You can’t be too careful with that precious first page

picture of annoyed cartoon character

Life is too short

Authors, you can’t be too careful when crafting that precious first page for your tour de force. This is a case study.

Since he retired, my husband has read a lot of books. He tends to like crime, thrillers, mystery – that sort of thing. And he often picks up free books from Smashwords. As I explained in a previous post, if he enjoys the read, he’ll go and buy whatever else that author has on offer. Sometimes, he’ll share his new find with me. “Read this. I think you’d like it.”

So, feeling at something of a loose end, I sat down in my reading chair and opened the book on my tablet. It’s a crime novel, written in first person. I’ll say no more at this stage, because all I’d read was the blurb. In the first few sentences I met the protagonist, and a rather scruffy stranger. The exchange was very different to the usual polite frippery. He says, “Pleased to meet you.” She responds with, “No you’re not.”

So far so good. I’m interested. But then we meet a new character who is this lady’s boss. And this is where the author lost me. Not because a new character is introduced, but because I am immediately derailed into a far too long exposition of this person, his background, her background… All presented as her inner thoughts. But of course, they’re not. When you’re having a frank and earnest discussion with someone, you don’t reflect on how long you’ve been employed, or explain how the boss has taken on the role of buffer. The protagonist has taken on the role of narrator, cunningly disguised with the word “I”. Meanwhile, I the reader had lost track of the story.

I wasn’t in the mood. I switched off and did something else, muttering to the OH that his idea of a good read and mine weren’t the same.

The difference between us is that I’m a writer. What would have been perfectly acceptable to me ten years ago, now has to pass the inner editor. And while I can turn the inner editor off if the story has grabbed me, that’s going to be for grammar and such. If I lose interest in what’s going on – life’s too short, sorry. I have other things to do. Like look at pictures of cats on Facebook.

As it happened, at the OH’s insistence I had another go and managed to get past my irritation with needless information. It wasn’t a bad read. The main character was autistic, highly skilled at body language but very poor at social skills (hence the book’s opening exchange). I thoroughly enjoyed the insight into this lady’s mind, and the way she developed through the events in the book.

After I’d finished it I realised that my first reaction – I can’t be bothered with this, it’s all too hard – is very likely what an agent would do while wading through her slush pile. The entire work that an author may have taken years to perfect, is judged by a few paragraphs in the opening chapter. Just as well my husband acted as gate keeper for this one.

How about you? Have you ever ploughed through what you initially thought wasn’t so hot to find a gem? And why, indeed, did you persevere?

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