Here’s one of those “Flogging the Pro” posts at Writer Unboxed: Flog a Pro: Would You Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?
Here are the first couple of paragraphs of the first page — the very first paragraphs a reader would see. Remember, this is a bestseller.
“Who the hell is this?” barked Amos Decker.
He had been awoken from a sleep far deeper than he usually achieved. The insomnia had been getting worse, and it was adding nothing positive to his already unpredictable temperament. He hadn’t looked at the phone number on the screen before answering it. In his line of work, calls came at all times of the day or night and not always from those on his contact list.
“Amos, it’s Mary Lancaster.” Her voice was low, tenuous. “Do you remember me?”
Amos Decker sat up stiffly in his bed and rubbed his unshaven face. He saw on his phone screen that it was nearly three in the morning.
My very first response: Is that clunky or what?
First, starting with dialogue is tricky. It’s something to handle carefully, and really you should only do that if you’re sure it’s working the way you want it to. I don’t hate that first line, but it doesn’t really work for me either.
Second, the second paragraph just seems clunky. Every sentence of that paragraph seems clunky. I don’t mind the author telling rather than showing — that can work fine — it can even work in the very first paragraphs of a novel, though again, I think telling this much in the first paragraphs is something the author should think about carefully. But the real problem isn’t the telling; it’s the clunkiness. How would I revise that paragraph if it were me? I’m not sure. Let me see … how about this?
He had been jerked infuriatingly out of sleep for once deep and dreamless. He didn’t look at the number on the screen, just snatched up the handset and barked, “Who the hell is this?” before he was entirely awake.
What do you think? It’s not deathless prose, but I do think it’s better than the version that made it into print. The first pages are so important, and I just think the author could have done better without that much effort.
Given these posts, I’m really starting to wonder how many bestsellers jump to the top purely on the reputation and solid fanbase of the author, who might be pretty good at storytelling, but is kind of slacking off on the sentence-level craft. In this case, this is David Baldacci. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything of his. I guess this book is a police procedural or a thriller, but given this first page, I’m going to continue not reading anything of his.
Anyway, click through if you’d like to read the whole first page and vote. I voted No, obviously. Nothing about the first page made me want to turn to the second.