Cyndy Aleo

Four Little Bees Writing & Editing

author, freelance writing, editing, and a little bit of web development, helping clients with content development, book editing, and blog set-up and customization

First lines and the biggest book lies - why reviewing can be frustrating

I have some serious question for all of you:

  • What makes you buy a book? The cover? The brief blurb of a synopsis? The blurbs by other authors?
  • If you buy dead-tree books or even electronic books, how much of a sample do you read? A line? A paragraph? A page? The entire e-book sample?
  • How much of a book do you read before you quit reading, if you are one of those people who can DNF (do-not-finish) a book? 10%? 20% 50%? How long do you give a book to get better?
  • What is the first line of the book you're currently reading? No, don't flip back there. Tell me now. From memory. What is it? 

I ask because -- in my attempt at being more positive in 2015, I did become immensely frustrated with something I've seen on Twitter for years: publishing professionals doling out "advice" in pithy, 140-characters-or-less doses.

The problem with much of this advice is that the format of Twitter limits the advice to things that are often untrue when read at face value. And are discouraging.

First, let me reiterate: I self-publish because a) I write what I want and b) I am a walking, talking, tweeting PR disaster waiting to happen. I own that. And I'd rather be poor and self-publishing than rich and toeing a corporate line. I think. Maybe I could give being rich a whirl before I decide? ;)

My frustration is in being a reader and a reviewer and a friend to a lot of authors. Some published, some not. The best writers I know are the ones plagued with self-doubt, who think they suck, who think no one wants to read their books. The worst I've ever met? Are delusional, care nothing for advice, and have no desire to get better.

Guess which ones are the ones who press on until they find representation and a publishing contract? 

There is a huge difference between being an agent or acquiring editor and a reviewer. Agents (and even some editors) are allowed to make a decision based on a sample: a first line, a first page, a first chapter.

Now imagine reviewers went around reviewing books like that. Can you imagine the outrage? My review of Harry Potter would have been something along the lines of:

This take on Oliver Twist plays out strangely in its modern setting. This reviewer finds it unbelievable that no teacher or other adult would have reported the Dursleys for abuse and neglect. A miss.

There are books I've been sure would be amazing that conk out at the end, and ones I wasn't sure of that became page-turners about 1/3 of the way in. Some stories need more world building, and I get bored easily when we don't start out with a lot of action.

Same with those first lines everyone says are so important. Let's face it; it's a rare person who's writing the next TALE OF TWO CITIES here. I can honestly remember ONE first line in the past ten years: "The circus arrives without warning."

Now THAT'S a first line. 

But the reality is that there are a lot of really unimpressive first lines out there. Let's take FIFTY SHADES, for example. The first line?

"I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror."

Holy carp. It's boring. It's useless. It takes the "in the mirror" trope and turns it into a cliche. Name me one agent who would have signed that out of the slush pile.

Zero.

Now, what does that tell you? 

I have a friend who refers to that type of advice that's well meant but useless as "assvice."

FIFTY SHADES is one of the best-selling books of all time and it violated every single one of those pithy tweets about abusing tropes and writing well and "writing another book," didn't it?

Make those tropes your own. Don't worry about writing a first sentence people are going to want to tattoo on themselves. And actually, don't worry about what all those pros say online when it comes to things like tropes. Think about every one of those books that breaks every single one of those rules and sells well. Write well. Be gracious. Be unique.

Write a good story. Make it emotional. And please, make it unique. We reviewers will be eternally grateful.