You Are Not Joss Whedon

April 8th, 2009 • Kate

dollhouse_lFellow literary agent (and fellow geek) Colleen Lindsay of FinePrint Literary Management had a fascinating post up the other day on What Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse can teach novelists about hooking readers.I’m just going to paraphrase here, so do check out the whole thing, and then come back.

Back? Ok, so what Colleen is saying is that Joss Whedon hooked a network and an audience, many of whom were already primed to love his work, with a high concept idea. And then he took SIX HOURS of television (Colleen says 7, but I think episode 6, Man On The Street, was the turning point) to get to his point. And I may be one of the BIGGEST Whedon fans out there (I have the t-shirt), but even I was getting worried it wasn’t going to get better.

And then it did. Phew!

But Colleen’s point, and mine, is that as aspiring writers, without the guaranteed fan base of a Joss Whedon, or a Nora Roberts or a Stephen King or a Meg Cabot or or or… you guys don’t have 6 hours, or about 288 pages of teleplay. You don’t have 60 pages, or 6 chapters, even. You have to have both the hook and the immediate draw to keep us reading past the first three pages and beyond.

If Dollhouse were a novel from an unknown author, and Stranger Joss sent me a query setting up a brilliant concept and then said, “But look, the first five chapters are just set-up — the real action starts in chapter 6.” Then I would probably reply, “Then start with chapter 6. Make that your opening. Otherwise, no thanks.”

And I might kick myself later, but I could look back in my query file and see that the beginning was slow, and maybe something was going to happen, but not fast enough to keep me from moving on to the next great possibility.

The lesson in all this? Until you’re Joss Whedon (and/or can get Tahmoh Penikett, shirtless, to deliver your manuscript to me himself), make sure those opening pages and chapters are the best they can be. They may be your only shot.

If you’ve missed a few episodes of Dollhouse, you can catch up on Hulu with the five most recent, or download the whole season so far on iTunes. Shill, shill, shill.

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11 Responses to “You Are Not Joss Whedon”

  1. *** Dave Says:

    Unfortunately, it cuts the other way as well, letting established writers feel they can break the rules and write slow, bloated tomes that could seriously use a good edit, and would if they were a newer talent.

  2. Kate Says:

    Absolutely, Dave. I'm sure we can all think of authors who've let their success go to their heads and don't want the same amount of editing that brought them such success in the first place! I could tell you stories…

    But there's yet another side to that aspect as well. When a bestselling author delivers a new, hotly anticipated novel, their publisher often wants to get it published as quickly as possible. This just doesn't leave time for the detailed edit MOST books usually get.

    We talk about the two year slog towards publication, from first delivery of material to a first draft, then the wait for an editorial letter, then the revision to a final manuscript, or another go around… and then you read about novels being turned in by the big names and getting published three months later.

    Something has to give — and that something, sometimes, is the careful, detailed edit.

    Hmmm. If I stretch this metaphor to its limits, could you consider the crash publication of a book the literary equivalent of a reality tv show? Discuss!

  3. *** Dave Says:

    Ah, good point. I'd not thought about the publication rush; I'd usually attributed it primarily to authorial ego.

    I'd consider it something like "Junkyard Dogs" or "Iron Chef" — be as creative and constructive as you can within these time boundaries. Except that the bounds set are on the publisher's side, post-first-draft. So it's more like having the Iron Chefs cook up a bunch of stuff — then the show is about the waitstaff who have to figure out how best to plate and serve the stuff in a remarkably short period of time.

    "Beat the Clock" — that's more like it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Or like the posters you see that say, "You can have it fast, right, or cheap — pick two."

  4. Karen Says:

    I have to agree with you, episode 6–Man on the Street–is where it took a turn for me. The exact scene (without giving a spoiler) was when the FBI agent's apt was broken into while he was out getting food and what happened to his girlfriend/neighbor. LOVED IT!!!

  5. Melissa Says:

    I completely agree with you about needing to hook readers early. I have mixed feelings about the Dollhouse example, though, because Joss wasn't allowed to do what he wanted until episode 6. FOX had their grubby hands all over episodes 1-5. Plots and subplots had to be cut apart and pieced back together; the episodes were shown out of order… UGH. It might be the case that had Joss had free reign, it STILL would have taken six episodes to take off… but it might not have, and I have trouble holding him responsible for the decisions of FOX suits.

  6. Kiersten White Says:

    I think you should hire Tahmoh as your pageboy. If you had him, shirtless, delivering your submissions to editors…

    Well, it's not like you need the help selling things. So I guess you could just keep him around the office ; )

    I agree though. I would not have stuck with the series if I wasn't so devoted to Joss. Heck, I love JJ Abrams, too, and Fringe lost me on the first episode.

  7. Colleen Lindsay Says:


    Thanks for the shout-out!

    BTW, I heard a rumor that Dollhouse got the axe, and they aren't airing the 13th episode. Oy.

  8. Kate Says:

    NooooooooOOOOOOOoooooooO! Please be just a rumor, please be just a rumor, please please please…

  9. Jenifer Says:

    I don't think it's just a rumor, sadly. (Though I will be honest, I watched Ep One and I was really let down. I *heart* Whedon, but this series just didn't do it for me)

    Here's the latest I've found:

  10. MJ Says:

    If I had Tahmoh Penikett shirtless, I'd keep him under lock and key ๐Ÿ™‚ He's the reason I keep tuning into Dollhouse…and the hope of hearing some trademark Joss dialogue. That's also sadly lacking.

  11. Kody Keplinger Says:

    I love this post. I'm also a MAJOR Joss Whedon fan–I'm only seventeen, but I've seen all of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, and he's great–but Dollhouse was definitely a little worrisome for me t first. I wanted so bad to love it, and I loved the concept, but by episode three I found myself wondering, "So, what's the point?" It is better now (Thank you, Lord), but it was even losing me, and I'm a big fan of his work.

    So I definitely understand the point about novels. I write young adult, and I read a lot of young adult. There are so many YA books that lose because I want action in the first chapter, and I consider myself patient. I think that YA books, in particular, should start with a bang because a lot of teenagers don't have the attention span for three chapters of info dumping.

    Okay, rant over. I so love your blog, by the way!