Friday, October 28, 2016

Setting the Stage in the First Two Pages by Sarah Wisseman

Several years ago, I attended a conference where authors were invited to read two pages to New York agents in a round table setting. I read two pages of my first Italian novel, Burnt Siena (then unpublished). It begins like this:

Hunger fought with worry in the pit of her stomach as she ran down the stone steps bowed in the middle by thousands of feet. The massive front door of the Archives clanged shut behind her.

Flora crossed the courtyard and stepped into Banchi di Sotto Street, dodging a garbage truck as she turned north. She had no intention of returning to work on this warm Saturday afternoon. Her plans included lunch at the apartment, followed by an espresso and a gelato—hazelnut and chocolate—at her favorite cafĂ©. And she was dying to talk with Ernst and discover what had spooked him. 

Flora hurried toward the Piazza del Campo. Crooked pavers pressed on her thin soles while petunias and marguerites nodded at eye level from every window box. She ignored the pigeons fluttering in the eaves and brightly colored laundry drooping on lines strung between windows above her head…”

One agent’s reaction: “Well, obviously you’ve lived in Italy and want us to know that. But I don’t care about your character and don’t want to read any more.” The other authors received similar criticisms. I came out of the session depressed, wondering what on earth those agents wanted and how to make my first two pages more compelling.

How do you set the stage and draw the reader in? Must you have a chase scene or a body on the first page? Burnt Siena is a traditional mystery, in some ways a “cozy” set in a foreign country. The setting is luscious, memorable Siena, one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The Italian scene could hardly fail to take a central place in the story, which revolves around the protagonist’s discovery that her bosses are smuggling antiquities and forging paintings instead of practicing traditional art conservation. You could say the beauty of the surroundings makes a nice foil for the corruption taking place in Flora’s workplace.

The two pages I read were from the first chapter, a short chapter that sets the stage and ends in Flora’s discovery of her dead roommate’s body. My goal was to draw the reader into the foreign setting, create some tension about what is going on in Flora’s job, and convey her horrible shock at finding Ernst below the balcony of their apartment. To do all that, I took four pages instead of only two.

Yes, those first two pages are crucial for capturing the kind of agent who is looking for the next Dan Brown blockbuster. But not everyone wants to write--or read--a thriller. There’s hope for authors who write the sort of novel that readers are sorry to finish. Readers who know how to savor a good book by donning pajamas, pouring that glass of wine, and travelling to another place from the comfort of a favorite chair. 


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Sarah,

I liked those first pages and would be drawn into the novel. I enjoy an interesting setting. I'm one of the people that doesn't get to travel. So doing it through literature is enjoyable for me.

Grabbing the agent and/or editor's attention immediately is really difficult. They are now stating that readers in general have incredibly short attention spans. So a narrative hook is crucial. I myself find this difficult. I like to develop character and theme.
Yet with my last two mysteries, THE BAD WIFE and the forthcoming novel, the editors have slashed about a third of the books. Very frustrating for me.

Comedians used to take the time to build a story, now they must deliver fast one-liners. Alas, this is part of our digital age. Just my two cents.

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