I recently sat in a “First Page Reads” session where two agents, an editor and a creative writing professor collaborated to Gong Show writers on their work. Writers were instructed to submit anonymously the first page of a work of fiction. A moderator read each work aloud, while the panel of four followed along from printed copies, stopping the show when one of them found a spot where they would quit reading if the piece were submitted to them for publication.
Writers were expecting constructive feedback on the entire first page. But for the vast majority, it was only some snarky comment after a sentence or two, with the rest of the page not even being read. And it was all done with an air of this is the one right and true viewpoint. Also, without any positives to balance the negatives, or remarks about what was working on the page. This is a major peeve of mine, seeing aspiring writers bullied and discouraged by those who could be helping and encouraging them.
I’ve had enough work published, and experienced enough legitimate editing and critique to be able to put the “feedback” in context and not take it to heart. But I could see this wasn’t true for some other participants. Attendees who entered the room buzzing with optimistic anticipation left an hour later looking defeated. At least one was muttering about giving up entirely. Well done, panelists! I can’t believe I paid money for that experience.
And here’s the thing. For every work they scathingly lambasted based on only a couple of sentences, I could think of a book I loved that would not have passed their muster. I imagined some of my favorite authors pitching first pages to this group.
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.
“That’s enough, Mr. Twain. We don’t need to hear more. So much wrong in one sentence. The character speaks directly to the reader. Just no. Fiction is never written in second person. And the over the top dialect. Nobody has the energy to read that for an entire book. Stick to mainstream English. You know, how regular people (people like us) talk. Next!”
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide.
“Stop, stop, stop. Ms. Hurston, you’re giving the reader no idea what this book is about or even whether a character is going to appear any time soon. This is mere philosophical meandering, not a story. Show us some action. Next!”
“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”
“Mr. Steinbeck, did no instructor ever tell you not to open with weather? You never start a story talking about weather. It’s simply not done. Next!”
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
“Hold up. You’re telling, not showing, Ms. Rowling. Next!”
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”
“The first words of a narrative should never be dialogue, Mr. Rushdie. Next!”
So there you go. Put the literary world in the hands of this panel and we would have none of these wonderful works.
I hope the writers in the room who looked so downcast will come to realize this. I hope they will realize they are in excellent company.