My son gave me a mystery the other day. He’d encountered the author at Barnes and Nobles and, having chatted with the man, he felt bound to buy a copy of his book. We’ll call the writer Author X.
Under the attractive dust jacket, the sturdy binding is stamped with the title and author’s name in gilt letters. The book could have been produced by a major publisher.
As soon as I read the first paragraph, however, I knew that the book had been self-published.
With a bit of disguise, here’s the first paragraph:
The phone jingled on Butch Grand’s desk and jolted him out of his daydream. He had been thinking about how hot and dry the last two years had been and was hoping this year would be better. As Police Chief of Philadelphia, Mississippi, things just went better for him when it was cooler and they got some rain. The phone rang again and he took the receiver off the hook.
What’s the first clue that Author X is not a professional?
He tells the reader that the character is having a daydream, and then he tells what the daydream was about. An experienced writer would have placed the reader in the daydream with sensory details, and then jolted him out of it to answer the phone.
An experienced writer would probably have had him “answer” or “pick up” or perhaps just start talking, and not have told us that the man “took the receiver off the hook.”
See if you can identify any other marks of too little revision.
This opening paragraph is followed by a lengthy conversation with a woman who is reporting the discovery of a body at the town dump:
No, she didn’t discover it, some boys did.
And then she puts a boy on the phone and the police chief asks how he spells his name
and then he talks to the woman again and wants to know what time she cooks supper
and then he tells her that he might not be able to get to the dump right away
and then he drifts off again thinking about the fact that the town hasn’t had a murder in seven years
and then a “Hello?” at the other end of the line jars him back to business
and then he hangs up the receiver and sets the phone back on the desk
All this has taken us to page 3. Now we learn that he warned the woman that he might be late because his department has only two patrol cars and both are out with other drivers so…
he goes to the cafe and gets the Sheriff to drive him to the dump
and on the way he thinks about how the dump originated and what the town was like in the 1800s
and then they get to the dump where the two men exchange introductions with the boys who found the body
and then, finally, on page 8, we see the body.
Mysteries can open in various ways. Established authors like Elizabeth George and Sara Paretsky can afford to begin with descriptions of weather and the thoughts of their characters because their readers are confident they are entering a fictional world that has entertained them in the past.
First-time authors have to work harder at drawing the reader in with the first paragraph.
The body does not have to appear in Chapter One, but if you decide to put it there, get on with it!
Consider this opening paragraph:
The bodies were discovered at eight forty-five on the morning of Wednesday 18 September by Miss Emily Wharton, a sixty-five-year-old spinster of the parish of St. Mathhew’s in Paddington, London and Darren Wilkes, aged ten, of no particular parish as far as he knew or cared. –P.D. James, A Taste for Death.
Like Author X, James delays our first look at the bodies until several pages later. We don’t see them until page 9. But where Author X rambles about, talking about this and that, throwing in lengthy conversation and irrelevant detail, James uses the intervening pages to build suspense and horror in the reader.
The existence of the bodies is established in the first sentence, but then James makes us wait as she reveals the relationship between the woman and the boy. The more we know about them, the more we want to know what kind of circumstances could have led them to discover dead bodies. When we finally do see the bodies, our horror is greater because we see them through gentle Miss Wharton’s eyes.
The main problem with Author X’s story is that he was too eager to publish. He was not willing to do the revision necessary to turn a draft into a (professionally) publishable manuscript.