Here it is Wednesday, and I’m just now getting to the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy blog tour! My apologies to everyone for the weak showing this round. All that to say George Bryan Polivka’s The Legend of the Firefish looks awesome. He’s got a new blog, too.
I thought it would be fun to play acquisitions editor based on the first page. What if I got this first page as an unsolicited manuscript? What works? What questions does it raise?
For the sake of this educational thought experiment, I’m reprinting the first page here. (Since you can read it online at ChristianBook.com, I figured it was okay to reprint.)
“You deaf, boy?”
Packer Throme didn’t answer. The last thing he wanted now was a fight. Dog Blestoe was a big man, bigger than Packer by three inches and thirty pounds, and Packer’s elder by thirty years. Leathery, gray-headed, lean and muscular from a lifetime of hard labor, Dog stood across the table with his hands knotted into fists.
Packer stayed seated and silent.
Dog snorted. He had made sure Packer had left town humiliated four years ago. He would make sure the boy returned the same way. He rammed the table with his thigh, sloshing the mug of ale sitting on it. Packer caught it before it tipped.
Packer didn’t look up.
Dog grabbed the back of a wooden chair and tossed it aside, clattering it across the plank flooring, where it nearly shinned one of the regulars. “Disrespect!” he seethed, nodding around the pub at the undeniable proof Packer had just offered them all.
They did not nod back. These fishermen had come with their usual intentions, to talk and drink and smoke their pipes and do some modest complaining after a hard day at sea. Not to witness this. Not again.
“Stand up, boy!”
If I’m an acquisitions editor, I would be looking for three things: story, style, and voice.
Story on Page One
Conflict? From the very beginning there is a strong sense of conflict. It doesn’t really matter whether this page’s conflict is the primary conflict or not. I would just need to see that the author can pull it off. Packer and Dog are on the verge of a fight, and Packer will probably lose. I know this because Packer is significantly smaller than Dog. And because Packer has lost before. Shamefully. Shame is a good concept for page one here. It gets my attention.
Character? You bet. The dude’s name is Dog. He even barks. And Packer is a calm hero. He doesn’t let the beer tip. You gotta love him for that.
Setting? Absolutely. The scene starts with a tight closeup on Dog’s mouth. It expands to include Packer. Finally, we see the full stage. The pub’s plank flooring and the hostile fishermen who just want to relax. In fact, their hostility toward Dog provide a subtle implication of the conflict’s outcome. Whether the outcome happens as I’m expecting or not doesn’t matter. The point is that I want to keep reading to find out.
Style and Voice on Page One
Paragraphing? It’s compelling. The paragraphs alternate lengths. And those short paragraphs pack a good punch. Almost literally.
Sentences? This author knows how to use sentences to work over the reader. He keeps the pace moving with lots of short simple sentences. Most of the complexity gets tacked onto the end of an agglutinating, cumulative sentence. The author also makes good use of parallelism. Look at the paragraph that begins, “Dog snorted.” Four of the five sentences have Dog or “he” as the subject, but the paragraph doesn’t feel clunky and repetitive. That’s style.
Finally, the author isn’t afraid of slow sentences. He uses them to great effect to slow down certain moments, almost like a quick bit of slow motion in a movie. Consider this sentence:
Dog grabbed the back of a wooden chair and tossed it aside, clattering it across the plank flooring, where it nearly shinned one of the regulars.
That sentence is quite a bit more complicated than others, so the reader has to slow to read it. And we slow down for a purpose–to see that chair clattering away as the camera widens for the first time to show us the whole room in the pub where the fishermen are waiting, disgruntled that their afternoon is getting disrupted by Dog.
If I were an acquisitions editor (or a browser in the bookstore), I would definitely read more. The only question this page raises is the unavoidable one. Can the author sustain this level of quality? And if he does, can he deliver on his promises at the end of the novel with a satisfying resolution?
Note to Readers: You may be thinking, “How dare anyone pass judgment on a book based on the first page!”
It helps that I like the first page. But I think this would be valid even if I decided the book would probably stink.
Here’s how I got this idea. I was listening to the Writers on Writing podcast this week while I mowed the lawn. Because I’m a dork that way. (And please don’t be offended, Barbara. I don’t mean only dorks listen to Writers on Writing. Just that only dorks do it while they mow.)
So in the August 14 episode, Literary Agent Adam Chromy says he only reads the first page of an unsolicited manuscript before deciding whether he’s interested.
Then today over on Publisher’s Weekly, the Book Maven posted “One Out of Four Ain’t Bad?” Several commenters mention the number of pages they give a book. Thirty pages. Fifty pages. One hundred pages.
I give a book twenty. If I don’t like it by then, I’m done. Maybe forever. Maybe not. That depends on the cover and the author and the topic, to be honest.
All of this made me think. Let’s assume every book sends its first page as the sample to the publisher. What on that page would hook an acquisitions editor… or not? Whether the author sent the actual first page doesn’t matter. Because the first page of a book either hooks a reader… or not.
Blog Tour Participants:
Finally, this is the CSFF blog tour. Here are the other folks participating this month:
Wayne Thomas Batson
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
Lost Genre Guild
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Daniel I. Weaver