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?

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 July 13. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Would this opening page be compelling if you picked it up to sample it in a bookstore? Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Chapter 1.

This time I know it, I know it with a certainty that chokes my throat with panic, that grips and twists my heart until it’s ripped from its mooring. This time, I’m too late.

This time, it’s too hot. This time, it’s too bright, there’s too much smoke.

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window, the only part of the bedroom still available. The enemy is cornering me, daring me, Go ahead, Emmy, go for the window, Emmy—

This is my last chance, and I know, but don’t want to think about, what happens if I fail— that I have to start preparing myself for the pain. It will just hurt for a few minutes, it will be teeth-gnashing, gut-twisting agony, but then the heat will shrivel off my nerve endings and I’ll feel (snip)


My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

Did you recognize James Patterson and David Ellis and their Invisible ?

InvisibleMy vote: Yes.

I had mixed feelings about this, but the story question was strong. On the other hand, the over-dwelling in minute details in a situation that would have a normal person taking instant action was off-putting. It felt like it became labored for me. SPOILER ALERT: on the next page, I found that it was a dream. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen advice to not open with a dream—and, in almost 800 chapters submitted to my blog, Flogging the Quill, I’ve seen plenty of dream openings that flopped. This one is better, but, for my money, it would be stronger if the dream were trimmed down so that we broke out of it while we’re still on the first page. I mean, how long does it take to understand the horror of waking up in a fire—the line about nerve endings being seared off sure did it for me. We could have gone to reality right after that.

What are your thoughts on opening with a dream? How did you feel about this one?

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 hate, detest, loathe, despise books that open with dreams unless they are YA or SyFy, in which genres dreams and reality mix. I want to know something about why I am reading the novel in that opening sequence, not a contrived hook that was written to make me get the book from the display table to the checkout counter.

    I have something in common with James Patterson. We have both sold hundreds. Unfortunately, his hundreds are 100,000s and mine are individual books, so who am I to say?

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  2. says

    Bestsellers often start with dramatic action scenes, which are effective for drawing the reader in, but I guessed almost immediately that this was a dream sequence. As such, it lacks the impact of a real fire scene and is over-descriptive. Not to my taste at all. I voted No. The author’s sales figures suggest mine is a minority opinion!

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  3. Bob Greene says

    Reading the lines I surmised that this was a dream sequence which is a turn off for me. However the line about nerve endings also caused me to want to turn the page. If this were a new writer my opinion is that it would be difficult for an experienced editor to “buy into”. I did not know the author. I am a big fan of James Patterson and the success of this writing is dependent on other successes which are much more poignant. I voted a “qualified” yes and would keep reading.

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  4. says

    The opening impressed me as over dramatic and I suspected this was a dream sequence. The whole thing went too long and was over detailed to be real. In real life, who “thinks” about fire or the pain or if it’s too late to get out? Isn’t it all instinctive to get fast?

    Dreams in fiction? I think the context is what is critical. When I know that the character is dreaming, then I’m with the character because I suspect there’s something important to learn about the subconsciousness of the character, so I’m interested. But to pull it as a trick that doesn’t have any significance to the story is poor and a tactic I don’t like at all.

    My book Night Sea Journey opens with a reality scene and then a dream but you know that the character has entered the dreaming state. The whole book is about the power of supernatural dreaming so it’s appropriate to have a dream in the opening chapter. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Haunted Mind” is a dreaming/death short story and he does it magnificently.

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  5. says

    Ray-

    Worse than dream openings, for me, are turgid, hackneyed emotions.

    “…teeth-gnashing, gut-twisting agony”. Sorry, my teeth aren’t gnashing. My gut isn’t twisting. Patterson and Ellis couldn’t be bothered to come up with something more original?

    The only thing that saved this opening page for me was the line, “This time, I’m too late.” Despite the unnecessary comma, there’s was just enough intrigue in that to push me onward.

    I voted yes. Barely.

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  6. Hilary says

    I voted Yes – for me the intriguing question was “What does she mean – ‘This Time’ ?” (I agree it is over-described. But would everyone act in that situation? Don’t a lot of “normal” people freeze and do nothing in moments of crisis? And end up with a detailed snapshot memory of everything they saw?)

    Now I know it was all a dream, I assume it was a recurring nightmare. I’d guessed it was an arsonist who gets her thrills from setting fire to houses and waiting for the last minute to escape. I’d’ve turned the page to find out. I’d’ve felt VERY LET DOWN to find it was all a dream. One of the purposes of the opening page, I think, is to gain the reader’s trust, to persuade them that suspending disbelief is worthwhile. To lure the reader with a dream is a dirty trick.

    Really, I don’t think any novel should start with a dream, and actually I’d recommend against dream sequences anywhere in them except for very good reason. I can just about cope with a protagonist plagued by recurring nightmares relating to a past trauma (I guess Emmy was once nearly killed in a fire …), if the plot is about how they recover from it and have the dream less and less – but please not in the opening!

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  7. Cat Moleski says

    I voted no. I couldn’t get past the long wait for action. Who stops to think in a fire?

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  8. says

    I found this confusing. “This time” made me first think our character was a firefighter. Then when it is clear the character is in her bed, I found myself thinking it so very odd that someone would wake up with their room ablaze multiple times. So I figured it was likely a dream, which didn’t thrill me. But I voted yes because I wanted to see if she would make it out that window. I agree that there is just too much description of the fire (another indicator it is a dream since no one would just sit there and look at it that long in real life). Like Don, it was barely a yes.

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  9. says

    I voted yes, even though at first my reaction was that it was too descriptive as others have mentioned.

    I didn’t catch on to its being a dream for the same reasons Hilary (comment above mine) didn’t. I was thinking along the same lines as she was.

    I have been bothered by dreams as opening scenes and I’ve been drawn in by them and sometimes entertained by them. For me it depends on how easy it is to tell it’s a dream. If it’s fairly obvious then I’m fine with it because I figure I’m learning something about the character that I’ll need later or about the situation they are in.

    It’s annoying when you go through something really intense and “real” only to later find out it wasn’t real that I feel ripped off.

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  10. Sabre says

    I just read an interview with James Patterson where he talked about how he left out boring details that people tend to skim over, yet we see evidence of it in the first chapter. I suppose that’s the co-author’s handy work.

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  11. says

    I voted no just because it seemed all too familiar, both from other books as well as movies. I hesitate to say “cliché” because, as many cautions as one may hear on the matter, a mass of readers appears to buy into the tried and true. Cliché sells.

    Interesting, though, because for me “This time, I’m too late” was not only the clue but also the siren, the gut-wrenching, ripped from my moorings screeching that this was a dream sequence. Thus, the layered descriptions afterward felt even more detached and laborious.

    As for dream sequences in general, I think they can work but must be handled masterfully. Even if well done, gripping action that turns out to be merely a dream rarely interests me. And if the dream is idyllic, a reflection, that can be done in waking hours. A narrator doesn’t have to be asleep to share intimacies on the first page.

    My one confession, however, is I have a fondness for books that begin with a character awakening, be it gently or jarringly. I suspect I like the poetry of it. A book, after all, has its own awakening, a new world that doesn’t exist until that first word, from whence it arrives complete with a past, present and future. My first novel began with the protagonist awakening. And though my second won’t, it opens with a verbal assault, a jolt that triggers questions in the young woman and starts the ball rolling. To me, that seems a form of awakening as well.

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    • says

      Hey John-

      Want to comment on your comment…I take your point about the poetry of awakening. Done masterfully, as you say, okay.

      You wrote something that worried me, though: “Cliché sells.” Mmm. I’d say that some fiction sells *despite* its clichés, stereotypes and tropes. Ask me, every cliché erodes reader investment in a novel one tiny degree.

      Every stereotype and trope is an erosion too. If you’re going to undermine your readers’ involvement in your novel, you’d better build a bulwark around the thing in other ways.

      Patterson does, fortunately for him.

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      • says

        Thank you for your response, Donald. I agree completely.

        Unfortunately, my attempt at brevity conveyed a false impression, likely stemming from some degree of frustration. I did not mean to express an admiration for cliché, or advocate it as a means of crafting tales rooted in honest emotion, a goal for which we all strive.

        What I should have said is that I tend to avoid categorizing things I read as cliché, simply because so many overall successful works contain aspects that might be considered cliché, at least to some readers. Yet if the overall story succeeds in other ways, those elements are – and rightly should be – seen in their proper context.

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  12. says

    No. What a messy start to a novel, and an awful lot of thinking and description of surroundings for someone in a life-or-death situation, whether in a dream or in real life. Not very realistic. And why create the illusion that a character is in danger if we don’t have any idea yet who this character is? If I were the author, I’d have killed this character off just because I got annoyed with her.

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  13. says

    I liked the tension and would have happily turned the page, although I think I’d have felt a bit cheated to find that, oh look it’s all a dream after that. Why go to so much trouble to build that tension if you’re just going to dismantle it straight away?

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  14. says

    I voted no, purely for the melodramatic opening line. That was my ‘blink’ reaction. A few lines later, my no was sealed in concrete.

    This exercise is meant to be read as an anonymous excerpt, but the cover would have turned me off from wanting to know more.

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  15. says

    I’m with Mr. Maass in voting yes, but barely. I believe in a strong opening disturbance and this fits…..but then it turns out to be a dream. I always feel cheated with that move (it’s not the first time this author has done it).

    I think a dream should only be used once (if at all) somewhere in Act 2 or 3, and then only to give another picture of what’s going on inside the character. Dreams should be like flashbacks: try not to use them, but if you do, get in and get out and move on.

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  16. says

    I also voted yes, but like others, “barely” a yes. I wanted to know what happened next…and isn’t that what we’re told to do? What irks the crap out of me is that an unpublished author wouldn’t get away with this. But who said life is fair?

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  17. says

    I voted NO.

    I like James Patterson, but didn’t recognize this as him, probably because of the co-writer.

    I would have stopped reading even sooner, because I really didn’t like to tone of this, to me it felt simple and childish. Too much repetition and slow, considering what was going on. I thought it felt like a middle-grade or YA story.

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  18. says

    I sensed it was a dream about halfway through, and thought it was over-written, but I suppose my morbid curiosity of whether she survived or not cause me to vote a qualified yes.

    One of my biggest pet peeves happened in the first paragraph:overuse of the word “it.” I gave that faux pas a pass since I knew this was a bestselling book, but if an unpublished author had submitted this first page, I would have assumed the rest of the work would be rife with that sort of weak writing.

    Amazing how merely being told the example was written by a best -selling author tilts one’s bias toward accepting mediocrity. :-)

    Chris

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  19. says

    I always read these floggings when barely awake, and if they keep my bleary eyes open, then it’s a “yes.” I found these story questions compelling enough–the feeling that this has happened before, and the shadowy “enemy,” who is taunting Emma to take the window escape. I voted yes.

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  20. says

    Vote No. I thought the opening was a bit manipulative, that the author was trying to hard to suck me in. I prefer to know something about the character before I care about the disaster they’re going through. And then to find out that it’s only a dream anyway… forget it.

    That said…

    Are most of the comments here made by authors? The more I read the critiques of author’s the more I realize that we are, to a degree, in our own little worlds. By that I mean, we look at writings differently than readers. We tend to go by the rules, advice and guidelines that we’ve been taught. True, a lot of those “rules” are valid, but at the same time readers aren’t necessarily aware of them. Most readers probably don’t know the rule about not starting with a dream. Recently, I picked up a best seller that was made into a hit movie, and it started with a dream. I thought, “How can the author get away with that?” (It was a first time author, to boot). I guess they got away with it because their audience doesn’t have a fixed idea that you can’t start with a dream. Go figure.

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    • says

      Valko, I think you are absolutely correct. While we are all readers, we’re also busy composing narratives and have absorbed lots of do-and-don’t advice. I’ve had writers who visit my blog as beta readers for some of my novels, and sometimes they react as editors who would prefer it be written their way and not readers who get involved in the story. The comments are always helpful in a sense, but sometimes not terribly useful, either. I think the reader reviews I get on Amazon come a lot closer to reflecting a book’s value to a reader. Thanks for your insight.

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      • Mike Kilian says

        Hey Ray,

        The thing that makes your response to valco disconcerting is that there is an alternative. What if e-publishing gains more traction and gets better organized. Your novel goes directly to the readers with only the polishing and marketing that you are willing to do.

        The people I know who are involved with it are highly motivated and energetic about that route to publishing, but I hate the idea.

        I want the experience of having a real publisher point it’s bony finger at my baby and say, “We want to pay you for that!” Please tell me that will never go away.

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        • says

          Mike, I don’t understand why you found my response to valco “disconcerting.” If it has something to do with the growth of epublishing, then the flogging challenge remains the same–the opening page need to be compelling. It doesn’t matter which route a book takes to publication.

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    • says

      You might have a point, though the fact that this novel starts with a dream wasn’t what bothered me. For me it was the mess that didn’t make much sense and a character that managed to annoy me from the start.

      That said, I think those “rules” of writing only apply to instances when people disobey them badly. I believe you can start with a dream if you do it properly, like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. (Plus she makes it clear in the first sentence) And as for clichés, in fantasy for example, nearly everything has been done, so people often scream ‘cliché’ when they find a certain element in a novel that’s been used many times before, say the master-apprentice relationship. But such a novel can still be a good story if done well. Clichés are only clichés when done badly, when used superficially.
      Rules for writing are great when you start out as a writer, but I think at some point you should let go and look at what the story needs.

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  21. says

    Didn’t get me. Too gushy, too much effort for my taste.
    But it’s on the bookshelf and is a best seller, so there must be people out there who like this, and I’m sure the team that marketed this book knows that. I guess I’m just not one of them.

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    • says

      I think the “Patterson” name on the cover in the marketplace has everything to do with this book’s appeal and not the first page. I don’t think a new author would have a lot of luck with it.

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  22. says

    Ray–thanks a bunch for this.

    Quick, before he spontaneously combusts, throw a bucket of water on the writer! “Gropes my throat with panic,” “grips and twists my heart…”
    This snippet provides further proof of two things: first, that what Don Maass has famously called “freight-class” writing is by no means limited to self-published books (unless what he means by “freight-class” refers only to commercial duds); and that the general reader enjoys being manipulated by cheap tricks, or doesn’t know when it’s happening.
    Patterson is no fool, and knows this. He freely acknowledges that his concerns are strictly commercial, has used his advertising background to good advantage, and never looks back. Those who share his values no doubt consider him a folk hero.
    As for voting yes or no to turning the page, the passage makes me think of a Generation Xer being asked whether he plans to vote. “Why bother?”

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  23. says

    This was so over-written I cringed, skipped whole sentences. It reads like it was written by a beginner. And a DREAM? Give me a break. I definitely gave it a “no,” and would put it back onto the shelf, NOT take it to the cash register. Yikes. (Makes me feel better about my own writing. . . ;-})

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  24. Anjali Amit says

    I remember a jingle from very long ago:

    Between a woman’s yes and no
    There is not room for a pin to go.

    I know, I know. In these very gender conscious, PC times (and I a woman, how could I quote that…).

    My point is that the author whose book is out there already does not know the difference between a ‘barely’ and a ‘resounding’ or just a regular yes. Every yes that leads us to the cash register has the author laughing all the way to the bank.

    Cliches rule

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  25. Ronda Roaring says

    I will start by saying what I’ve said in the past, there is just something about Patterson’s writing that doesn’t appeal to me. So, I voted no. However, I will add that, based on many things that probably relate to the fact that I have an MA in communications, I could tell immediately that the piece was written by a man. When I saw that the main character was a woman, I felt that the entire piece was off kilter. Most women simply don’t talk or think like that.

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    • Mike Kilian says

      Hey Ronda,

      Interested in more details about your observation concerning the gender of the character.

      I don’t have any special knowledge concerning the subject, but for some reason, my first thought was that we were being set up by the name “Emmy,” that it would turn out Emmy was actually male.

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  26. says

    I was into it until the word “putrid” threw me out of the story. Putrid refers to a decomposing body or similar foul smells. Acrid is the word for the smell of the black smoke of a house fire.

    Then I started to notice what others have mentioned, like the melodramatic descriptions, and spending too much time pondering instead of reacting. I didn’t clue in to it being a dream sequence, but I was losing interest anyway.

    On the other hand, the references to “this time” intrigued me.

    I’d have to give it a definite maybe. I’d probably try another page or two before putting it down.

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  27. Mike Kilian says

    When I voted and saw how many no votes there were I was shocked.

    Quibble if you will about the over-dramatic first line, but what would you think if you woke up with your bed surrounded by fire.

    Anyway, it was the second paragraph that got me. Maybe I just liked the style. The minute detail is something that’s pulled off everyday by countless authors. Time slows down in a crisis, has been used ever since I first started reading. It didn’t bother me.

    Oh, “putrid” made me stop also. I always think of dead things with flies buzzing around. But it didn’t overcome the strong story question.

    But when Ray revealed that the answer to the story question was that it was just a freakin’ dream, I wanted to change my vote.

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  28. says

    I voted no. The detail mired me down into “who cares” mode. I didn’t know enough about the protagonist to care whether it was dream sequence or reality. It felt like the writer was in love with the words and trying too hard.

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  29. says

    I was deep in “meh” land. I didn’t care what happened to her.

    I guess I have to connect with the character first before anything happens to them. It’s hard for me to do that when a book begins with action.

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  30. CK Wallis says

    Like most of the others commenting, I was a reluctant “yes” vote. And, like many of the other writers, early on I was pretty sure it was a dream and that was the main reason for turning the page, to see whether or not I was right.

    I also agree with Donald Mass, zeroing-in on the same phrase, “…teeth-gnashing, gut-twisting agony”. When I read writing like this in bestselling books, my self-confidence unravels a bit as I wonder why I’m working so hard to be original and doubting how much I really understand about this writing business.

    However, I disagree with the writers who didn’t find it plausible that someone in a life-or-death situation would be so aware and doing so much thinking about it.

    About 30 years ago I hit a patch of black ice while driving on a winding mountain highway and lost complete control of my car. The right-hand side of the road dropped off a steep hill down to railroad tracks and a river, and on the left was forest and huge rock outcrops. What I found most amazing after the incident were the number of things that went through my mind in the space of three or four seconds, and how vivid every detail of the interior of the car became during that time: one minute there were two open bags of candy (M&Ms and Twizzlers) on the dash, a pile of loose papers in the passenger seat, and groceries in the back, and the next they were suspended in mid-air, floating around my head; the glove box popped open when my purse hit it; I knew the jar of dill pickles broke because I could smell them, and for a moment was annoyed because I knew the car was a mess; I wondered how cold and deep the water was and if I would be able to get out before I froze or drowned, or, if the car rolled down the hill to the railroad tracks, would anyone see me? I knew that if the car spun to the other side of the road I wanted to crash into the trees and not the rocks. I wondered who would pick my son up after school. I wondered how much longer the spinning would last, and there was a split-second when I suddenly didn’t care if I died–I was so scared, I just wanted it over. All of this, and more, went zinging around my brain in just a few seconds.

    I ended up on the left side of the road, the back end smunched into a fat tree trunk; the hatch wouldn’t open and one tail light was cracked, but both still worked. I was stunned when a half-dozen people appeared asking if I was okay–I would have sworn I was alone on that road. It took about fifteen minutes for me to stop shaking enough to try driving; the car started right up, and with a push from a couple of the guys who stopped to help, I got the car back on the road and drove home. My life hadn’t flashed before my eyes, but for those few seconds I had a riveting awarness of every object in the car, and every thought and feeling in me.

    So, yes, if it hadn’t been a dream, I would have found Patterson’s first-person recounting of being caught in a fire entirely plausible.

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  31. says

    I voted no. Too many clichés, too much description, too slow for what is supposed to be an emergency. Then, you realize it’s a dream and that makes it totally pointless. A dream makes sense only once you know the character – not before.

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