The corpse was five days old and long past rancid. Sammy Truffinger might have pondered the big questions in life at one time, and he may have pondered death and the Great Beyond. Maybe he made arrangements for distribution of his meager belongings but it probably would have been more fruitful for him to be concerned with what would happen to his remains. Being a loner and having very little family, it was four days before anyone noticed he hadn’t left the house.
It didn’t help that he died on a Thursday night. When he didn’t come in to work Friday morning, Mrs. Fitzie in the personnel office called his home number and left a message on his machine. She would have followed up with another call later but she went home with a migraine headache and by Sunday afternoon Sammy was starting to stick to his dining room floor.
What are the opening paragraphs of your novel? Have you done enough on the very first page to grab the attention of your readers? Studies have shown that most people, when browsing a book store, make the decision on whether or not they’re going to shell out money for a book based on the first page. When you are browsing books on amazon.com or other online retailers, don’t you click on the “First pages” link to get a feel for how that book is going to read?
Book buyers have so many choices these days. The growth of self publishing means there are massive numbers of books to choose from, way beyond what the traditional publishers provide us, and as a writer you need to figure out a way to stand out in that crowd. Having an attention grabbing first page is one of the best ways, but be forewarned – you better follow that up with a well written page turner to get them back to buy your next book.
If you can grab your reader in a single sentence, all the better.
I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story.
John Grisham, The Racketeer
And it’s not just suspense or crime stories that need to grab a reader. Imagine a book by a humorist that doesn’t start right off the bat with something to make you smile.
Dear Children, I am your dad. The father of all five of you pale creatures. Given how attractive and fertile your mother is, there may be more of you by the time you read this book. If you are reading this, I am probably dead. I would assume this because I can honestly foresee no other situation where you’d be interested in anything I’ve done. Right now, you are actually more interested in preventing me from doing things, like working, sleeping and smiling. I’m kidding, of course. Kind of. I love you with all of my heart, but you are probably the reason I’m dead.
Jim Gaffigan, Dad is Fat
The burden of writing a humor book is that pretty much every single page better be funny. Gaffigan is one of those guys who can deliver.
The pair of paragraphs that opened this article come from page one of a novel I’ve been working on for about three years. It’s not that I work every day on that novel and can’t quite seem to knock out the final pages, it’s that I have tried to squeeze it in in-between the other projects I have on my desk. I have to get to the point where I believe the world needs to know what really happened to Sammy and what that means to the protagonist of my book, but in the meantime those opening lines keep drawing me back the way I hope they draw in a reader when it is sitting on a book shelf at the local book store.
I recently read a book which began with a foreward that essentially apologized for the way the book begins. The author felt the need to infuse his personal philosophy about the advertising industry because his main character was an advertising executive, but what that meant is that the first chapter was an endless lecture on this and that about advertising and what is right and wrong about the industry - - - and I am not exaggerating when I say it was the worst opening chapter of a book I have ever read. The author should have heeded his own warning in the foreward and just skipped it altogether because most readers will put the book down and never get to the mystery part.
I slugged through it, but the rest of the book was only barely better, and the author completely lost any chance that I would buy the sequel, or any other book he writes.
If your first reader is an agent or an editor, the advice to begin strong is even more imperative. The amount of amateurish writing they have to wade through is mind boggling, and you cannot count on them to find out how wonderful your story will become in chapter two. They may give you three or four pages, but that’s it. If you don’t give them a reason to turn the page, they’re not going to.
One caution, however. Don’t spend so much time perfecting your first page that you never get to writing beyond that. You can always fix it in your rewrites. Go ahead and write your first draft, and then when you begin the rewriting process delete chapter one altogether. Chances are you spent way too much time trying to set the stage for your story, and lost the reader by page two. Start your book right where the action begins so no one has to read through an endless prologue. If it is really important what that first character had for breakfast, you can work that information in while he is being autopsied.