J.K. Toole and first impressions

I don't know if you're familiar or not with John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces, but there's a lesson in his situation for all of us.

He never published his wondrous comic novel during his lifetime; his mother did it for him. She knew it was good, but she needed a third party to validate the novel's greatness.

confederacy cover.jpg

So she learned that novelist Walker Percy was living and teaching nearby, and begged him to take a look at her boy's manuscript.

The lesson that I'm thinking every writer should remember is in Percy's introduction to the novel, in which he describes what happened when Toole's mother gave him the manuscript. Their meeting took place in the 1970s long before the advent of email or GoogleDocs, and Toole's manuscript was gross. Dirty, smeared with God knows what. Not a very good first impression.

Percy dreaded reading it. He was looking for a way out, and here's what he hoped would happen:

There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained--that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.

Percy's attitude is not uncommon.

When you pitch your book to agents or directly to publishers, they are going to give you a few pages--or just the first paragraph--to show them what kind of writer you are.

Yes, you might have some incredible things to say later on in your narrative, but it doesn't matter. If you don't hit the right notes early on ... if you don't show them that you understand the essential rules of telling a story ... well … they are going to take a pass on that wonderful story that you have been struggling with for years. I have been there. Trust me.

So go back to your opening pages and ask yourself some hard questions: What will a stranger see when they look at this? Even if it's a work of fiction, is my message still clear enough?

If you’re not quite sure how to answer these questions, we should talk.