And Why this is so Important to Authors and Critique Partners…
The first page is not like any other page in your book. Mistakes made on the first page can quickly become invisible. The author will not see them, critique partners may never notice them and even, if the editor does see them, on second look, they become invisible anyway.
Checking and double-checking only makes these mistakes ever harder to find. The more you look, the more invisible they become.
Read the opening page of Into The Mist below.
He jumped hard, throwing the hawser across the gap, giving the impression he would stop Mary’s departure.
A bird whispered down from the twin poles splintering her view into a kaleidoscopic array of crystalline chards.
Unbalanced, Mary dodged, salt-scented spume, wetting her signature Janzen suit.
The problem here is that the reader knows nothing about the story but the author (and all her critique partners) knows everything. The author has probably rewritten this opening a dozen times. The author often has made changes at the advice of her critique partners. Why would they then see anything wrong with the text?
Everyone in this situation, except the reader, has a very clear view of the above scene. They know what is going on and why it is happening. But the poor reader knows nothing!
When the reader knows nothing and the author knows everything, it creates an example of asymmetry. Unlike other asymmetries, however, this ‘first page’ asymmetry dissolves with each page the reader reads. It’s an asymmetry that often even the reader cannot duplicate once she ventures into the body of the book.
Read the above passage again and then answer these questions:
1. Who is ‘he’?
2. How do you jump ‘hard’?
3. What is a hawser?
4. What is the gap? A gap between what?
5. Who is Mary?
6. Is she departing? Does she want to? Does he want to stop her?
7. What does the bird have to do with this? Is the bird literal or poetic? Birds don’t really whisper.
8. What are the twin poles? Is this literal or poetic?
9. What is the meaning of 'splintering her view'? Is this literal or poetic?
10. By ‘unbalanced’ do you mean Mary is crazy or literally unbalanced?
11. Did Mary try to dodge the spume or was she dodging something else?
12. Did the spume wet her suit or was she very frightened by what she was dodging?
You may be thinking that no one would let a passage like the one above get by. You’d be wrong. It is very hard to ‘un-know’ something. Philosophers may do it sometimes but authors may not even know to try.
Into The Mist is a story about a fishing family in Mystic Bay. The family has an old pre-WWII vintage boat. The two masts are called the ‘twins’ and play an important role in the story. ‘He’ is the hero and owns the boat. Mary is the heroine who needs a cataract operation. The boat is in the harbor. The gap is the space between the boat deck and the dock. The hawser is the heavy rope used to tie the boat to the dock. The hero thinks the heroine’s eyesight is inadequate to serve on his boat. The hero is on the dock. He threw the hawser back onto the boat which Mary was thinking of leaving. She saw the hawser coming at her and dodged. The hero did not see her at the time. He was not trying to stop her departure.
The author knows all this and so do all her critique partners. The poor reader, however, is wondering “what in the world is going on here? I better read this again. Surely, I am missing something”. So the reader reads it again and a third time and then gives up and just goes on reading with the hope that things will eventually make sense.
What’s an Author to Do?
At some point, when the author believes the first page is near perfect, she should have someone who knows nothing about the book read the first page. Just the first page. She should then ask how the reader ‘sees’ the story. Does she understand what is happening? Does she feel comfortable so far? Does she feel compelled to read further?
The reader should not be someone who might be trying to be polite or trying to please the author. The same reader probably should not be used twice on the same copy. The author should try to collect a set of these readers for future use. Fortunately, this is a very unique problem involving the first page.
“But, Vince”, I hear the defensive author saying, “I deliberately left that stuff out to intrigue the reader and force her to read on.”
Well, don’t do that.
The reader has to at least understand what a sentence means. She won’t be intrigued. She will be befuddled. And if she is standing in Wal-Mart reading the first page, she will probably put the book back on the shelf and look for an author who is a better communicator.