by Eilis O’Neal
“Get my attention.” It’s a phrase writers hear from editors a lot these days. Writers are told over and over again how busy editors are, how much material they receive, how brief the attention is they’re going to give any random piece of work from the slush pile. It’s the new maxim:
“How do you get published? Get my attention, and get it fast.”
And it’s true. Editors, whether they are magazine editors or book editors (and this goes for literary agents as well), are busy. We get tons of material, and we want to move through it as quickly as we can, both to find good material before it’s taken by someone else and to respond to writers in a timely fashion. So your work does need to separate itself from the stack on the desk—it does need to shine to get noticed.
But I worry that we sometimes emphasize too much the importance of getting an editor’s attention, without qualifying what we mean by that, which leads to writers making choices that definitely do get attention—but the wrong kind of attention.
What do I mean by that? Attention is attention, right? Unfortunately, no.
“The turd in the toilet bowl looked like a rotten squash.”
“‘Fuck you, bitch,’ Eugene screamed at his mother.”
“Eugene leaned back, opened his fly, and let forth a steaming stream of urine.”
“I could taste the leftover sweet and sour chicken as I leaned over in the alley and vomited into the gutter, flecks staining my pant legs.”
“Holly grabbed Mark’s dick and climbed on, boobs jiggling as she started to ride him.”
“Blood spurted and bits of bone grated as Kyle sawed through the man’s neck.”
Poop. Pee. Unpleasant bodily functions of all kinds. Unnecessary swearing. Graphic sex or violence. I see these things and more in opening lines, stanzas, and paragraphs all the time. Whatever you can think of that’s shocking or gross, I’ve seen it in real writers’ work, often right there at the beginning. And, almost every time, it does get my attention, but it is negative attention.
Why? It’s not like I’m a hardcore literary conservative. Nimrod publishes work that contains swearing, sex, bodily functions—sometimes beyond what would get an R rating in a movie. But when we publish work that contains these things, their use is earned and necessary to the story. In the pieces that have gotten negative attention, it isn’t.
Think of it this way: Your first page is like the opening of a conversation, but a conversation between strangers at a bus stop. I don’t know anything about you as I start to read your work—I just know that you’re here at this bus stop with me. If I’m standing at the bus stop and you open with, “My boyfriend’s penis looks just like an eggplant,” or, “This morning while I was taking a shit,” I’m probably going to back away slowly and not make eye contact. You might have an amazing story to tell, but I’m not going to stick around to hear it. Why? Because we don’t have any rapport yet. A conversation involves a measure of connection and trust, and you’ve strained mine to the breaking point right at the start.
Am I saying that a good story or poem can never start with anything shocking? No, but I am saying that the bar is very, very high—and 95% of the time, the writers who jump for it don’t make it. Instead, all that happens is that I’m turned off from the get-go, and winning your way back into my good graces, making me want to read your work, is that much harder.
So what do I mean when I say “get my attention”?
What I want when I’m starting a piece of fiction or a poem is something that makes me want to keep going: a distinctive voice, a unique facility with language, a surprising turn, or an unexpected situation, just to name a few possibilities. What I don’t want is something that turns me away, that makes me want to stop reading. Again, think of that conversation at the bus stop. You don’t want to get my attention only to have me run away—you want to make me desperate to hear the rest of the story. For me to nod my head and say, “Keep going.”
So that’s how you get my attention. Make your opening line or paragraph or stanza unique and inviting. Can it be weird? Sure. Can it be unusual? Definitely. Can it be arresting? Yes, please. You don’t have to write the literary equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting when I say inviting. What you do need to do is make me want to listen to you, to follow you and your story. And there are better ways to do that than with poop.
Eilis O’Neal is Nimrod’s Editor-in-Chief. She is also a writer of fantasy and the author of the young adult fantasy novel The False Princess.