The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

As is my custom, and habit, and my Bobby Brown prerogative, I’m going to go with the first page — as printed.

You know, printed with ink at these places we used to call “stores of books,” where you handed the nice folks who live there paper decorated with dead presidents and they let you walk out with ALL KINDS OF YUMMY WORDS.

So if you read the first page of this thing on a Kindle or iPad or Atari 2600, your page 1 will doubtless look different and such. Please give my regards to the Complaint Department.

After a line edit of Page 1, we’ll talk about our general literary impressions — about how metaphors are like similes, only different; about how my hatred of semi-colons runs deeper than my loathing of A-Rod; and how somebody wrote a mainstream and incredibly successful novel about sexy nonsense without putting any sort of sexy nonsense whatsoever on page 1.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
Does the title and cover matter? Nah. Only if you want to sell 40 bazillion books.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.  (This may be a world record. Bam, in the first sentence, she breaks a cardinal rule of fiction writing: don’t tell readers what the hero or heroine looks like by having them stare into a mirror, gaze upon their reflection in a pond or, I don’t know, whip out their driver’s license and say, “Huh, five-foot-ten, a hundred and twenty pounds, red hair, green eyes and a few freckles. Howbout that?” Ugh. This is not exactly “Call me Ishmael.”) Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. (Unless the heroine’s hair is crucial to the plot — unless she starts out with unruly hair in Act 1, switches to a bob in Act 2 and shows how much she’s grown and changed by rocking a purple Mohawk in Act 3, the hair, it is Boring, and a Distraction. Also, nobody refers to friends and such by their full name. If she’s your bestie, you say “Katherine.”) I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. (Enough already with the hair. Seriously. The only two words with any kind of real conflict and potential are “final exams,” and unless she flunks those, and therefore gets kicked out of university and has to live under a bridge in a cardboard box, it does not matter for the story.) Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. (More about the hair? MORE? Not necessary, not interesting and not entertaining, unless her hair is secretly a sentient being, organizing a plot to take over the world, one follicle at a time. I’m guessing Bruce Willis, being immune from such attacks, will get recruited to foil this plot in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST.) I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. (Back to the staring-at-the-mirror trick, which has to go. Find another way to describe the heroine and make the reader care about what the heroine looks like in the first place. I don’t know, a conflict, a situation, a hook.) My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable. (Now we’re beating the Dead  Hair Horse on its way to the glue factory.)

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper. (Awkward. First reference is Katherine Kavanaugh and now she’s Kate — just call her Kate both times. Also, how many student newspapers score interviews with “mega-industrial tycoons” … who you’ve never heard of? If they’re really mega, then you have heard of them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and so forth. If you haven’t heard of them, they aren’t mega at all. Edited text follows in red.) Kate is my roommate and she’s chosen today, of all days, to succumb to the flu. That means I’m stuck interviewing some industrial tycoon for the student newspaper. So I have been volunteered. (Redundant.) I have final exams to cram for, (already said that) one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no – today I have to drive a hundred and sixty-five miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine – but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me.

Damn her extracurricular activities. (The last sentences were brought to you by the letter E: enigmatic, exceptional entrepreneur, extraordinarily, extracurricular. There are other modifiers that start with the letter E: extraneous, excruciating and ejector seat. I am looking for the handle, because it’s time to pull it.)

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.

“Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sorethroat (compound modifier) voice. How does she do it? Even ill

(end of page 1)

Notes from the Red Pen of Doom

Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

I thought THE FOUNTAINHEAD was a bad Page 1 (here’s my post about that debacle), but Ayn Rand is flipping Shakespeare compared to FIFTY SHADES OF AWFUL.

Page 1 of this turkey consumed barrels and barrels of red ink, even though all my red ink is digital and such. Had to change my way of editing to handle this thing, because usually, anything edited gets turned red, but if I did that to this first page, 90 percent of this thing would be red, and it would be all Confusing and such.

So this is a mess, and not a hot mess.

God bless anybody who sells a ton of books or movie tickets. I adore books and movies, and the more people read books, and see good movies, the better. HOWEVER: the first page of a book is a lot like the trailer for a movie. You start out with your best stuff, and it’s a rock-solid guarantee that the writing doesn’t get magically better ten pages or 100 pages later.

The first page, and the first chapter, get polished and polished until they are a shiny diamond made of words.

Maybe you could argue this book is the one exception to that rule.

From the reviews of this book, though, that’s not the case. Here’s a review of the novel in the London Review of Books.

So why did something like this sell like hotcakes?

I believe, deep in my soul, that packaging matters more than the product. Not because that’s how things should be. It’s just reality.

The title of a book — or a movie, or a TV show — can save your bacon or kill you dead.

What else can sell or sink you? Images. That’s why the cover of a book or punk rock album is so important. It’s why we remember the movie poster for JAWS. When we’re thinking about what to spend our monies on in Barnes and Noble, and  what to see on Friday night at those giant buildings where popcorn costs $9 a bucket, covers and posters and titles are where we start. Images are more visceral and powerful than words. I am not making that up. THERE IS SCIENCE AND SUCH.

Also, quality itself doesn’t sell. You need something else, a different hook. (Related posts: You can pitch ANYTHING except quality and Quirks and legs matter more than talent and perfection)

If you gave this a more typical title for the genre, and a more typical book cover, you’d probably end up with a title like A BUSINESS AFFAIR and some kind of Ryan Gosling clone wearing a suit on the cover with the heroine nearby, messing with her pony tail while she wears the highest of high heels and a business suit with a skirt that is just this side of immodest. Or the cover would feature a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs.

If you really want to go traditional, it’d be Fabio wearing a suit while he holds a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs.

(Related posts: Romance novelists are a secret, epic army of man boosters and Why every man should read a romance — and every woman a thriller and The best Fabio romance cover OF ALL TIME)

And if you put that different title and cover on this very same book, it wouldn’t sell 40 bazillion copies and get turned into a movie. It’d be just another book in a genre that isn’t exactly new and wanting for titles.

I bet you anything the unusual title and cover is why FIFTY SHADES OF GREY went viral and became a smashing success.

True story: guess what the author of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wanted as a title for his novel? Go ahead. Guess.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Originally, Stieg the Larsson wanted to title his novel MEN WHO HATE WOMEN. Think would sell more than five copies to his mom?

I am not making this up: Larsson wanted to go with MEN WHO HATE WOMEN.

Raise your hand if you think that title would have set the world on fire and led to hit movies starring James Bond.

The title and cover — the packaging — are 90 percent of the battle. The packaging matters more than the product.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is an interesting, literary title. The cover photo of a grey tie is also atypical of the genre and really stands out. The combined effect gives the book a literary veneer.

Some people might feel embarrassed getting on Flight 435 to Frankfurt and pulling out a paperback titled A BUSINESS AFFAIR with Fabio holding a blindfold and handcuffs on the cover. And you can bet the male audience for such books is hard to find with a microscope.

Give the same novel a different title and cover — and the gloss of lit-rah-sure — and that makes it OK for people to read what they might otherwise never get caught dead: romance and erotica.

This reminds me of the early Eric van Lustbader novels, like THE NINJA, which were hot sellers because they slipped in page after page of shockingly naughty scenes to readers — mostly men — who simply expected ninjas fighting with swords and such. It was like a James Bond movie where they didn’t fade out when 007 kissed the girl, but switched from a nice safe PG movie to something unsafe and dangerous and wild. I can tell you 14-year-old boys around the globe had their minds blown. You can print this kind of stuff without getting arrested? I can buy it at the store and they don’t ask for my driver’s license, because I don’t have one yet? NO WAY.

Verdict

Back to  FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and why the first page, aside from the awkward messiness of it all, is just not interesting. You could hire a team of authors to rewrite the same plot points and they would throw up their hands and say forget it, we can’t do magical things with wet unruly hair and cramming for finals week, because there’s nothing truly at stake here.

It is beyond boring to read about some college student kvetch about her hair and her schedule. Try having a job and a kid and a commute, then talk to me.

There’s no conflict, no reason to care about the heroine. Is she fighting for any cause greater than herself? Are there public stakes at all? No. Private stakes that we can divine? No. Maybe if her boyfriend just dumped her, hey, now we have somewhere to go. A catalyst, a hook. But we’ve got nothing to work with here.

The heroine seems shallow and self-centered. I have no feelings about her, Kate or this Mr. Grey, because there’s nothing on the page to make me care, and no foreshadowing that anything more exciting or interesting might happen on page 2, page 22 or page 222.

I don’t mind entertaining trash, no matter the genre. In fact, better that a book or movie embraces its entertaining trashiness than beats me on the head with the Cudgel of Prententious Nonsense, which is never any fun at all.

HOWEVER: Entertaining trash better be GOOD trash, and not forget the entertaining part. This page 1 is an epic fail on both counts.

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

barbed wire

Those nine words are magic.

And those words help sell 5.842 gazillion miles of barbed wire back in the late 1800s, when the West was still wild and there weren’t handy trees or stones to make fences.

Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt – I’ll remember that for days. Forever, maybe.

It’s honed down to perfection. Nine words, and not a one is wasted.

barbed wire
A little strand of steel with a twist and BOOM, you are golden. Photo by Guy Bergstrom.

In the five seconds it takes to hear those words, or read them, you’re sold.

Writers struggle with those first five seconds.

  • What’s the best way for a reporter to convince the city editor put a story on A1 instead of buried next to the obituaries on B15?
  • How can you sum up a 100,000 novel in a single page – or a single sentence?
  • When a magazine editor is buried with pitches, how does yours stand out from the slush pile?
  • What should a screenwriter say about his script while riding in an elevator for 30 seconds with Steven Spielberg?

Science shows us secrets

Here comes the science: people make up their mind about you – or your writing – in the first five seconds.

Viscerally. Unconsciously.

Their little reptile brains see your face or your words and make a split decision.

Later on, our oversized frontal lobes justify that snap judgment.

It’s not a rational thing. I’ve seen the science. Go read BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell. (Go on, read it. I’ll be over here, drinking Belgian ale.)

Different researchers testing for different things found the same result.

  • The first five seconds of a job interview determines whether you get it
  • The first five ticks of the clock during a professor’s first lecture of the semester, with the sound turned off, can be used to predict exactly how students will rate that professor.
  • A quick glance – less than – at two candidate mug shots will predict who will win the race. This works with adults or five-year-olds. Mug shots. No names. No parties. The shape of the face.

This last result fascinated me. Researchers had people glance at those mugs, then rate the candidates on attractiveness, intelligence, competence and whatnot.

They thought attractiveness would matter.Nope. They thought race and sex and age would matter. Nope.

Competence was the only thing related to the eventual winner.

This makes sense. If somebody’s attacking your village, you don’t pick Nerdy McNerdy as the leader of the defense. Brains without brawn won’t work.

You don’t pick Miss America to lead the troops into battle, either, because she’ll simply be nice to look at while you all get slaughterd.

And you don’t pick Mr. Neanderthal, tough but stupid.

Who do you want? Somebody who looks competent – tough but smart. A Clint Eastwood, somebody who looked like he knew what the hell he was doing.

Hold it out and squint

Alright, you’re already thinking of the Greatest Squinty Eyed Tough Guy in Movies, so remember this rule: Hold it out and squint.

Hold out your first page of your text and squint.

Is it a sea of gray?

Is there a photo or graphic? Are all the paragraphs the same length? Do you have any subheads or anything to break up the text?

Now, this doesn’t work for certain things. You can’t have photos and whatnot in screenplays or manuscripts.

Later on, though, it will make or break you.

When you go to rent a movie (yes, I know Blockbuster is dead to you and it’s all Netflix now, so pretend you’re clicking away with Mr. Mouse), you make decisions in far less than five seconds. You glance at the front cover and move on.

Same thing with books. Glance and move. Glance and move.

Maybe you pick a book up and read the text. What makes you pick it up? Images first. Maybe a good title. Glance and move.

That’s why the Squint Test is so important.

Think about movie posters with too much going on. When you squint, you don’t know what’s what.They’ve got the star and the co-star and seven different sidekicks in there, plus the villain and two random thugs. It’s a mess.

Less is more. Simple works best.

The poster for JAWS is perfect: a pretty young woman swimming along and a giant invincible shark roaring out of the depths of the ocean. It doesn’t get any more primal than that. We need the shark and a pretty girl. That’s it.

jaws movie poster
The JAWS movie poster is classic, and will always be classic, because it is simple and brutal and seven separate types of awesome. Steven the Spielberg, stick with this movie thing — you have talent.

Putting this knowledge to evil use

Our conscious brains aren’t really running the show. We’re like a mouse riding on top of an elephant, sometimes biting the elephants ear to go left or right.

How can we writers use that knowledge?

Tap into the reptile part of our brains. Go for the gut.

Blake Snyder hit this idea with his Hammer of Truth in SAVE THE CAT when he demolished the conventional wisdom of genres.

JAWS isn’t a horror movie. ALIEN isn’t a sci-fi movie. FATAL ATTRACTION isn’t a domestic drama. All three are the same story, the same primal threat: there’s a monster in the house. You can’t get away. Either you fight it and kill it, or it eats you.

Hollywood screenwriters are masters of the first five seconds. Fire up the google and check out “loglines” to see how they sum up a movie in a sentence. They make writers of novels look like silly chatterboxes. Think you’re being hip with a one-page synopsis instead of five pages? Hollywood laughs at a full page of text. One sentence, buddy.

Can you do it in a sentence?

How about nine words?

Copywriters are also world-class at those first five seconds. Visit copyblogger and soak up their wisdom. DO IT NOW.

The best five-second pitches — whether it’s a headline for a newspaper story, a poster for a movie or a pitch for a novel — tap into those primal needs and instincts that Blake Snyder talks about.

Survival vs. death. Love vs. loss.

You know what the stakes are. Instantly. Not 30 seconds into it. Not 15 seconds after learning about the when and where and who. You see what’s at stake, right away.

Here are four words: COMET WILL DESTROY EARTH.

That’s a newspaper story everybody will read. Everybody. It’s a movie people saw twice (ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT).

Part of the secret seems to what’s missing: the hero. You don’t hear a damn thing about the hero after you’ve boiled it all down, do you? Screw the hero. Heroes are plain vanilla and boring. The best ones, the ones that hook us, talk about the bad guy: the alien, the shark, the comet. Hmm. Maybe there’s a reason for that. But that’s a post for another day.