Flog a Pro: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

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Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and literary agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), the first page has 16 or 17 lines.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Storytelling Checklist

Evaluate this opening page for how well it executes the following 6 vital storytelling elements. While it’s not a requirement that all of them must be on the first page, I think writers have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing, a given for every page.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Let’s Flog Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Beautiful Ruins, the number 1 trade paperback on the May 5, 2013 New York Times bestseller list.

The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly—in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.

Twenty meters away, Pasquale Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite; a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep. Pasquale straightened and stopped what he was doing, what he was usually doing that spring, trying to construct a beach below his family’s empty pensione. Chest-deep in the cold Ligurian Sea, Pasquale was tossing rocks the size of cats in an attempt to fortify the breakwater, to keep the waves from hauling away his little mound of construction sand. Pasquale’s “beach” was only as wide as two fishing boats, and the ground beneath his dusting of sand was scalloped rock, but it was the closest thing to a flat piece of shoreline in the entire village; a rumor of a town that had ironically—or perhaps hopefully—been designated Porto despite the fact that the only boats to come in and out regularly belonged to the village’s handful of sardine and anchovy fishermen. The rest of the name, Vergogna, meant shame, and was a remnant from the founding of the (snip)

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.


My vote: Yes

I first met this book in October of 2012 at the Wordstock Festival in Portland, Oregon. I was there to do my Crafting a Killer First Page workshop and to do a presentation of my novel, The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles. During some spare time, I attended a panel of authors. I don’t remember the topic, but the reading by and subsequent personality of author Jess Walter interested and charmed me. Both the reading and the author offered humor that drew me in. I’m now reading the novel, and there’s not as much humor as I had expected—but it’s there, along with fascinating characters, and I’m having a good time with it.

But the task here is deciding whether or not the first page compels reading further. For me, the promise of the story question raised on the first page was strong enough to move me on. Opening with a “dying actress” was a good initial hook for me, then came a very different character who is positioned to have something to do with her. And the locale is unique and different, a plus. I also liked the confident voice of the narrative—I felt that I was in the hands of a professional storyteller. I’ll be honest, the amount of exposition about Pasquale’s beach effort was almost too much of that sort of thing for me, but I still turned the page because of the story question—what will happen between the dying actress and Pasquale?

I don’t have much in the way of editorial notes—the writing is clean and elegant. If I were to make any changes, it would be to exchange the antecedentless pronoun “his” in the first paragraph with “Pasquale’s.” And then replace “Pasquale Tursi” in the second paragraph with “he.”

What are your thoughts?
If you’d like to help beginning novelists with your constructive criticism, join me on Wednesdays and Fridays for floggings at my site, Flogging the Quill.

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About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Although I love the nautical imagery on this first page and the detail, I’m not intrigued. I think a first page she make the reader wonder what is going to happen on the second page. I don’t feel that.

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  2. says

    First paragraph, I was immediately drawn into the lovely atmospheric prose. But the pronoun “his” fails grammar structure as there is no antecedent for this pronoun and in an opening to a book, I consider this a glaring flaw. It was jarring. I immediately asked, whose village is it?

    Second paragraph yanked me away from the dying woman too soon. I didn’t want to meet another character without first getting more about the first character. I really didn’t want to know about the village or beach right at that moment. But yes, I would turn the page hoping things would smooth out and refocus on the woman.

    Also, the POV seemed muddy. If it’s Pasquale’s POV (“Pasquale watched … he would think later”), how does he know she’s a dying actress?

    Did anybody see this or it is just me?

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    • says

      I think the POV is more omniscient than anything else in this beginning. I’m not a fan. I, too, disliked the pronoun with no antecedent.

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      • Sevgne says

        I’m fond of omniscient when it’s done well. This scene doesn’t strike me as omniscient point of view, it appears to be third person. The details of the boat approaching the jetty are not there to present the reader with a wide lens view of the landscape but to support the character’s reaction in response to the boat’s movement. The same is true of the second paragraph with Pasquale.

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  3. says

    I would definitely turn the page. I was intrigued by the appearance of the actress, the way Pasquale noticed her, and by the writing itself – very visual.

    I do agree, though, a little less exposition at this point about the beach effort would have kept me in the moment more.

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  4. says

    The first paragraph seemed too intentionally melodramatic. It didn’t register as humor, at all. Too much description of the village and nothing to make me care about it.

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  5. says

    Great exercise, Ray. We all become editors.

    The ‘his’ pulled me away but might easily be remedied by beginning like this: The dying actress arrived the only way one could—in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment …

    The text rushes away from the actress. Too bad. And the detail in Pasquale’s paragraph outweighs the that of the first, but delivers less power. Still, though, if the story itself is grand, rewrite and off we go!

    I MIGHT have turned the page to see if it settled down on the second. But where exactly is the humor?

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  6. says

    I would not have known this book was supposed to be humorous, from the opening. It had a wee too much description of the landscape for my tastes, and I found myself impatient to get to that “something” that would hook me.

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  7. says

    I would probably not turn the page.

    “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly-”

    Great hook, totally wasted by everything that followed. It’s something like:

    “The elephant stepped into the coffeehouse to get out of the rain. It being early, only Joe noticed, looking up from where he sat savoring a hot latte and the Daily Prophet’s personal section.”–then spending the rest of the page on Joe and the interesting personal ads. Who cares about Joe? Who cares about the personal ads? I want to know about the elephant in the room and without more information the opening line feels like a cheap tease.

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  8. says

    “The dying actress” sets us up for her to be our main character, but we are immediately switched over to Pasquale as our main character, and quickly lose her completely. How do we even know she is dying? Then we get Pasquale’s actions out of order. First, he watches her. Then he straightens up. Then we are told that he is tossing rocks. His actions do not make sense. The whole scene should start with him tossing rocks, which is the most interesting action, him trying to create a beach where there is none, a Sisyphusian effort if there ever was one, and then end with her arriving at the dock, a natural move to them meeting, or whatever direction the author wishes to go.

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  9. Ronda Roaring says

    I like these types of exercises. Unfortunately for this book, I would vote no. I, too, wondered how one knew she was dying. I, too, took the opening seriously. And, unlike the others, I found the writing trite.

    “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly—in a boat…”

    If the author has started out with the simple phrase, “She arrived by boat,” I would have been more interested. That phrase leaves one wondering all sorts of things.

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    • says

      Ah, but there’s information beyond her mode of transportation in that line, and it is expanded upon later. A boat is the only way anyone can come directly to the village–there are no roads to it

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      • Ronda Roaring says

        I don’t want to belabor a point, but the line just says that arriving by boat is the only way one can arrive DIRECTLY. (That sounds a bit like Scotland or the Statue of Liberty.) The writer can then go on to say that this is the only direct route if it’s relevant.

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  10. says

    While I also probably wouldn’t have turned the page, it’s because after the first paragraph we’re taken away from the characters and into the setting, and the setting wasn’t interesting enough to me to keep me going, as much as I liked the initial detail of “the only way in.”

    I, too, was jarred by the use of “his” in the first sentence, but I actually think that was quite well done, if not grammatically correct. For me, the first sentence does not set the actress up as the main character, as someone stated above. Precisely because the author uses the mysterious “his”, I know that “he” is probably the main character and I wanted to read on to find out who he is.

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  11. says

    Personally, I dislike writing such as this. It makes me too focused on the words themselves rather than actually becoming immersed in the story being told. I like writing to be much simpler than that, yet still elegant.

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  12. says

    I would have turned the page because I liked the writing, even though, to agree with others, I thought the story pulled away from the actress too soon. I didn’t mind the use of “his” in the opening sentence, first because I thought the author was trying to imbue a sense of arrogance on Pasquale and secondly, in wondering who the “his” belonged to, and also the other things we were made to wonder on the first page, the author succeeds in raising questions that get us to turn the page.

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  13. says

    This issue of the pronoun without antecedent is thorny, isn’t it? I mean, I’m a copy editor (and a writer) and I would have advised the author to name the character in this opening line (which would have tied it to the second paragraph with greater strength (which I think needed better direction). I don’t see using “his” without antecedent as an artistic or mysterious device here. I see it as a fault. That said, all novels have some faulty writing here and there, but one place you don’t want to have it is in your opening line. The fact that the POV isn’t really clear at the opening is another faulty start.

    With all the criticisms going on about self-published authors not producing quality work because they lack editors, and then this book comes out from a seasoned writer, published by Harpers, hits the best seller list, and with such a glaring error … well, it makes me wonder about the publishing house staff editors. Jess Walters is a talented writer!

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  14. says

    I didn’t finish the sample, let alone want a second page. There was nothing to care about here. We have dying actress but nothing from her viewpoint, nothing from her ideas, thoughts, worries or any hint of an inner life at all. We have a row boat and a big hat. Then we get jerked away into another character who is just as flat. There’s no tension, no story. Just stick figures in an overdescribed setting (most nouns are lonely without a lot of adjectives to keep them company). Sorry to be so negative but I couldn’t see this opening hitting any of the story targets you listed.

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  15. says

    I would have and did turn the page — I thought this novel was the best I read in the past year — maybe in the past several. And, although all of these comments are noteworthy, I think it just shows that a piece of writing can have all kinds of technical flaws but still be outstanding. (I didn’t notice the “his” problem at all until readers here pointed it out — it was soon enough to have it explained when I got to the second paragraph.)

    But I find this exercise interesting for other reasons. It was interesting, first, that the majority of readers voted, “No,” and then it is also interesting to read the comments, most of which are well thought out. Yet the book was a best seller, and it’s not a potboiler but literary fiction.

    I think it proves that people will see what they are inclined to see in a work of art. And it may really bode ill for those of us who want agents but have no connections and know that agents are reading our first page (if they even get that far) in this critical way, determined to find a way NOT to ask for more because they simply won’t have time to read it. And yet — well, I’m not saying I write like Jess Walter — I only wish! — but I’m saying that if agents read my work the way readers here have read his, then none of us new writers have any chance at all!

    And, by the way, I heard JW speak and he talked about how he wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote that first sentence. So whatever “flaws” there were in it were intentional.

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  16. says

    Even though the antededentless ‘his’ pulled me off the page for a moment, the first page drew me in – the writing was lovely, the setting easy to visualize and engaging, the story intriguing. So, I turned the page, and another and another. It wasn’t long, however, (34%, according to my Kindle) before I stopped turning pages. I didn’t care about the characters and had no burning desire to find out what happened to them.
    This exercise is whether or not the first page contains the six basic storytelling elements, but shouldn’t all pages have most of those? These pages didn’t, for me, in spite of its best-seller status.

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