Amazon is a filled with authors who lost patience with the process and self-published too early. They are not necessarily bad writers, nor did they necessarily write bad books. They did, however, write bad opening paragraphs.
In this series, I pick random opening paragraphs from self-published novels and deconstruct what went wrong. I have not read the entire book, and for all I know they’re fantastic. But the opening paragraph doesn’t give me much hope.
So here we go. Let’s dive in together and learn what we can from instructively bad writing.
Original, unedited first paragraph
Normally, I break these down a sentence at the time, but for this one I want to look at the opening at a higher level. It’s a great example of my biggest fear with writing, something I spend a lot of time thinking about. The technical skill in this writing isn’t “bad”. It’s perfectly serviceable. This is not a “bad” writer.
But this is a bad opening.
Obviously this is subjective, but when I read this, I was bored about two sentences in. I spent a lot of time reading and rereading this, trying to figure out what went wrong and why – if the writing was technically competent – the opening didn’t land.
I have a few ideas.
#1. The first three paragraphs convey the exact same message
The point the author is trying to get across is that it’s an idyllic setting, about to be disrupted. Fine.
Let’s look at the first three paragraphs, not for the words, but for the concepts conveyed in the sentences. All three follow the identical format:
Here is a thing. Here is the thing described, using an estimated number. Now they are doing something routine. I will remark cynically on their innocence. I will end with an ominous sentence.
Watch, let’s break apart those first three paragraphs into those headings I invented:
Here is a thing:
Paragraph 1: Two children
Paragraph 2: Their mother..
Paragraph 3: Their home…
Here is the thing described, using an estimated number
Paragraph 1: They were young, perhaps two and four years old. The older one was a boy, the younger one a girl.
Paragraph 2: An attractive woman in her early thirties
Paragraph 3: A large development containing roughly three hundred homes
Now they are doing something routine
Paragraph 1: They chased each other around the swing set
Paragraph 2: She was hanging wet laundry
Paragraph 3: nestled itself in the hills of Southern Pennsylvania
I will remark cynically on their innocence
Paragraph 1: They were still at an age where they saw life as a privilege
Paragraph 2: smiling at their joy, their innocence, their untarnished view of the world
Paragraph 3: paragraph 3 skipped this part.
I will end with an ominous sentence
Paragraph 1: They weren’t old enough to know any better yet
Paragraph 2: The three of them appeared completely oblivious to the dangers lurking just beyond
Paragraph 3: And it was within those dense trees that the danger lurked.
So.. yeah. That’s my problem with the first three paragraphs. They convey an identical message to the reader. That’s why I found it so boring. But here’s the thing, it took me awhile to figure that out. That’s why I find writing so difficult. I’ve for sure made this mistake in my own writing.
#2. The next four paragraphs are a big ‘ole dump of information.
In the next four paragraphs, we learn
- Michi has joined SOURCE
- weirdly bland details about Max, the charismatic leader
- there was an incident in Baltimore
- Michi has a sister and mother
- SOURCE is about to attack the homestead.
Holy crap! That’s like…. a fuckton of information to throw at the reader. It’s given in a rapid staccato with no measure or elegance. It’s a crap ton of data, crammed in.
What’s worse is we really don’t learn anything about Michi, who I assume is the main character. Why did he “eagerly” join SOURCE? How does he feel about watching the Homestead? Is he bothered that they’re about to be attacked? Is he flush with the anticipation of upcoming battle? Does he miss his sister? Frig man, give me one tangible piece of characterization to hold on to!
So.. yeah. 8 paragraphs to describe a family who (I’m guessing) will never be seen again and to introduce a huge ton of “tell-y” not “show-y” details about a very vanilla main character.
But – it’s not bad writing! See why writing is so hard? It’s almost like what you choose to write about is more important than how you write it.
Shit, that’s pretty pithy. I should make a t-shirt.