Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Paddle Me, Baby

by Susan

"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

(Source uncertain. Often misattributed to Dorothy Parker.)

Ever dropped a book like a bad transmission before making it to page two? Most readers have. So have agents and editors faced with finding the best manuscripts in the pile.

At the Wyoming Writers Conference, Chuck Sambuchino shared the two deadly sins of book openings: too slow and too much exposition. The Sunday morning paddle panel put this idea into action.

Paddle panel panelists (say that five times fast) each have a YES and NO paddle. Writers submit just the first page of their work in progress. As it is read aloud, panelists hold up YES if that first page would keep them reading, NO if they would set it aside before discussing their decisions.

Lest you think this was a lesson in public humiliation like the "Gong Show," pieces were submitted anonymously, the panelists -- literary agents April Eberhardt and Jessica Sinsheimer, publisher Nancy Curtis and past Wyoming Poet Laureate Robert Roripaugh -- were kind and not cutting in their remarks, and there were no boos from the audience. Still, it takes bravery to put out your work for an up-down vote.

Even the best writers can fall flat on the first page. Over on Writer Unboxed, you can go Flog a Pro (or paddle them.) Given the name on the cover, most fans will slog through for a bit if necessary, but most of us don't have that luxury.

As the session went on, I found myself holding up my own mental paddles. One piece might start strong and then plunge into too much backstory. Another might have beautiful language, but meander too much.

Others were simply gripping. The best let you know what was at stake right away. It put a question in your mind that you wanted the answer to, if it meant you had to read to the very end. (And a good idea, per Lee Gutkind in his creative writing workshops, is to NOT answer that question until the very end.)

The latter half of the session, I found it hard to pay attention as I was scribbling notes to myself for a piece of fiction I've been playing with. The light had come on: I knew where to start it and where to go with it. I may still fall flat, but I had some better ideas of how not to.

A paddle panel might be a good exercise for a local writing group. You could also go down the shelf of nonfiction at your local library and pull one book at a time. Stay away from names you know where you might have a preconceived expectation. Don't read anything on the cover or flaps. Just pick up the book, read the first page and ask yourself if you would keep reading. Then, more importantly, ask yourself why. Analyzing what works and what doesn't allows you to watch for -- or strive for -- those same things in your own work.

I nearly skipped the paddle panel in favor of an early start down that long, lonesome highway from Sheridan to Cheyenne. I'm glad I didn't. Every session I attended at the conference was great, but I would have to say I learned the most from this one. Additional lesson learned: hold up a big YES paddle to new writing experiences. You never know what you'll take away from them.


  1. The Paddle Panel was a great idea and I appreciated the feedback. Since an entire piece cannot be judged by the first page, at least for fiction, the criticism is even more valuable; we are forced to evaluate our work in the light of that criticism and decide for ourselves what is valid.

    A couple of suggestions for the panel: (1) One paddle for each judge with a big Y on one side and a big N on the other. (2) Different readers for different genres.

    It was a great conference. I can't wait until next year!

    1. As writers, we always retain what my co-blogger Lynn refers to as APTI -- Author's Prerogative To Ignore. Still, I found it valuable to know how to hook a reader on the first page. Readers today seem less patient -- I read older books from Project Gutenberg often, and they often seemed to assume back then that the writer would stick with it for a few more pages.

      Glad you enjoyed the conference. Looking forward to seeing you there next year.

  2. I love reading openings of stories in random books. I also like reading endings. The paddle exercise is a great idea to make sure you're grabbing reader. I love to experiment with openings in my stories...so much fun.

    1. The first page thing is great for story. I've heard a good one for technique is to read every third or fourth page, so you're not distracted by the story, and analyze what it is about the language that grabs you. So many things to learn with writing!


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