Monday, November 1, 2010

The Art and Craft of Discipline: Page One with LOST's John Parsley

If you've followed this blog for more than a month, you know I dedicate each month to a virtue successful writers employ in their writer's life. In past months, we've covered Passion, Confidence, Clarity, Education and Goals - with guest authors, agents and other publishing industry experts sharing their perspectives as they relate to the virtue along the way.

This month is all about the D word. Discipline. I can almost see some of you cringing, but alas, here we are. There's a reason I didn't bang out my first blogs with this virtue because it takes time to appreciate and develop. The most successful writers learn discipline is their best friend if they want to succeed in getting their book published; their poetry or short stories placed in literary journals and magazines. A disciplined writer knows in order to be recognized, they must strive for mastery of craft no matter how long or hard the revision process, among other aspects of the writing business.

That's our focus for this post - it's all about the writing. And it needs to "get good" on page one!

I invited John Parsley to share his perspective on what gets the green light not only as an editorial director for the amazing online e-zine LOST, but as an editor with Little, Brown - a highly selective traditional publishing company in New York.

Here's what John had to say:

It is July first and fifty-one degrees above zero.

The explosion must have been second only to the A-bomb.

My first meal as a luxury editor was Tuscan boar, shot in the vineyards that once served as the front lines of the wars between Sienna and Florence.

It's two below this morning, but there's no wind.

If you want to read more, it's not because of anything I've written. These are the first lines from two books I’ve acquired and from two essays in the fall 2010 issue of LOST Magazine—all of which I started reading in proposal and never put down once.

I acquire nonfiction books, but I’m the second person your first sentence needs to hook. After it’s sold a literary agent, who’s sold me on a proposal, I need to sell our sales, publicity, and marketing teams; they need to sell bookstores and the media; and we all need to sell readers. The best publishing scenarios have readers selling, too—to their friends and family, when they love a book. There are no less than five major sales pitches that helped bring any book to your local bookstore.

Each of those readers is buried in other submissions, pitches, and possibilities. Their attentions are under siege, so book proposals and manuscripts don’t have time to “get really good" in chapter two, or on page 40, or once you can really tell what's going on. No—they already have to be good by then, from the first words on the first page.

We're all looking for first lines that give energy, rather than taking it. That show a writer in control of language, and of the proposal's direction. That place us in the book and “do” something, making us want to read another sentence in the hope it meets the promise of the first.

I've acquired books by emerging writers and accomplished authors. I've acquired serious journalism, narrative, memoir, biography, history, humor, and fiction. The only thing these very different book proposals shared was a great opening.

And that, perhaps, is the point: whether it’s a book proposal or a finished book, there's no stronger selling tool for me than a first sentence that lets me pitch it in the most honest, easiest way: by saying, "it's good from the very start." In that sense, it’s the sentences that did the hard work, and the proposals that sold themselves.

TLC: My most popular blog post is A Writer's Education: Luring An Agent and The Not-So-Secret Handshake with fab lit agent, Kristin Nelson. This blog post is all about capturing the attention of an to get your foot in the door with a well crafted pitch (assuming the product is totally polished and ready to go). As a former agent, 98% of the writing that came my way was not fully developed despite the promises they made in their pitch. The WHOLE package must be great: pitch and product. My dears, please spend less time worrying about agents. Take the time you need to make your writing "get good" from page one so an agent can't possibly refuse you!

Have a fruitful week, writers!

Any NaNoWriMos reading? Stay focused and good luck!


About the Contributor:

John Parsley is an editor at Little, Brown and the editorial director of
LOST Magazine.


  1. Day two of NaNoWriMo, and I have about four sentences I'm happy with. Maybe if I actually put my email/cellphone/television down and focused, I could get something done. Thanks for the tips!


  2. Yes! Cut back on the e-stuff for a can do it! You'll be amazed how much you accomplish with your writing. Good luck, Anon! Keep us posted on your success!


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