Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?

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Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and 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

While it’s not a requirement that all of these 6 storytelling ingredients 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 first page of this bestselling author’s newest novel. Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—there are folks who reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

This novel was in first place on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for June 15. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think it’s compelling? Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Chapter 1.

There was a ticking time bomb inside my head and the one person I trusted to go in and get it out hadn’t shown up or spoken to me for more than a year.

That’s a lot of time to start asking yourself questions. Who am I? What have I done with my life?

Who can I trust?

That last one is a doozy. It haunts you in moments of doubt. Sometimes when you wake up at night, you wonder if you’ve put your faith in the right people. Sometimes when you find yourself alone, for whatever reason, you review every little thing you know about someone, searching your memory for small, subtle things that you may have missed about them.

It makes you scared. It makes you think that maybe you’ve made some horrible mistakes lately. It drives you to do something, to act— only when you’re stuck on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan, you’re kind of limited in your choices of exactly what you can do to blow off steam.

I’d gone with my usual option. I was running through long tunnels filled with demons and monsters and nightmares, because it was easier than going to the gym.

The tunnels were big, the size of some of the substreets beneath the city of Chicago, their walls made of earth and stone, wound through with things that looked like roots but could not (snip)


My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

Skin GameDid you recognize Jim Butcher and his Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files ? It is the 15th in his Dresden Files series. You can assume many readers will already know of the previous books (I didn’t). Still, was this opening page compelling if you didn’t know of the precursors and had just picked it up to sample it in a bookstore?

My vote: No.

The voice is strong and clear, the writing just fine . . . but, for this reader, there wasn’t much of a story question that came from what’s happening. If, perhaps, I knew more about this character and cared for him, then the opening musings might have generated a story question or two—but I know nothing of him, and didn’t care. Otherwise, what’s happening? A man is running through a strange world as an alternative to exercising in a gym. It hints at demons and monsters and nightmares—but, especially given the musings of what’s going on in his head, how can I know whether they’re real or aspects of his mental turmoil? At this first-page-point, there’s no particular tension, no jeopardy to the character, and no compelling story question for me.

Your thoughts? Would you have turned the page?

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

    The island in the middle of Lake Michigan may have kept me reading, but only because I live in Michigan. Other than that, nothing in that opening came close to drawing me in. If my writing partner had sent it (and she’s sent something similar), I’d tell her (and did) to cut out all the introspective rambling and get to the story. I suspect, though, if you’re on book #17 in your series, you’ve got the loyal readers who know a great story is coming, so they’ll tolerate a little rambling. If this was Joe Newguy submitting his first manuscript, though…welcome to the slush pile, Joe.

    I think I meant to say “No.”
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..The Fault In Our Stars – little infinities

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  2. says

    I advise students to avoid the “character alone, thinking” opening, for the very reasons expressed here. If this were a first book or manuscript, I’d look to cut out everything until an actual scene.

    The strategy might be different for the fifteenth book in a series by a voice as good as Jim Butcher’s. Even so, I’d cheekily suggest a re-think on this opening. My choice would be start with the penultimate paragraph, which has the Dresden voice and attitude.

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  3. says

    I wouldn’t have guessed this was a Dresden novel from that first page. It was a bit introspective but I found just enough to intrigue me that I probably would have turned the page.
    Tess Makovesky´s last blog post ..My socks are blown

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  4. says

    I’m not keen on mixes of first person “I” and second person “you” narratives. Not fond of “you” narratives at all actually, although I recognize that Jay McInerney in Bright Lights Big City did it very well along with other literary talents writing in second person. For me, the “you” element is just too peculiar for fiction. Maybe because I see the “you” in cookbooks and how-to books, I shun it in fiction.

    “It haunts you … It makes you scared … It makes you think…It drives you…” None of this caught my interest in subject or in writing style.
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..Murder, Mysticism, and Shadows

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  5. says

    No, I’m among the ones who voted NO. But then, I don’t like ill-defined dark tunnels and monsters, to me, that’s all so cliché and banal.

    More the opening introspective part is not well done at all. Sure, it flows, the English is ok, but if you’re going for the introspective POV, you need to zap up the style, make is special, unique so that as a reader you
    (1) empathize immediately with the character (you tell yourself, yes, that’s the sort of questions I ask myself), and
    (2) the approach to introspection is sufficiently different from your own to intrigue you; you’re wondering what kind of person this is and you want to know more.

    Well, with this opening, it just doesn’t happen…
    Claude Nougat´s last blog post ..How to Use Instagram, the New Visual Twitter

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  6. says

    “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

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  7. says

    Ray-

    LOL.

    Well, this one challenges me to be objective. I happen to know already which is the #1 NY Times best seller this Sunday. (In 3 categories, how is that even possible?) I even know where it will be positioned on June 22nd (#2). It’s by a client of my agency so as I say objectivity is difficult.

    Objectively speaking, though, I voted yes. I don’t completely disagree with your critique or others but the strength of this series is the strength of its lead character and narrator, Harry Dresden. He’s serious and flippant, funny and full of integrity. He can’t get a date but saves the world–in every book.

    You could dismiss this opening as inactive and all voice but I think that misses the portent and gravitas that this hapless, put-upon wizard detective projects.

    Story promise? Sorry, I think it’s there (as foreshadowing) or perhaps its thematic promise. Check out this paragraph:

    “Sometimes when you wake up at night, you wonder if you’ve put your faith in the right people. Sometimes when you find yourself alone, for whatever reason, you review every little thing you know about someone, searching your memory for small, subtle things that you may have missed about them.”

    Already we know we’re in for a betrayal or a least a misjudgment on Harry’s part. By whom? How? The tone of serious self-examination tells us we’re in for something big (we are) and that’s saying something about the fifteenth book of a series that tops itself again and again.

    This worked for me, as clearly it does for more than Jim’s family and friends. And agents. Keep going. It’s worth it. #1 is #1 for a reason.

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    • says

      Hi, Donald:

      Well, yes, you seem to have a serious dog in this race. And I don’t mean to speak ill of your client. I’m happy for him and you and all the readers who embrace this series.

      But I also think you miss something: If this character is already known to readers of the series, then they will indulge all manner of navel gazing far beyond what the reader coming to this character for the first time would likely endure. He lost me by the third paragraph, at which point he’s repeating himself and belaboring the obvious.

      But god bless him and good luck to him.

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    • says

      I downloaded the first 5 books of the series when they were on sale and haven’t gotten to them yet. I honestly hope the first book starts off better than this because I was ready to toss it by this page.

      No idea whether what’s tormenting this guy is real, or in his head, and all the angsty rambling was off-putting. If I’d read a dozen books in the series, I might love this, but as a reader new to the series, I wouldn’t be tempted to finish it, let alone go back and read the others.

      And isn’t that the point of a series – to continually draw in new readers? Otherwise you’re just selling to the same people over and over again. Although I guess if you have this large of a readership, that isn’t so much of an issue.
      Debra Dunbar´s last blog post ..Longing for Our Half-Succubus?

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      • says

        You better not toss it, Debra. *angry face* The continuation of the series is for me, the loyal fan, not the new comer. I, Super-Padawan-Fanboy will make it my duty to contaminate the minds of unsuspected victims who pass by my door. I will become your friend, value you, and make you feel all warm and fuzzy, and then WHAMMO. I introduce you to the Butcher of Jim.

        That method of marketing is called, word of mouth to the tenth POWER.
        Brian B. King´s last blog post ..Don’t give me that “I’m a parent, not a friend” SHIT!

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    • says

      I was scrolling through the comments hoping someone had posted a disagreement, which was what I was feeling as I read the post. I love these analyses, Mr. Rhamey, and so often agree with you, but even before you revealed this is the latest from Jim Butcher (whom I LOVE), I was voting yes, for similar reasons to Mr. Maass–as both a reader, and with an editorial eye. Here’s why–the text followed by my comments in each graf below:

      There was a ticking time bomb inside my head and the one person I trusted to go in and get it out hadn’t shown up or spoken to me for more than a year.
      –Great hook. A ticking time bomb gives us danger and literally a ticking clock to create tension in the first line. Then there are great unanswered questions–why is the one person the protag trusts not speaking to him? There’s tension and a story there. And as a reader, I want it.

      That’s a lot of time to start asking yourself questions. Who am I? What have I done with my life?

      Who can I trust?

      That last one is a doozy. It haunts you in moments of doubt. Sometimes when you wake up at night, you wonder if you’ve put your faith in the right people. Sometimes when you find yourself alone, for whatever reason, you review every little thing you know about someone, searching your memory for small, subtle things that you may have missed about them.

      –All this is intriguing. Lots of juice, unanswered questions–I’m curious now why this character is tortured by recriminations, and it doesn’t strike me as navel gazing in this context because, thanks to the ticking time bomb in his head, I know he’s facing death. And at such moments, it’s natural to review one’s life. And that is intriguing. I’m also getting voice here, and info about the character. So far the author is skillfully juggling a lot of balls so subtly I don’t even notice.

      It makes you scared. It makes you think that maybe you’ve made some horrible mistakes lately. It drives you to do something, to act— only when you’re stuck on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan, you’re kind of limited in your choices of exactly what you can do to blow off steam.

      –Aha! “horrible mistakes”–juicy. Stuck on an island? Why? Great unanswered questions–and now we have a crucible as well–the protag is clearly trapped somewhere, unable to act on whatever it is he needs to act on. But we don’t yet know what it is, which creates further tension. Excellent.

      I’d gone with my usual option. I was running through long tunnels filled with demons and monsters and nightmares, because it was easier than going to the gym.

      –Now, that’s funny. I know more about the character now–he is a smart aleck, even in the face of death. And I’m intrigued by the paranormal element in what seemed until now to be a “realistic” story.

      Of course, every reader is different. But as a professional editor, I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that start with inert backstory or introspection–and this isn’t how they look. I find this to be a solid beginning by a sure-handed author.

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    • says

      Don, if some of what was in your response was on the first page, I might have turned it. But the exercise is to compel on the strength of the first page alone. Missing was strong stuff such as “the portent and gravitas that this hapless, put-upon wizard detective projects.”

      Perhaps there was a foreshadowing of betrayal but, without a reason to care about or root for this character, for this reader it was less than compelling, especially if there is no hint as to the consequences/stakes of betrayal.

      At my Flogging the Quill blog the polls have an additional choice: “Almost.” I would have given this an “Almost” there as I was tempted (not the same as compelled), but, as I understand how it goes when a literary agent is reading through hundreds of queries and samples, “Almost” isn’t a viable option. Is that correct?

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      • says

        Ray, in my limited experience, “ALMOST” is definitely an option for editors and agents. I revised (on spec) an almost for my first novel with Bantam/Doubleday and the editor took it. It was later a finalist for an Edgar Award. I don’t recall that anything on the first page was changed when I revised. And, to be fair to the exercise here, I’m not sure if an “almost” is an option for actually turning the first page of a manuscript. So I am probably wrong. When I look back, I think I have experienced a lot of “almosts”, though. And most of them turned out well.

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    • says

      Don, if some of what was in your response was on the first page, I might have turned it. But the exercise is to compel on the strength of the first page alone. Missing was strong stuff such as “the portent and gravitas that this hapless, put-upon wizard detective projects.”

      A wizard detective? Cool. But not on the page.

      Perhaps there was a foreshadowing of betrayal but, without a reason to care about or root for this character, for this reader it was less than compelling, especially if there is no hint as to the consequences/stakes of betrayal.

      At my Flogging the Quill blog the polls have an additional choice: “Almost.” I would have given this an “Almost” there as I was tempted (not the same as compelled), but, as I understand how it goes when a literary agent is reading through hundreds of queries and samples, “Almost” isn’t a viable option. Is that correct?

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      • says

        Sorry for the double comment. I stopped (I thought) the uploading to add something. If the first one can be removed, that would be great. Apologies.

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  8. says

    Ray–
    I’ve never heard of the Dresden Files series, so I read the quote without backstory or expectations. Perhaps, though, with a little skepticism, owing to your priming the pump by telling us the book’s a success story.
    My vote is no. The passage is so full of abstract words that it feels detached and imprecise. I might come to care about matters of betrayal, but I would first have to care about the character, which I don’t.
    Don Maass provides us with a wonderful example of how a great advocate/agent goes about doing his job. Even so, when he speaks of “the portent and gravitas that this hapless, put-upon wizard detective projects,” he is preaching to the choir of those already familiar with Butcher’s character, not to a “cold call” reader like me.

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  9. says

    I voted yes because it has an interesting voice. I want to know more about this character; I want to know how he (I presume) got into this situation.
    The switch between “you” and “I” doesn’t bother me because that’s how some (actually a lot of) people speak when they talk about themselves, so I don’t find it distracting.
    I cannot detect any cheap tricks in this opening section with which the author is trying to impress the reader, and that’s definitely a plus. I like honest, unforced writing and this seems to be that.

    Funny thing is though, the cover does not appeal to me at all. I don’t normally pick up books with a cover that tries to make guns look cool. I don’t mind guns in stories, but guns are not cool. They’re killing machines.
    Andrea van der Wilt´s last blog post ..Religion and diversity

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  10. says

    “No.” I tend to read as a writer, not as a reader. Had I been Jim Butcher I’d have written “a Lake Michigan island” rather than “an island in the middle of Lake Michigan.” Instead of writing “beneath the city of Chicago” I’d have said, “under Chicago.”

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    • says

      I’ll respectfully disagree with one of your points, Barbara. As one who lived on the shores of Lake Michigan, the idea of an island in the middle of the lake is startling–there isn’t one currently there. While there are islands in the northern part of the lake, the middle is like the ocean. So there’s a difference between “in the middle of” and simply an island somewhere.

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  11. CK Wallis says

    Wow. I’m a little nervous about commenting because I did like it and it seems everyone else doesn’t care for it. Since you all have so much writing experience I’m now wondering how good a judge I am, especially of my work.

    For what it’s worth, I liked the set-up and the introspection (and I’ve never read this series). But I want to know: who is the one person he trusts? Why haven’t they shown up for a year? What’s the time bomb in his head? Why is he on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan?

    And, I think most people can relate to the feeling of misplaced trust and how that undermines one’s self-confidence. Self-doubt is paralyzing. As people question their ability to judge situations and/or people, decision-making becomes impossible, with “what if I’m wrong again, what if I make another mistake?” playing in your head. That is a scary enough place in normal life, I can only imagine how it would feel in the dangerous world this character seems to be in. And, I am curious to know how he’s going to deal with this as the story unfolds; how will he overcome it? Will he?

    As for caring about the character, without knowing anything else about him, from the opening I know he is feeling very vulnerable, and that’s enough to get me concerned about him.

    So, again, I like the opening. I was drawn in enough to want more. From this opening, my expecatations for the rest of the story are pretty high, so my only concern would be that I might be disappointed.

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      • CK Wallis says

        Thanks, Andrea and Dave!

        I understand everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Well-informed opinions, however, are valuable. While it’s not necessary to agree with them, I think the expertise behind them should be considered. Given the number of published writers here (WU) I’m not inclined to be dismissive of their comments. Having muddled my way to about the half-way point in my first WIP, I’m still struggling to master the craft. The possibility that I’m on the wrong the track, and don’t realize it, is not all that remote.

        When I was writing my comment, there weren’t many, if any, favorable comments, so being out of step was a bit unsettling from the perspective of craft. If I had been looking at the sample from the perspective of subject/genre, I would have voted no, because it feels dark, violent, and creepy, and that would not be my usual reading choice. However, from the perspective of craft, if that’s the atmosphere the author wanted to convey, in addition to providing some compelling reasons to turn the page, he did it–in my opinion.

        I look forward to the day when my writer-self is on surer footing. As I respect and appreciate the indivdual and collective writing experience and expertise found here, I will continue to rely on WU as one of my guides to get me there.

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        • CK Wallis says

          Sorry…reply should have been to “Andrea and David”. Don’t know where the “Dave” came from.

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    • says

      CK:

      Don’t back down on your vote because of the rest of us quibblers and cranks. We all have a right to what moves us and what we enjoy, and if this works for you — one, you’re clearly not alone, and two, it’s nobody’s business but yours. Thank God we don’t all to agree on what we like or what to read.

      And there’s no hierarchy to enjoyment. We like what we like and we even have different likes at different times. Sometimes an ice cold beer is what we need. Other occasions, only a flute of Billecart-Salmon will do.

      That’s why there are horse races, as they say.

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      • says

        David–
        This is exactly what makes WU such a great site: intelligent posts, followed by comments made by neophytes, as well as experts like Ray Rhamey, yourself, James Scott Bell and Don Maass, all weighing in on a topic worth everyone’s time. It’s hard to do better than that. Thanks, Writer Unboxed.

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      • CK Wallis says

        David, thank you so much. Please see my reply to Andrea. Maybe you can you guess why I relate so well to a character full of self-doubt.

        And, of course you’re right, our tastes vary from one another and from time to time. It was just finding that I disagreed with people I respect as experts that gave me pause.

        I did find it surprising that with the vote about 50/50 there weren’t more favorable comments.

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  12. says

    All I can say is reading this post and the comments made me feel so much better. I just entered a writing contest in which 3 judges gave me very high scores and one bashed me. Who did I worry about? You know. I don’t need to tell you.

    Point is, it’s all so subjective. I would like to read this book. At least for a little while longer. I want to know about the island that isn’t really there. I like dark tunnels full of monsters and don’t consider them “banal.” What the heck is a time bomb doing in his head?

    However, I just can’t make it through a different NY Times bestseller I started recently. It’s beautifully written and had a stellar first scene. But, it’s so unbelievably dull.

    I bet half the people reading this post would love it. The other half would take a nap with me.

    Final thought: I hope someday I have a bestseller you all can flog:)
    Greta Boris´s last blog post ..A Recovery Guide for the Glutton for Punishment

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  13. says

    Also wanted to mention what a lovely, reasoned, and civilized comments section this is! A pleasure to see people disagreeing on the Internet without venom. Kudos to you, Mr. Rhamey, and to your readers.

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  14. says

    Sorry, I voted no.

    I do enough introspective throat-clearing on my own. I don’t need to pay money to listen to somebody else do it.

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  15. says

    You mentioned that we shouldn’t judge this by genre, but I wasn’t even sure what genre this was. Aside from a passing reference to an island in Lake Michigan, I had no clue where we were, who was talking, or what they were talking about.

    However, given that this is part of a series, I see this as more like reading the first page of some random chapter deep inside a book, not the first page of a stand alone book.
    James Pailly´s last blog post ..What Do the Aliens Think?

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  16. says

    Haven’t had time to weigh in on this or many blogs lately but made some time for my man, Butcher. Yes yes yes. It is Dresden and it is Butcher and it is simply excellent. He had me at the ticking timebomb in his head and the missing brain doc then he swooped in and grabbed me with the “you wonder if you put your faith in the right people.” yes, you wonder we wonder we all wonder. The demons and monster tunnel was a bit over the top but who cares? It is Dresden and it is Butcher. It would make a great beginning of a Bond movie, after the chase scene of course. I can hear Adelle singing it now… Time bomb and the head swells.

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  17. says

    Ray,

    As is unusual for me, I was conflicted during this read, knowing I was to make a choice. Faced with grey feelings, I would always vote no.

    But . . . I voted yes, because I wondered if my dislike for the genre might be overshadowing my gritted teeth at many of the points your clear No Voters make so well. I convinced myself that I would turn the page only to see if this wise cracking author would jerk out of it before I became nauseous. I knew there was no way I would make it to the end of the book. What I forgot to do was to heed your adjective in bold–compelling!

    Then of course, I felt further afflicted by the comments. Many of the posters I admire and always nod with hated it. And I was getting used to feeling a chump when Don Maass made me feel more chumpy, by agreeing with my choice. Now I’d cut myself adrift from my one strong ally. This is an untenable state of affairs.

    I think I’ll have to settle my swirling psyche with a blast of single malt and get back to work (and, no, it’s not morning here in California.)
    Tom Pope´s last blog post ..Vacuum, Tides and Cake

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  18. says

    It seems kind of boring and generic, but it has that professional your going to turn the page whether you want to or not, like a good television commercial. I’d turn the page and if it got just a little better I’d read a chapter or two. After that it would have to prove itself to be what I consider good. If I was an editor who wasn’t aware of the previous books in the series and that this guy sells, who knows? But I don’t receive a thousand submissions a day which makes me a little more generous with my time.
    David Richards´s last blog post ..Some thoughts on King and Doctor Sleep with Louis Hays somehow mixed in

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  19. Hilary says

    I voted yes.
    (My first “Yes” vote in this feature for months – usually I slam into the passage less than kindly.)

    I have never read, or even heard of, this series. Probably if I’d seen the book cover I wouldn’t have even opened it. I’m not familiar with Chicago or Lake Michigan either.

    Question – “Doozy”? What does that mean? It’s a word I’ve never heard before.

    I agree, it’s not clear how much of this character’s turmoil is real and how much is in his mind, but that was one of the unanswered questions that intrigued me.

    I agree, it’s all the character’s thoughts, not action, but recent posts on the site have discussed the importance of the protagonist having some kind of inner conflict, and NOT just writing about what happens…

    Whether I’d read the whole book, I don’t know, but I’d certainly go on to page 2.

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  20. says

    Being a huge fan of the Wizard Dresden series, I recognized the voice right away…and would have kept reading. Even if I was unfamiliar with the author, I expect reading a couple pages would have intrigued me enough to close it…and go find the first book in the series.
    Cindy Angell Keeling´s last blog post ..Sensory Enlightenment

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  21. says

    Just from the sample, I wouldn’t have continued. It was too vague. But as soon as I saw that it was the latest Dresden novel, that changed my whole perception.

    Skin Game is book 15 of a series with a continuing story arc. And Butcher has spent the last few novels establishing the nature of that ‘ticking time bomb’. That makes a huge difference in the effectiveness of the passage.

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  22. says

    I’m a Jim Butcher fan who hasn’t read Skin Game yet. It’s waiting for me on my iPad, but I’ve yet to crack the (virtual) spine. I voted yes, for a simple reason. When I read this one page, without scrolling below the fold, I knew I was reading the next Dresden novel.

    I have to vote for a writer who’s able to create such an iconic voice and weave enough story and setting elements into the first page that I know exactly where I am and who’s speaking without looking at the cover.
    Jennifer Tatroe´s last blog post ..To All The Books I’ve (Not) Revised Before

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