Would you turn the page

Another “Flogging the Pro” post at Writer Unboxed. I’ve found the past couple posts of this type so interesting, so I’m keeping a casual eye out for them now. Here’s the latest.

Remember, these posts are pulled from #1 NYT bestsellers.

This novel was number one on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestseller list for October 24, 2021. How strong is the opening page—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?

Here’s the opening of this novel:

As I sit here with one foot on either side of the ledge, looking down from twelve stories above the streets of Boston, I can’t help but think about suicide.

Not my own. I like my life enough to want to see it through.

I’m more focused on other people, and how they ultimately come to the decision to just end their own lives. Do they ever regret it? In the moment after letting go and the second before they make impact, there has to be a little bit of remorse in that brief free fall. Do they look at the ground as it rushes toward them and think, “Well, crap. This was a bad idea.”

Somehow, I think not.

I think about death a lot. Particularly today, considering I just— twelve hours earlier— gave one of the most epic eulogies the people of Plethora, Maine, have ever witnessed. Okay, maybe it wasn’t the most epic. It very well could be considered the most disastrous. I guess that would depend on whether you were asking my mother or me. My mother, who probably won’t speak to me for a solid year after today.

Okay, what do you think?

I don’t like the narrator. I think she — to me this sounds like a female voice — I think she sounds thoroughly pretentious. This is an affected, superior manner. Or that’s how she comes across to me in this opening. Not my OWN. I wouldn’t think about suicide, unlike OTHER people. She sounds self-satisfied. As I said, I don’t like her.

I don’t dislike the opening scene — someone sitting on a ledge way up in the air — but I’m not interested in the narrator or the eulogy she gave. I’m also flinching from what seems like possibly toxic family relationships.

Now, I do think that saying, “Does this opening work? You be the judge!” does put people — me for sure — in a super-judgy frame of mind that is not helpful to any first page.

On the other hand, when I click on samples of books I have just picked up for one reason or another and read the opening, often I like the opening a lot, so I’m not THAT unreasonably judgmental, I don’t think.

On the other other hand, when one of you recommends something to me, I’m possibly biased the other way, toward liking the book you pointed me toward. But then, you all do give me good recommendations that suit my personal taste, so it’s only sensible for me to expect to like the books you point out.

Either way, nope, I wouldn’t turn the page of the above bestseller. Okay, I just voted and clicked through and so I see that slightly over half the (numerous) votes are thumbs up rather than thumbs down. A little to my surprise, Ray Rhamey finds the voice of the narrator “very likeable.” That’s interesting! Maybe I was being unreasonably judgmental. I’m quite curious about what you all think.

Let me just compare the above to a random book that I’ve added to my Kindle in the past few weeks. Okay, here is the opening of The Unselected Journals of Emma M Lion by Beth Brower, which was recommended to me by a commenter here and which I therefore expect to like.

I’ve arrived in London without incident.

There are few triumphs in my recent life, but I count this as one. My existence of the last three years has been nothing but incident.

My train billowed its way into St. Pancras Station five minutes early. Auspicious, as I am fairly certain such a thing has never before happened in the history of the British railway system. A less than enthusiastic porter helped me with my two trunks, my case, and my hat box. He took note of the frayed edges on my morning coat, made a sound of disapproval, and began to silently convey his displeasure at helping me. I did give him a halfpenny. Rather generous, considering my financial state. Strangely, it was the hat box that caused the greatest sneer, despite it actually carrying a hat. For over a year, it carried something a modicum less pleasant: the monkey’s head Maxwell sent me.

I almost crossed that out, the bit about the monkey’s head.

This turns out to make a good comparison with the bestseller above. By pure chance, they’re both first person and they both open with someone musing.

Sure enough, I like this MUCH better. The narrator sounds like she’s poking fun at herself a bit, not at other people. Plus, whatever the narrator’s relationship may be with Maxwell, that relationship doesn’t sound like it’s toxic! I’m far more interested in why someone sent the narrator a monkey’s head than I was in the eulogy for whoever that was in the bestseller first page.

What do you all think? Thumbs up or thumbs down for these two novel openings? Do you or don’t you find immediately have a positive or negative impression about the narrator in each case?

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12 thoughts on “Would you turn the page”

  1. I dont like the train “billowing” into the station, but other than that I prefer this, too. (Steam trains are to noisy and smelly to “billow”.)

  2. Oh, wow. I completely agree that the first narrator seems smug and unlikeable. The only way I might read further is if this was urban fantasy where a lot of the narrators start out grouchy about the world and change over time.

    The second novel piqued my interest. I’ll have to put it on my TBR list.

  3. Actually, rather a lot of them DO think this was a bad idea — at least among those who fail, the typical experience was reported by one who realized as soon as he let go was that the only problem in his life that could not be fixed was that he had just let go. And in all forms of attempted suicide, the number who try twice is considering less than half.

    Which is a problem in that the narrator hasn’t won me over yet.

  4. The second opening is doing a lot more work as well as having a more likeable voice. The first one is sitting high up being smug and thinking about death and annoying her mother at a funeral. The second is pleased to be in London, has had an eventful previous three years, is poor, and observant, and has the sort of friendship with another person that makes it ok to be sent a monkey head that she kept in a hat box. I know a lot more about the second narrator than the first, and I like her better.

  5. Smug! That’s the word I was looking for. Yes, she seems smug. I really, really don’t like her. Plus the monkey’s head is such a great detail!

    Mary Catelli, I hadn’t realized that, and that makes me like the first narrator even less.

  6. Rethinking the impulse to suicide after a failed or thwarted attempt is quite common, as Mary said. The first attempt is often a desperate cry for help; if help follows the failed attempt there needn’t be a second one.
    It is one of the ways in which the widespread presence of firearms in the USA does harm, as suicidal attempts in the USA are much more likely to be done using firearms, and it is much easier to kill oneself with a gun than for instance by cutting one’s wrists* or taking pills, so more suicides ‘succeed’ on their first attempt, and don’t get a chance at changing their mind.
    * I know someone who tried that twice, and is still alive and now glad she is still here, and didn’t traumatise her kids by dying that way when they were young, though she still struggles with bouts of depression.
    If she’d had a gun in the house, that impulse in the deepest abyss of a serious depression would have been fatal.

  7. Not necessarily, Hanneke. A schoolmate’s mother survived such an attempt when I was young. People are hard to kill. It is possible to survive a shot to the head, even.
    And that is where I stop – don’t want to derail into a firearms discussion.

  8. I very much do not plan a segue into suicide as a topic. But the plague of step-in-front-of-a-train copycat suicides in, eg, Palo Alto, demonstrates that there are quite a few methods that don’t generally give someone a chance to change their mind.

  9. I think we should turn the conversation back to the monkey’s head, which is indeed an excellent detail and makes me very likely to go look for this book! I’m also much more likely to be drawn to self-depreciating than smug wit.

  10. *Gratefully seizes on Kim’s suggestion.*

    Yes, I think the line I almost crossed that out, the bit about the monkey’s head. really makes this opening. That’s when I really started enjoying this protagonist.

  11. There are plenty of cross-outs, too. Like “He must have sensed his impending doom my pending arrival.”

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