Flog a Pro: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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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), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

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 The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I thought it would be fun to check out a bestselling YA novel. Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of The Fault in Our Stars, the number 1 YA fiction book on the June 2, 2013 New York Times bestseller list.

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.

This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.
The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.

I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and the only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very sacred heart and whatever.


My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

My vote: Yes

Fault in Stars coverFor me, this opening is a case of character and voice trumping action. Because I liked this young person and her sassy attitude even though depressed, I cared about her. Because she has cancer, I wanted to know what happened to her because I cared—so the “what happens next?” story question was raised for me, and the stakes are pretty high.

The voice is strong and clear (Love the “whatever” in the last sentence. Later she refers to a Support Group session as a “circle jerk of support.”). And the writing is clean and just as strong, with a seductive rhythm and flow. I’m a picky editor, and I didn’t feel an urge to tamper with this prose.

Here’s the blurb from the Amazon page; does it increase or decrease your interest?

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning-author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.

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

    I have yet to read any of Green’s books, but they’re on my list. I think the first page of this one is terrific. I’m not crazy about the blurb, however; ‘Gorgeous plot twist’ is a phrase that turns me off, and makes me think the book veers more toward Romance than I would normally read, and my impression (from what I’ve heard) is this is not a Romance.

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  2. says

    I really found the way you broke down the first 17 lines of this story interesting and helpful. I’m working on my first novel and plan on applying these questions to my first 17 lines.

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  3. says

    I agree with you! This book looks excellent. A Facebook friend recently posted that she loved this book and was crying. I had only heard that this book was good, not what it was about. So, your examination of the first page totally explains that status update.

    This is a great first page because the character is immediately sympathetic, engaging and we realize, in mortal peril. Now, maybe no one can do anything about the mortal peril. Cancer treatment either works or it doesn’t, but one should never underestimate how engaged we become when life is on the line.

    Really great opener by John Green. And great analysis, Ray.

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  4. says

    I’m not a fan or reader of YA books . . .but I might reconsider. I’m thrilled there’s no mention of the paranormal – which is the main reason I’m so down on YA books. I loved this opening. I love the voice. This is clearly a character I want to get to know better and I care about her (and her mother) immediately.

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  5. says

    The voice is what drew me in right away – honest and smart, and kind of droll and snarky. I can practically see the character rolling her eyes. :)

    I’ve had this book and others by Green on my TBR list for awhile now. Think I’ll bump them up a bit.

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  6. says

    Loved this opening. Well done. I too felt interrupted by ‘gorgeous plot twist named Augustus.’ That phrase pulled me out of what is a very smooth blurb. And yes, I get the suggestion of romance. Can a “plot twist” even be a gorgeous person?

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    • Sevigne says

      Because it’s John Green, I suspect the blurb is poking fun itself with this phrase. Usually, the mechanics of writing something that appears to be “natural,” “artless,” “no sleight of hand on the part of the author,” is hidden from the reader. Here, the blurb (and Green) says: this is a story about a girl dying of cancer, who meets a boy she falls in love with, and this momentous event changes the course of her relationship to depression that you’ll read about on the first page, and ultimately changes the course of the story the way a major plot twist always does in the character’s life in a novel. However, and this is the the plot twist it doesn’t reveal, like Romeo and Juliet, the fault of their unfortunate fate–death–lies with the stars.

      If you’ve seen John Green’s videos on youtube, you’ll know that a self-conscious insertion of this kind is in keeping with who he is (or presents himself) as a writer. And that teenagers love him precisely for “breaking the rules and conventions of writing.”

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  7. Denise Willson says

    I liked it, but thought the protagonist was a she. Even after reading it a second time, I still thought it was a young man.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  8. says

    I’m up for “grabber” openings. Realizing there’s a lot of controversy about how to begin a book, I’d prefer the author move up some sentences, as in:

    “The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been. I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and the only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very sacred heart and whatever.”

    Seems to get right at the heart of the story without wandering off to her mother and doctor. To me, there’s just too much competing material out there to miss grabbing your reader in the first couple sentences.

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  9. says

    Because of this books overwhelming popularity I had put off reading it, even though I am a John Green fan. But curiosity over what makes a best selling YA got the better of me. I’m glad it did. The voice, so perfectly captured in these opening lines, backed up with a gut-wrenching, but ultimately deep and funny (as only the bald truth can be) story, totally won me over. As Ray notes with his “Yes” vote, it’s a winner.

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  10. says

    I was totally hooked. But I can hear an editor in a conference first-page session saying “But I don’t know the sex of this character.”

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  11. says

    Hmmm… it’s probably just personal preference, but the voice of this narrative really discourages me from turning the page. It’s a strong voice, and it’s there, so that’s good… I think it’s just me, but when the character talks like this it really is annoying. I don’t think anyone really uses words like these.

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  12. Liz Lincoln says

    This is a fantastic opening and would (and did) compel me to continue. I read this whole book in a day. As a survivor of childhood cancer, I guarantee kids think/talk like this. As Hazel (& John Green) say, it’s a side effect of dying.

    I do agree that the blurb line of “gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters” is awkward. It feels like it’s trying too hard.

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  13. says

    Tony, your comment made me consider how this page could have been tightened for sharper effect. There are several cuts and rearrangements possible. I suspect, though, that the author went with this opening because he wanted us to know up front about the cancer and he wanted to establish the narrator’s voice as the crux of the story. That second paragraph about the side effects of dying may well turn out to be a statement of theme.

    I would definitely read on–am getting ready to order it for my Kindle, despite the blurb, which was probably written by an editor.

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  14. says

    Reading the opening here will make me pick the book up now. Many of my friends have loved it, but the kicker for me is that I lost a good friend to cancer at the beginning of this year. Even now, the opening with the wry, funny, and honest terminal cancer patient, makes me cry. But I will read it.

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  15. says

    Irreverence in the face of death and a strong voice, great. But the blurb manages to scrub away these strengths with word play and hackneyed summary of the “plot.”

    If I were the editor, I’d question an even sassy female character’s use of “circle jerk.” Sounds like a male writer who forgot himself.

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    • says

      You pointed out exactly what made me think it was a male character. All day I’ve been trying to figure out what made me assume it was a he instead of a she. I was surprised when I read the blurb. Anyway, now I can relax, because “circle jerk” is exactly why my mind thought this was a male character.

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  16. says

    I voted yes, but I don’t agree that it’s the voice.

    It’s a strong voice, true enough. It’s engaging. That’s easy to say. But what makes it engaging? Why do we care? It’s because this cancer kid is full of life. Even defiant.

    “Strong” or “engaging” are terms too imprecise to pin down why this narrative voice draws us in. (“Edgy” might also apply, but is similarly imprecise.) To me this voice is wry, observant, opinionated, accepting-yet-hopeful.

    Hopeful? This kid’s case probably is hopeless. Certainly others in the support group rotate out, becoming by-products. The odds are not good. Worse, the kid reports being depressed. It’s what sends her (her?) into a support group.

    But here’s the thing: It’s this narrator’s very wry, observant, stinging observations of the support group that give us hope. This kid isn’t surrendering. Her fate isn’t her fate–not yet.

    Thus we have hope. Thus we care. It’s for that reason that we turn the page, not simply because of “voice.” If that were true, then any strong voice would suffice, no matter how bleak, down or dark. But that’s not so. A down voice would be a downer and a turn off.

    Without hope we wouldn’t go forward. But we do. Q.E.D.

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    • says

      Excellent point, Don–but can’t we agree that part of the appeal is the voice? I think you’ve nailed it with the expression of hope embodied in the narrative, and, for me, the voice (both what is said and how it is said) is what embodies that. It’s the voice of a fighter, not a loser, and that pulls me into the character.

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      • says

        Ray-

        “It’s the voice of a fighter, not a loser, and that pulls me into the character.”

        Yes, if you’d put it that way up front I would have agreed right away. I think it’s too easy for all of us, me included, to slip into imprecision, saying things like, “Oh, it works because of the voice.”

        Well no, not just any voice works. Voice works when it touches us and wins us with positive emotions. Unrelenting negativity on the page, as in life, draws in few readers.

        This was a great choice for flogging, Ray. It’s a tricky opening: overtly bleak but secretly filled with longing and hope.

        I wish more writers would look below the surface and recognize that when authors are breaking writing “rules” they’re usually not breaking the rules of the heart.

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        • Sevigne says

          I love this: When authors are breaking writing “rules” they’re usually not breaking the rules of the heart.

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          • says

            Shelley, is this you?

            And Don, I, too have been lazy in my writing saying that it is the voice that drew me in. But it was a voice of a person who is invincible.

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      • says

        Thanks again, Don, for your insightful ability for looking below the surface for the “why.” I’m a bit too glib, I suspect, when I use “voice” without delving into why it works.

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  17. Ronda Roaring says

    I voted yes, but I have reservations.

    1. I didn’t feel “drawn in” by the first 17 lines, only curious.

    2. My curiosity was that of an adult. I wonder why YAs would be interested in this topic.

    3. I, too, thought the voice was male. There was someone months ago on the WU forum who was fretting about being male and having a female protagonist. There is a trick to it. I wonder if Green has been successful at pulling it off.

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    • says

      First, I mean writing that is grammatically and structurally sound, with no errors that jump out at my editor’s eye (or my reader’s mind, either). More than that, though, it is writing that is clear throughout, and it flows word to word, sentence to sentence, thought to thought naturally and easily. It invites the reader in and the sense and content of the narrative is effortlessly taken in. There are no “speed bumps” hindering the reader from diving into the character’s experience, no craft slips that take the reader out of the story. I could probably say more, but that’s the gist of what I look for in–and demand from–published (professional) authors.

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  18. Sevigne says

    Okay, thanks. But isn’t all that a given for a professional writer, whether traditionally or self-published?

    I may have said this elsewhere, maybe on Writer Unboxed’s group on Facebook, but I don’t really understand why writers go on and on about craft and professionalism. Or as if it’s something they never thought of as necessary to becoming accomplished as a writer, before they came across the notion of learning one’s craft from a book or a blog post.

    I have yet to meet a professional in any other discipline who carries on about how important it is to “know one’s craft.” They simply know from the beginning that to excel in their field they need to take themselves seriously and they need to apply knowledge and techniques of their field with such rigour that it eventually becomes second nature and something else begins to shine through.

    Then they begin pushing themselves to discover how to manipulate the technique (or rules) that have become skill (second nature) in order to create something new. And that’s how progress and evolution occurs in the human species.

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    • says

      It’s a given for any professional writer, yes. But I spoke of “writing” that is professional caliber, and by that I actually mean storytelling. You have to look at only a handful of self-published ebooks to see that professional caliber in either writing or storytelling are NOT something that many of those authors achieve. But they are blind to the deficiencies.

      I think that part of the problem is the perceived ease of entry into writing. If you want to paint, it doesn’t take long to understand that there are craft basics that you need to master. If you want to be a lawyer, you have to study law. But study writing? Naw.

      We all talk, we all write, we all judge writing. Wanna tell a story? Just do it. What I’m talking about, and the craft that writers discuss because we learn from talking about it, is that of storytelling. Not writing. Storytelling.

      With self-publishing, many books are not created by people who are the professionals you speak of as knowing from the beginning what they need to do to excel. Unluckily, many “writers” don’t go there. As for us talking about it, one purpose is to let beginners have an idea of what it takes to be a pro–if, that is, they happen to overhear us.

      For what it’s worth.

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      • Sevigne says

        I agree, that is the problem with writing (though it’s also the reverse problem with drawing). Because it’s an everyday medium of communication it’s easy to confuse ease of writing an email with the complexity of crafting a story. The reverse is true of drawing. Instead of teaching children from a young age that there are certain things–perspective, for example–that need to be learned, we go in the other direction. We believe that unless someone naturally “sees” perspective (which in fact very few visual artists do, including Picasso and Matisse and, dare I say, my father whose ability to draw in perspective was spectacular), it means “they can’t draw to save their life.”

        I don’t count anyone who self-publishes without practicing the rigour of writing as a professional writer. Trying to teach anything to that kind of person is like trying to teach a pig how to sing. It’s futile: it annoys the pig, and it wastes your time.

        The best thing that instructors in the art of writing can advocate to a new writer is reading as much of the canon as possible; not solely books in one’s genre (as the trend appears to be today). A serious student of art or music doesn’t merely study a narrow band of their discipline. With art in particular its history is crucial in understanding what came before in order to create what will follow, or to make the conscious choice to deviate from the past in order to express the new.

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  19. says

    I voted yes, even though I had hesitations about the paragraph that drones on about the cancer booklet, which was much too informational. It bordered on term paper to me.

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  20. says

    I’d definitely turn the page. Really grabbed my attention. I was thinking “meh” to myself until I got to the part about depression being a side effect of dying.

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  21. says

    I loved this book. The voice of the main character drew me in right away. Even though the beginning section is a little slow, as soon as Augustus Waters is introduced and they come up with the idea to visit the author in Amsterdam, the story really takes off. I was blown away by the ending. John Green is truly one of the great practitioners of the YA genre and his YouTube videos are very funny.

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  22. Bethany S. says

    I loved this opening and am so glad Ray chose to critique it, as I had passed by this book so many times without bothering to flip it open for myself, since lately I’ve been seeking out the sorts of stories that provide a happy escape. I don’t want something to make me cry, and any cancer story comes with that 100% crying guarantee.

    The reason I’m commenting though (because I normally don’t) is because I noticed an overwhelming amount of the comments complaining that they felt the voice was too “male”. I’ll be honest–I also read the opening lines as a male protagonist–but once I read the blurb I was presently surprised to find it was about a girl instead.

    I think too often people assume that boys think sarcastically and girls are a little softer. It’s probably why I find it easier to write male protagonists than female ones–it’s easier to make their voice stand out. But as a female myself in her early twenties, this is how I write in my journal. This is how I’ve been writing in my journal for years. I’m excited to find a book where someone captured that never-back-down, dry, sardonic voice for a female. Definitely will be reading this soon!

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