Determine Your Writing Success in Ten Pages
From the Inane Comes the Truth
I was recently watching a new television series premiere. That in itself is news, because I rarely watch the boob tube, but there I was watching this female cop doing her thing on the mean streets of New York.
In one scene she was eating a piece of pizza when she came across a bad guy trying to accost a homeless guy. She dropped her pizza, tasered the bad guy, then picked up her pizza from the ground and took a bit. Some kid told her that was gross, and she replied, “Five Second Rule.”
I laughed, as did, I’m sure, millions of Americans, because, hey, we all have invoked, at one time or another, the Five Second Rule. Am I right?
Well, now let’s talk about the “Ten Second Rule,” a rule that all writers should be aware of. Loosely stated, the Ten Second Rule suggests that if you don’t capture your readers’ attention in ten seconds, you have lost them. Why? Well, if I was nasty, I’d say it is because the average reader has the attention span of a fruit fly, but I’m not a nasty kind of guy, so let’s simply say it is because most people are busy, and they don’t have time to waste on poor and boring writing.
Thus, the Ten Second Rule.
Did you know, however, that there are variations of this rule?
Shrink that ten seconds down, baby, because when you send out query letters to agents and publishers, you don’t even have ten seconds. In the time it takes an agent or publisher to read your first two sentences, your fate is sealed.
Stop and think about that for a second. You spend six months to a year of your life writing a book, and your ultimate goal is to have it published by one of the established, traditional publishers….and you have about five seconds to dazzle them or face ignominious defeat and rejection. In other words, and I mean this in all seriousness, those first two sentences of your query letter are as important, if not more important, than the entire book that you wrote.
How’s that for a new reality?
And If You Pass the First Test…..
Okay, so you pass that test. You send out a query letter, and much to your surprise and joy, you receive an email back requesting the first ten pages of your manuscript. Mind you, your book is three-hundred pages long, and it is filled with wonder and exceptional writing (or so you believe), but the publisher only wants to see those first ten pages.
Because if you’ve got it then you’ve got it, baby!
Agents and publishers are busy people. They receive, literally, thousands of query letters each month. From those thousands, they might request the first ten pages from fifty writers, and from those fifty they will choose one.
And that determination is made by reading the first ten pages!
One year of your life invested in the writing of that masterpiece, and nobody is going to see it if you can’t dazzle some stranger in New York in the first ten pages.
Am I Getting Through to You Yet?
Well let’s take a look at another example.
You skip the traditional publishing route and decide to self-publish. Maybe you use CreateSpace so you can have hardcopies of your book, but most definitely you publish an ebook. You format it to Kindle, and then you get to the part where Kindle asks for a trailer of your book….a quick synopsis that potential buyers will see on the Amazon website.
That synopsis represents your book. It is similar to the front flap on any book you find in a bookstore or library, a quick summary of your book which hopefully is interesting enough to convince people to read it.
It takes about ten seconds for the average reader to read enough of your synopsis/trailer to decide whether they buy your book or not.
There’s that ten second nonsense again.
But you see, it really isn’t nonsense.
Think about your own buying habits.
Of course there are some authors whose books you will automatically buy simply because they were written by that author. I do this with any book written by James Lee Burke. I don’t need a synopsis to tell me about the book. All I need to know is that Burke wrote it.
But what about books you purchase when you don’t have a specific author in mind? How do you decide which book to buy?
You read the front flap, or you read the trailer/synopsis.
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- William Holland | Helping Writers to Spread Their Wings and Fly
Tips and discussions about writing
Now Let Me Give You an Example
From my recently-completed novel, Resurrecting Tobias, let me give you an example. The first draft of my novel began with this section:
“ I am a poet trapped in a prose-writer’s body. I am the long-haired, unwashed, higher-than-a-seagull bong-tokin’ coffee shop muse, staring out over the audience, bongos playing in the background, as I read my latest series of beatnik-inspired tripe.
I am a windmill-tilting, self-righteous sonofabitch, perched precariously on a soapbox hoping the wind does not topple me, and I am the pimple on your ass that no salve can make better.”
Okay, not bad, and honestly, this came very close to being the opening two paragraphs, but at the last minute I decided, with the help of my editor, that it wasn’t enough. I needed more. And so we ended up with this opening section:
“I once witnessed a stoning. I was in Iran covering a political story and had just left the Shah’s palace. On my way to the hotel, I noticed a crowd forming in the public square. A woman, dressed in traditional Islamic hijab, was buried to her shoulders, and ten men stood about twenty feet away throwing stones at her. The stones were about the size of a football, or maybe slightly smaller, all with sharp edges. The woman had several cuts on her face by the time I arrived, and the pain was obvious, but she did not cry out. Stone after stone hit her head, and the cuts increased, and as time passed, her skull appeared, and then brain-matter, and her blood flowed down to the dust, turning it red under the scorching sun.
Only an army could have saved her, certainly not a lone outsider to that country and culture, who would only have become a second victim. Any attempt to do so, by me, would have been suicide.
Hundreds watched the spectacle as though it were entertainment, many nibbling on fruits, some drinking from tiny porcelain cups, sustaining their bodies with fluids as the young woman’s fluids mixed with the dirt and her life ebbed.
That shit will stay with you once you see it. That shit will alter the course of your life and put you on a path you never envisioned when you were a youngster playing Kick the Can. It did for me, and my writings today reflect those moments when mankind’s brutality overshadows all advancements made in the past two hundred thousand years.
I am a poet trapped in a prose-writer’s body. I am the long-haired, unwashed, higher-than-a-seagull bong-tokin’ coffee shop muse, staring out over the audience, bongos playing in the background, as I read my latest series of beatnik-inspired tripe.”
I am convinced the decision was a good one, and that decision to change the first section was made primarily because of the Ten Second Rule/Ten Page Rule.
Grab them fast or don’t try to grab them at all.
Remember that the next time you drop your pizza.
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”