I assume you’re familiar with the television juggernaut, American Idol. This is the show where aspiring rock stars sing a snippet of a song for a panel of been-there-done-that rock stars. If the majority of the judges give a thumbs up then the aspirant moves on to the next round. This show has been so successful that it has spawned a variety of other Idols. This past weekend I attended one as part of the Boston Book Festival: Writer Idol.
At Writer Idol, aspiring authors submit the first 250 words of their manuscript, anonymously. Pages are picked at random and read out loud for the judges, three literary agents this year. This was the third annual BBF, and the third time I’ve attended this session and submitted a first page. My fantasy is that my page will be chosen, the judges will all love it, and one of them will sign me to a contract on the spot. Not only has that not happened (yet), but it flies in the face of what the audience is advised to expect. The session description warns that it is “…not for the thin-skinned!”
The agents are not kind. They are not quite Simon Cowell, but neither are they Paula Abdul. They are all straight shooters and unapologetic. Since they would be the first to admonish you to avoid clichés, none of them would say, “Don’t give up your day job,” but it is clear that that is what they are thinking. Their comments can be amusing, particularly if it’s not your piece they are eviscerating. In fact, the draw of this session has parallels with Gladiator games of yore. The audience comes expecting metaphorical blood. At the very least, they embrace the opportunity to wallow in schadenfreude, other people’s misery, or in this case, humiliation.
Some attendees are there to learn how to write a tighter first page, or more accurately, how to write a first page that will compel an editor or agent to read the second page. The most important thing the new writer learns, however, is that they need to write a kick-ass first sentence that will grab the reader’s attention, for to hear the judges tell it, these readers have the patience of a three-year-old waiting for his turn with a new toy.
There are a set of rules that new writers can follow if they want to maximize their chances of having the first page read to completion. Some of the simpler ones are; don’t start with waking up from a dream; don’t mention any bodily fluids; and don’t have the protagonist describe themselves in a mirror. Unless the first sentence is so incredibly good that it doesn’t matter if your character is waking up, or peeing, or looking in the mirror. In which case, all bets are off.
Writer Idol is something every new writer should attend at least once. It could be just the push they need to give up this writing nonsense and get a real job. Or it could convince them that with all the drek agents and editors need to wade through, they are bound to appreciate yours when they finally pull it out of the slush pile. I give that three thumbs up.