Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Writer's Wednesday: The First 250

This post has been brewing in my mind for awhile.  There are so many contests and critiques and blog posts about the first 250 words.  So much EMPHASIS on them.

I'm going to be totally honest.

I think it's kinda ridiculous.

Yes, agents and editors are SUPER busy and make snap judgments based on very little sample.  Sometimes the first 250, sometimes less.  Sometimes more.

And, yes, SOME readers will look at the opening pages of a novel in the store to decide whether or not to buy it.  But not all.  (I personally have never done this. I decide whether to buy a novel based on the jacket copy and/or recommendations from friends.)  And I'm not aware of anyone who reads the first 250 words utterly blind.  An agent will have read your query; a reader will have seen the cover and title at the very least, and likely read the jacket copy.

I'm not saying the first 250 words aren't important.  They are.  But I think a little too much emphasis is put on them sometimes, and I DEFINITELY think people have wrong ideas about what should or shouldn't be in them.

If you weren't on vacation or hiding last week, you are aware of the Miss Snarks First Victim Bakers Dozen Agent Auction.  In the critique portion of the auction, I saw lots of comments about starting in the middle of the action, or having paranormal or fantastical elements if it was a paranormal or fantasy entry. 

Look at the first 250 words of THE HUNGER GAMES.  I'm not sure how much I can post, so you can do the Look Inside thing at Amazon if you don't have it (why don't you HAVE IT?!).  Did ya look? action.  Waking up (which we are all told is a no-no).  Only one sentence, that, in my opinion, raises interest: "This is the day of the reaping."  And while that's intriguing, it could be completely mundane.  "Reaping" could refer to actual reaping of crops.  The reader probably knows it means something ominous because they've read the jacket copy.

Look at the first 250 words of HEX HALL (and let me just say, I kind of worship Rachel Hawkins, and DEMONGLASS is my favorite book of 2011).  Again, nothing earth-shattering going on, and no hint of the paranormal element. (And it's a prologue, which we're also told is a no-no.)

My point is, there is no one way to do the first 250 words.  There's no formula.  There's only THIS WORKS and THIS DOESN'T WORK.  Get some good, trustworthy critique partners and let them help you figure it out.

And don't try to apply weird arbitrary "rules" to the first 250 words of your project or anyone else's.

(In typical weird hive-mind fashion, both Agent Jill Corcoran and Authoress herself have recently blogged about this as well.  Their posts are definitely worth reading, so check them out.)

What do you think about the first 250 words?  What do you like to see or not see in them?


  1. EXACTLY. I keep hearing how you're supposed to start in the middle of the action, but DUDE, SOME BOOKS NEED A BUILD-UP TO THE ACTION, or nobody will understand the importance of said 'action'. My two cents.

    I really liked this post. For once, somebody spoke about how beginnings don't work the same way for all books.

  2. Those words gets changed more times then...but I don't think it'll deter an agent or reader if what comes after is good. It'll probably get changed again anyway. =)

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  4. Eek, I see Larissa pointed to the article on Miss Snark's First Victim :) I saw that yesterday and totally agree!!

  5. Great post! I agree here, for a while I got caught up in the whole "first sentence" business, spurred on by Nathan Bransford's contest, but I'm past that now. The story and the writing have to stand on their own, and if they take a little time to get actiony I think that's just fine.

  6. Couldn't agree more. I thought the same thing when I read Hunger Games and in fact I got a little irritated at first because I had no clue what the "reaping" was and it kept being mentioned.

    I entered one of my manuscripts in a contest and they read the first 250 or 500 words. I can't remember anymore. But they told me I needed to have this or that and I wanted to ask them how many books show their full hand of cards so early?


  7. SOOO true. Before I knew better, I had changed my first 250 a few times to fit into those first 250 Glad I finally had a dose of wisdom.

    My first 250 may not be WHAM BANG, but my story is--I just needed to realize it.


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