Monday, October 31, 2011

HarperCollins to Buy Thomas Nelson

Sad news. Today, HarperCollins announced that HarperCollins will acquire Thomas Nelson by year’s end. It isn’t really surprising. It wasn’t long ago that another company took over Thomas Nelson in order to whip it into shape so that it would be more attractive to investors. It appears that HarperCollins took the bait. I don’t really have any idea what this will mean to readers or authors. HarperCollins already owns Zondervan, another Christian book publisher. For the company as a whole, it is probably a good thing, since bigger companies have more power.

All the same, it saddens me. I hate seeing so many Christian publishing companies merging with companies whose focus is on things other than Christian publishing. Granted, it isn’t like Thomas Nelson is a church, but it is kind of like so many colleges that started out as Christian colleges but now don’t even resemble a Christian college. I fear that too many people worship the dollar and the power it suggests and have lost sight of what is important.

That isn’t to say that HarperCollins is a bad company, but it seems like we’re trying to take Christianity, put it in nice manageable packages and sell it off to the highest bidder. Your company wants television shows, there’s a module you can plugin. Your company wants textbooks, there’s a module you can plugin. Your company wants to have Christian books, there’s a module for that. Christianity shouldn’t be a module that we can use and then put aside until we want it again. Faith should so permeate our lives that it overflows. It is sad that Thomas Nelson is a module instead of having such an influence that HarperCollins and News Corporation wouldn’t be able to plug it in without having to remove the more unsavory stuff they publish and televise.

As I said, it is sad news.

What Should Be on a First Page

Last week, I mentioned that I sometimes participate in first page critiques. Today, I want to give some of my thoughts on what makes a good first page.

Begin with a Problem

Every good book begins with a problem. It doesn’t have to be in the first sentence, but it should come close. Consider how the ultimate Good Book begins. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void.” That’s our hook. God created, but what he created wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t finished. That’s a problem.

But notice that it isn’t a big problem. It would be for us, but for God it isn’t. There’s nothing particularly emotional about the problem. It doesn’t make you cry. It doesn’t make you angry. It is just a simple problem that needs fixing. As is the case with Moby Dick. You undoubtedly remember that the first sentence is “Call me Ishmael.” There are college professors who can talk about that sentence for hours on end. Personally, I find the second sentence more interesting. “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” The guy was broke, but he wasn’t particularly emotional about it because that was his way of life. Still, it is a problem that needs fixing.

Put the Audience on Hold

It takes time and words to fully introduce the main problem in a story. It is unlikely that you can do much more than hint at the problem on the first page or even in the first chapter. So the goal on the first page should be to give the reader a reason to stick around until we’ve had time to get them fully engaged in the main problem. In Moby Dick, the initial problem is a lack of money, but that turns into a problem of boredom, both of which is reason enough for a man to get into a boat and go to sea. Neither of which are significant enough to justify a novel. But Herman Melville uses that to hold the reader’s attention long enough to introduce the bigger problems of the story, namely, Ahab’s quest for revenge.

Begin with Action

Explanation is boring. In real life, I have very close friends who have siblings that I know nothing about. One of my friends may ask for my help in doing something that will eventually help his siblings. I can give them help without knowing why they need my help. In a book, we don’t have to know a character’s complete life story to understand the character’s actions. Actually, it is completely the opposite. If we know too much of a character’s story, we may question whether that life story would cause him to act the way we say he acts.

What we should do instead is to put the guy into action and let the reader figure out what might cause him to act that way. We can and should give the reader hints along the way but it is much more believable if we don’t psychoanalyze the character too much. Leave that to the college professors. We can say that a character is a certain way, but if his actions don’t match what we say then the reader won’t believe us. On the other hand, if we say nothing about what the character is like and we let his actions reveal who he is, then the reader has nothing to question.

What do you like to see in a first page?