly wasn't jealous. I just wanted it to be great. I wanted her to deserve that whomping contract and to give me the book equivalent of a bigass box of CrackerJack with a diamond ring prize inside so I could write up something about the book here. This is what I got:

The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper.

How did Kostova's first published line grab me? Well, I immediately slammed the cover shut and put it on the TBRMBID* shelf. The cats like to hang on that shelf and cough up hairballs. Sometimes Jak has a bladder spasm while he's throwing up. A girl can hope.

I suspect that this was a carefully crafted, much-thought-over lit-head hook line (you can almost smell the rewrite ink.) Obviously it was supposed to intrigue me, and maybe if I was a novel size queen I'd be all over it. Drown me in stories you never intended to tell me, baby.

Problem is, I'm a writer. When you land a deal like Kostova did, and write a novel so long that each chapter requires their own edition of Cliff Notes, the last thing you should start your book with is, "Gee, I never meant to write this." It's like kicking a boy in the family jewels and standing over him while he writhes in pain and then murmuring, "Golly, does that hurt?"

Yeah, I'm going to want to read more of that.

I didn't throw The Historian in the trash, so there's still a slim chance that I'll recover from the slap of that ridiculous line and go back for another shot. If I throw your book in the garbage, though, it's definitely abandon hope all ye time.

That's the first time I've ever had such a negative reaction to an opening line. I can't decide if it's a rational reaction or I am jealous or in writer denial or something. I think (besides the gift aspect) that's the other reason I didn't toss the book. One line instant aversion isn't being fair to Elizabeth Kostova. I gave old Susanna Clarke a whole 54 pages before I gave up on her doorstop with the lousy punctuation. Liz deserves at least as much.

Do you expect a prize inside from an author who lands a huge deal for their novel? Do you feel cheated when you don't find it?

*To be read maybe before I'm dead.

33 comments:

  1. I might be in the minority, but I shy away from 500 pagers in general. There are simply too many books on my wishlist to dig into a hefty tome unless I know that it is something special.

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  2. I do expect a prize, yes. I do expect to be wowed as no doubt the contract givers were.

    And I always am disappointed. I guess the wow is more in the clever bidding war, than in the actual book.

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  3. I really enjoyed The Historian, even if there were some dumb plot bits-one glaring one in particular. But yeah, I get warm fuzzies when I think about it. I haven't been that swept up in a book since I was a kid.

    Amy Williams did a great job for Kostova, there's no denying that. It all happened so fast.

    But I didn't get past a few chapters in Jonathan Strange, though, either.

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  4. LOL! Yeah, I think my first book started around 500p, edited down to 200 before it was filed where it belongs--with the dust bunnies under the bed. I don't think it's jealousy to be annoyed when poor writing is pubbed, but the way you expressed your POV made me laugh. You have a way with words. Thanks. :-)

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  5. You can tell that The Historian is a first book.

    The difference is, The Historian is also a first Published book, which is where it went all wrong.

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  6. I haven't tried The Historian yet. So far, I've made two attempts at reading Jonathan Strange and still haven't got past the first hundred pages. Part of me is intrigued by its style, perhaps even its story, but most of me just doesn't consider it fun. A third attempt doesn't seem likely.

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  7. Cinderberry6:06 AM

    Perversely, I'm very glad that you didn't go further than the first line. I read about a hundred pages a few months ago, but it was like trying to walk in jelly. I'm still slightly miffed about all the lost time, when I could have been reading something *good*. I should have been brave enough to chuck ten pages in.

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  8. Hmm...after reading this I went back and looked at my own opening line and I have to say it just pretty much sat there. No jumping off the page, hooking or pulling involved.

    How important is that first line? And how can one line set the tone for the entire book?

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  9. I love big books, so The Historian was on my list until I read so much negative stuff about the book. Now I'm not willing to spend money on it, but if I got it as present, I'd give it a shot - beyond that first line which I didn't think is so terrible. I've a very eclectic taste in books, so everything from me tossing it after a few pages to me actually liking it, is possible.

    I have sometimes been dissappointed by a hyped book. Honestly, I knew Dan Brown was about the story, not the storytelling, but must it have been that clumsy?

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  10. I still haven't tried Jonathon Strange yet. In general, whopping doorstop books put me off because in my experience they aren't usually warranted. But I do love it when a doorstop turns out to be a big, thick meaty story I can dive into and stay for days and love every minute of.

    So I guess for me it isn't the size of the contract that's a factor, it's the size of the book. I'm just less willing to take on a doorstop from a new to me author, and if it doesn't have a strong beginning, I'm even less willing to go further. Because if it's bad, there's so much more of it.

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  11. Jill wrote: How important is that first line? And how can one line set the tone for the entire book?

    As a reader I tend to formulate a first impression based on the first line, which is why I work so hard on my opening lines. A great one is like sticking a tray of free Godiva truffles at a Weight Watcher's meeting. A bad one is more like a jeer: "You're going to be SO sorry you spent $26.95 on this."

    I don't think other writers are as obsessed with first lines as I am. Most openers seem to range from reasonably interesting to totally unremarkable. I always think the writer could do better, but I'm more willing to forgive a mediocre opening line than something like Kostova wrote (and again, because she made such a huge deal for this book my green-eyed subconscious may have produced the instant aversion out of envy, which is quite unreasonable and unfair to the writer. Because I'm not sure, I would not consider my opinion a legitimate criticism.)

    If a book is a house, then the opening line is the front door. You might want to paint it fire engine red, hang a wreath on it or have your name spelled out in scrolling brass letters on it. However you write the first line of your novel, I think it should welcome the reader -- not slam the door in their face.

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  12. Dr. Phil makes how much a year?

    Please read into this comment whatever you wish . . .

    :)

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  13. I think the writer in me agrees with you--for that kind of money it better kick ass especially at that size! I think teh last big book i read though was Jean Auel or maybe---crap I can't remember her name.

    And I agree on the first line, though I can forgive if the first paragraph and the next few pages are great. Not that I always follow this advice but I think one of the best tidbits I read somewhere said the first line should raise questions in the reader's mind. I agree.

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  14. One of my favorite openings is from Cold Mountain, where Charles Frazier opens with:

    "At the first gesture of dawn..."

    Now, I did endure that book one night in a fit of insomnia. Stilted as the sparse dialog was, and as fake as some of the action was, I finished the story, and decided it was OK.

    Sometimes we just have to take our dose of lit-ra-cha. Otherwise, we might get dogmatic about what will work in commercial fiction.

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  15. I don't think other writers are as obsessed with first lines as I am.

    You know that calls for some sort of 'first lines' competition' on your blog. *grin*

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  16. I received The Historian as a Christmas gift. I t is still on the shelf. Opening lines are very important to me and I can almost tell from the first line if a book is a keeper or one of those that never gets read.
    My favorite first line of all time is in Montana Sky, "Being dead didn't make Jack Mercy less of a son of a bitch. This book is on my keeper shelf and has been read several times.

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  17. I spend more time thinking about the first line than any other single part of a story. I've delayed writing deadlined projects because I couldn't come up with a killer first line. Which is just another jack-assed form of procrastination, but I'm pathological that way. :p

    Yes please on Gabriele's first line competition idea, btw.

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  18. I read Jonathan Strange and loved it; I read the Historian and wondered why in the heck I bothered. Just so we know where I stand on the matter.

    The Historian suffers from two things even worse than a lousy opening line -- a small idea stretched over WAY too many pages, and four (or more? can 't even remember now) narrators of various ages, genders, and time periods who all sound EXACTLY THE SAME. You can open that book to any page and you have no idea who's talking, or in which decade.

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  19. "To be read before I'm dead."

    LMBO! You slay me.

    Door-stoppers tend to put me off. The bad ones, I can just put down. It's the good ones that are the problem-- at some point I get *resentful* that this damn book is taking up all my time.

    Contrary to the popular belief that you never want a good book to end, I do.

    I want to do something else, read something else. It's like watching a really good 3 hr movie-- your ass hurts sitting so long, you want to go to the bathroom, etc. *g*

    I didn't even make it through the book tape version of Jonathan Strange. :-P Not particularly interested in The Historian, either, but, in her defence, I think that line is actually the protagonist speaking, and not the author. That is, the protag expected to take the BIG SECRET she's about to REVEAL TO YOU in this book, to her grave! So listen up reader!! Or something like that. Not a hook, a lure. Or in your case, PBW, a repellant. lol.

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  20. I do expect to be wowed and wooed. I expect the literary equivalent of a box of Godiva chocolates, an exquisite dinner, a half hour shoulder rub and lots of long slow kisses if I'm going to put out...err I mean put in all that reading time.

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  21. Oh-Oh....If you don't like to read a writer's first book if it's over 500 pages, then I'm in BIG trouble!

    Any suggestions???

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  22. You know that calls for some sort of 'first lines' competition' on your blog.

    My thoughts exactly, Ms. C! Not that I think my first line is so great ('cause it's not), but I do love to see how clever and catchy other people can be!

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  23. I took a second look at the books stacked on my shelves. Most of my books average over 400 pages in length. The most pages belong to Gone with the Wind and Harry Potter novels.

    Not to say I don't have piles of 200 page novels lying around, but 400 plus pages don't scare me.

    I am obsessed with being able to like the cover art and how the back blurb and the first couple of lines. Cover art makes me pick it up, back blurb makes me open it up, first page makes me buy.

    That first line does scare me. I would have to read further, read the blurb and see the cover to put it down though. I'll check out out on Amazon but from the sound of it, give it a fair shot. Doesn't sound like any of my genres though.

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  24. Anonymous3:31 PM

    I *do* expect to be wowed. And I'm big about first paragraphs -- I can't do it on a line alone, but I can tell before the end of the page if it's something I can make it through or not. The length does have something to do with it too-- I read the first maybe five pages of Strange in the bookstore but it didn't grab me enough to want to read 500 more. 300, maybe. But not 500. (And yah, I don't like Historian's opening line. It seems sort of trite to me. Like she's trying *too* hard to hook us.)

    That said, Opening Line Contest! Pretty please?

    Jess

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  25. Maybe I should get around to reading first lines before I buy a book.

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  26. That first line actually intrigued me. But I usually read more than the first line before I buy a book, which in fiction I don't do often. A book has to grab me by the ears and make me read it so I forget I'm reading and look around ten minutes later wondering where the time went. Seriously. Otherwise it goes back on the shelf.

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  27. Fwiw, my first novel was 465 pages in mass market (before the 24 teaser pages for the sequel) and my second was 497 pages, pre-teaser. I'm in The Historian sized ballpark, anyway, and I have to admit I tend to prefer thicker books. I do not, however like fluff. lol

    Length is a battle I face every day as a writer, I tend to get too complicated in my storylines, so many things twirling together all at once. As a reader, though, I demand to be grabbed and held on to, whether with a sharp and bloody fist clenching at my throat or a gentle snuggle in a warm blanket.

    Lose my attention and I'll probably never pick it up again. That might come right off - I do tend to read the first page or so in the bookstore unless it's an author I know and trust, and if I'm not grasped, I don't buy - or it might come a few chapters in. I can't tell you how many books I've set aside after three chapters or ten because of some life-distraction, and never got around to opening again. Occasionally I trudge on, bored and uncaring, simply because I feel I must read the damn thing (DaVinci Code, anyone?)

    The best books are the ones that I cannot put down. At all. Until they're done. Family drama? Fine, deal with it, then Back To The Book. It doesn't matter what the first line is, if the style is perky or deep or simplistic, if it's literary or thriller or self help. Books that grab me and never let go are one reason I became a writer. I want to write those books, too.

    Beyond that, it's all subjective. One man's trash is another man's treasure, after all. We can't all like the same things, and even if we could, why would we want to? Millions loved The DaVinci Code, I thought it was a waste of perfectly good paper. Both opinions are valid, and that's just the way it should be.

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  28. Zillin6:27 PM

    My friend and I have a special process which we developed last year for disposing of really bad novels. We call it disemvoweling. We've only done this once. We drowned a badly written literary novel in the sink, dripped ink on it, and then dumped it unceremoniously in the garbage. Take THAT, literati!

    (Disclaimer) We don't wantonly destroy books. The only other book damage I've done was squishing a mosquito between the pages of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. . . it seemed oddly appropriate.

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  29. Amie wrote: ...I think one of the best tidbits I read somewhere said the first line should raise questions in the reader's mind. I agree.

    So do I. That's a great piece of advice.

    Gabriele wrote: You know that calls for some sort of 'first lines' competition' on your blog. *grin*

    You're evil, Gabriele. I love it. Consider it done (and tune in tomorrow for details.)

    Jaye wrote: Not particularly interested in The Historian, either, but, in her defence, I think that line is actually the protagonist speaking, and not the author.

    Very good point.

    Darlene wrote: I expect the literary equivalent of a box of Godiva chocolates, an exquisite dinner, a half hour shoulder rub and lots of long slow kisses if I'm going to put out...err I mean put in all that reading time.

    Note to self: Must NOT read Darlene's comments while drinking. But tea is good for the lungs, isn't it?

    BJ wrote: Oh-Oh....If you don't like to read a writer's first book if it's over 500 pages, then I'm in BIG trouble! Any suggestions???

    In your case, pal, I will happily make an exception. :)

    Pixel wrote: Cover art makes me pick it up, back blurb makes me open it up, first page makes me buy.

    I'm the exact same way when I browse books by authors I don't know, except for the cover art. After being stuck with more than one eyesore, I tend to be very forgiving about horrible art.

    Zillin wrote: The only other book damage I've done was squishing a mosquito between the pages of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. . . it seemed oddly appropriate.

    That's also one of only four books I've deliberately destroyed in my life. I needed to do it as quasi-therapy for me, though, not as any sort of protest or lashback against the author, who I think is brilliant. I simply can't read his books.

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  30. Misty9:36 PM

    I used to expect a great deal from the super-blockbusters. Until the day I opened The Da Vinci Code.

    I'm still a bit disgruntled about that.

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  31. I read The Historian. Trust me on this: the first line was the best part about it.

    Jonathan Strange, however, was excellent. Susanna Clarke spent 10 years writing it, and they were ten years well spent. I tackle large books cautiously, because I'm a slow reader, but this is one of the few that I will find time in my life to read again.

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  32. I haven't yet been able to finish The Historian. I've tried a few times and just can't make myself care about what happens in the book. (I've read about 1/3 of the story).

    I'm sure I'll continue trying to read it. I'm stubborn that way.

    Maybe I'll make it my insomnia book. If I'm suffering from it, I'll get the book out and maybe that'll put me to sleep. *s*

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  33. BOUGHT it. Imagine how I felt when I sent it to the UBS.

    Monumental waste of time.

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