I better make this sentence an amazing one, because there’s a good chance you won’t read any further – especially when you find out that this post is about snap judgements and short attention spans.
Have I lost you yet? No? Good. I want to start by talking about a site I joined, out of curiosity, called Webook. The premise of the site is thus: you submit the first page of your manuscript (for a small fee), which is then rated by other writers in the community on a five point scale. Votes of 4 or 5 count towards elevating your writing to the next round, in which you submit the first five pages, and then the third round of the first 50 pages. After that, literary agents can review your work, and theoretically offer you the contract of your dreams, launching you to instant fame and fortune.
It sounds great. The voting is randomized and anonymous (although they never say anywhere how many votes you need to get to the next round, and it’s taken me two weeks to get 9 readers), so theoretically, you are being judged solely on the strength of your first 250 words.
But therein lies the problem. First of all, your readers are going to be other people who have submitted their work as well, so they’re already motivated to rate your piece as low as possible, causing it to be dropped from the contest (which it will be if it gets too many 1 and 2 votes) and raising their own chances of success. Even if that wasn’t the case, writers tend to be just a wee bit biased in favor of their own work, favorite subject, or preferred style, and tend to be more than ordinarily dismissive of anything that didn’t come out of their own heads. So you have to take the comments with a large grain of salt, and realize that you’re dealing with a flawed system to begin with.
But the main problem is truly the premise itself. The first 250 words? Yes, you can probably tell if it’s going to be an absolute disaster in 250 words. You can tell if you don’t want to read any more. But you can’t always decide if you’re interested enough to continue with such a short sample. That’s an issue, because that means you’re automatically going to rate it a 3, which is pretty much “I’m neutral”. It doesn’t count as a vote to push it to the next round, nor as a “trash this.” Out of the 9 ratings I’ve gotten so far, four are 3’s, four are 4’s and one is a 5. They give you a selection of standard comments to click, and I’ve gotten three people who said “not original enough”, and one who said “not engaging enough to want to read more”.
Now, I know that we’re all taught that the first sentence or the first paragraph have to make an impact. You’ve got to grab the reader instantaneously, and make them beg to want to turn that page. I get it. I don’t really know if I do that, to be honest, and maybe I’m having an issue with this split-second judgement thing because I simply suck at it and I’m pouting. But I can’t get over feeling that there’s more to it than that. If I can’t decide if I want to read more of something, I’ll do something really radical and read more of it to find out. You can do that with a book. You can’t in this context, so you just have to pick something.
I’d understand if the first round was a simple choice between “move on” or “trash it”. That would make a little more sense to me. But as it stands, I get no useful critical feedback from the reader, and the reader gets no true sense of what my story is like. Pacing is important, especially if you’re writing a very long work, but there’s no way for the reader to know that, of course. You can’t even write a description of your piece that’s more than 300 characters. You wouldn’t want to give some semblance of an idea that you’re reading a book with a story arc and character development, not a couple of tweets strung together, right?
I suppose I should accept this trend towards marking something TL;DR if it’s as lengthy as this post (665 words at the moment, for those who are counting). But it’s a book. It is, by definition, longer than a Facebook post or text message. I’m all for integrating publishing with new technology, but surely books are exempt from the absurdly simplified, shortened, sickeningly sweetened sugar bites demanded by the internet generation, aren’t they? Yes, you have to get the reader’s attention quickly, and certainly it takes no more than an instant to hook or lose them, but the reader should know they’re signing up for the long haul if they want to read a novel, and plan their brain space accordingly.
I think it’s very sad that people are turned off so quickly by anything that doesn’t meet their highest expectations at the first glance. I suppose it’s a product of having so much choice when it comes to free, easily accessible content: if you don’t like one thing, there’s bound to be another just a few clicks away that will tickle your fancy instead, so why bother suffering through it for more than three seconds? It’s a blessing and a curse, but mostly a curse, I think. It makes us hyper-critical, and promotes dismissiveness, negativity, and self-centeredness. We’re all guilty of it – myself included, I’ll admit.
It’s a very easy pattern to fall into, but it’s a somewhat dismal worldview, and I think it’s important to take a moment (or more, if you can spare it) to reevaluate how we consume media, especially independently produced content, which comes from someone’s heart and isn’t just there to sell ad space. If you hate it after giving it a few pages, fine. It’s a basic human right to despise terrible literature, and I will be the last to try to take that privilege away from you. The point is to give it a fair shot before you come to that decision. You might find yourself surprised and delighted, instead of angry that your eyes touched upon a few offending pixels before you were able to click away.
The verdict on Webook is still out, although I’m not holding my breath. I wouldn’t be surprised if my entry doesn’t make it to the next round, but I wouldn’t be too disappointed, either. I have no independent confirmation that it works to get your writing in front of agents, nor that those agents are then able to secure a contract with a publisher, so you might as well hold onto your $3.99 or whatever it was. You’ll need it to buy a cup of coffee when you stay up all night giving things a fair chance, anyway.