First pages that grab: Divided States, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Jennifer Sinclair Johnson


Yes, it’s been a lengthy process, campers, but today, at long last, I shall begin presenting you with the winning entries in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. For the rest of this week, I am delighted to be sharing with you the winning entries in Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir.

And if you’re not careful, as the pundit Fat Albert used to say, you might learn something before it’s done.

Why start with Category II, you ask, instead of the more numerically logical Category I? Well, Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the HarperCollins’ new YA release, Whisper will be joining me after Labor Day to give feedback on the Category I: YA entries. We have some surprises in store that I hope will be worth another few days’ wait.

Let’s concentrate on the now, though, and Jennifer Sinclair Johnson’s winning first page, the opening to a manuscript she described for the judges thus:

What if Dorothy landed in Hollywood instead of Oz? DIVIDED STATES spins a new twist on Cozy Mysteries as a Midwestern insurance adjuster arrives, finding her coworker in earthquake rubble. Navigating natural disaster and local rules with more cracks than sun-baked Nebraska clay, she brings fresh perspective to light.

First off, kudos to Jennifer for winning not only the Grand Prize for Adult Fiction in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, but also this year’s Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence. For those of you who missed the initial contest announcement, I had decreed that the contest would have two levels: a straightforward competition for the most intriguing opening page for a manuscript, and an optional award level, if the judges felt that Grand Prize in the former was not sufficient to record their reactions to an entry.

I’m delighted to report that the judges required this extra outlet for their feelings not once, but four times in this contest. You shall see why in the days to come.

Jennifer’s was the Adult Fiction entry that elicited the more enthusiastic plaudits from the judges. Before I tell you why, let’s take a gander at what made them cheer until the rafters resounded. (If you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key while hitting +.)

Divided States page 1

The writing here is good, of course, crammed to the gills with telling details, but as we know from our summer of craft, there’s more to creating a great first page than collecting a series of strong, well-constructed sentences. In order to grab the reader — particularly a professional one like a contest judge or our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — a fiction first page needs to present the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation.

Check. What else renders this first page so compelling?

If that question leaves you a trifle stumped, you’re not alone. Most aspiring writers know what they like, but have only a vague notion of what makes a first page compelling, marketable, accessible, and/or grabbing. There’s an excellent reason for that, of course: unlike professional readers, who read thousands upon thousands of page 1s in any given year, the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers have never read any manuscript’s first page but their own.

Or, at best, a writer friend’s. It’s not likely, in short, to be an impartial reading. While active members in a regularly-meeting critique group gain more exposure to the possible range of openings, participation in such groups is rarer than one might think.

But how is the isolated aspiring writer to learn what works on page 1? Typically, the average writer’s conception of what a good opening is comes from precisely the same source as any other readers’: what he’s seen in published books. As we have discussed, though, what an established writer can get away with on page 1 and what someone trying to break into the biz could slip past Millicent are often quite different things. Ditto with what might have caught an agent’s eye 5 or 10 years ago vs. now.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, we have been spending so much time this summer concentrating on first page revision. I’ve been trying to move your conception of what makes a strong opening beyond a simple combination of what you like and what you have seen authors you respect do; all of these posts have been attempting to help you read more like a professional.

So let’s go ahead and turn to the pros for advice on how to assess today’s page 1. Specifically, let’s recall from last time the agent-generated list of qualities they like to see in a first page. How well do you think the example above meets these criteria?

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
Oh, do you see many stories about insurance adjusters newly transplanted to earthquake zones? Admittedly, it is not immediately apparent here whether our narrator is a man or a woman, but there isn’t much doubt that s/he is interesting, is there?

As we have discussed, as well as slice-of-life writing can work in short stories, plays, and novellas, it’s difficult to grab a novel reader — particularly a professional one like Millicent — on page 1 with a protagonist who is aggressively ordinary. A savvy writer is usually better off emphasizing what is unusual about his characters in an opening scene.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
This isn’t an action scene, so this one is not applicable. Remember, not all of these criteria will work for every opening.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.
In many first-person narratives, the self-analysis in page 1 would have extended for the rest of the page, if not beyond. Here, Jennifer has been quite restrained, moving the reader swiftly out of the protagonist’s head and into observation of the environment. That well-handled pacing will prevent Millicent from feeling that the story isn’t beginning fast enough.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
This lies largely in the eye of the beholder, of course. Perhaps a better way to approach this issue: based on this first page alone, do you want to read the rest of this book?

The judges did, unanimously. And if a quick scan of page 1 does not seem like an entirely fair basis for making a determination on an entire manuscript, bear in mind that Millicent often reads less than that before making up her mind.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.
Again, this is quite subjective, but the judges found this narrative voice quite likable. With a protagonist engaged in a work project on page 1, it would have been very easy to load the narrative voice down with industry-specific jargon. Jennifer has steered clear of that danger, offering us instead a narrator who seems swept up in the details of the beauty of her new environment.

The only sentence that gave any of the judges pause on a voice level was The earthquake that hit Hollywood with the bang of a summer blockbuster’s opening had cast me into new territory. Opinions were divided over whether using Hollywood and cast so close together was intended as a pun based on the double meaning of cast (to throw/to be given a part in a play or movie). Since the pun, if intentional, was not very funny, the judges expressed the hope that the word choice would be reexamined.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
This is a subtle one. It’s clear that something is about to happen here, isn’t it? The reader isn’t sure what, but the suspense is palpable.

Again, some of the judges had a quibble with one of the sentences: After the way my new boss had sent me to the property before my flight finished taxiing along the tarmac, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find destruction akin to the aftermath of Armageddon. The ending image is strong, but the reader has to interpolate some action in order to make the first part make sense: since airline passengers are currently not allowed to use cell phones while the plane is in the air, and there’s no indication that the story is not taking place in the present, the narrator must have turned on her phone as soon as allowed, after the plane touched down.

So did her boss call her the second she powered up the phone? That would be the only way that the timing of his having issued the order could have conveyed urgency all by itself, but the narrative is in such a hurry (understandable, on a first page) that it leaves the reader to fill in the blanks.

Amid those blanks lies a logical question: how did he know that she had just turned it on? Is he psychic? Or — and this seems substantially more likely — had he been calling every five minutes since he thought her plane could possibly have landed? That in turn begs another question: did he call her, or did she turn on the phone, hear his 47 messages, and call him right away?

Yes, that is a whole lot of questions to have about a single event, now that you mention it. But that’s not an uncommon reaction to a page 1 where the narrative has left out logical steps in the interests of streamlining. Frankly, from a professional reader’s perspective, both that paragraph and that joke would have worked better if it hadn’t all been crammed into a single sentence.

That’s a small quibble, however, one likely too tiny to put off most Millicents. Even the judges who made it recognized that.

7. “Good opening line.”
Professional readers are notoriously fond of first sentences that contain some element of paradox. This opener does not disappoint.

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”
Well? Did you think there was?

What is the benefit of presenting a layered reality over a completely straightforward one, when clarity is also so highly valuable on page 1? Simply put, a narrative that implies that there’s more going on that immediately meets the eye is a better reflector of reality. The protagonist appears to be inhabiting an actual world, rather than just a tale.

As fine as all of those criteria are for evaluating a first page, the judges in our contest were looking for a bit more. For instance, in a submission, as we have discussed, it’s vital to give some indication from the very top of page 1 what the book is about. Based on Jennifer’s opening, would you or would you not expect some intrigue to arise from the earthquake site her narrator’s boss is so eager to get her to see?

How did we judges know whether this was representative of the rest of the book? Advance thought, my dears: as some of you may perhaps recall, one of the contest requirements was a brief teaser, indicating the subject matter, book category, and what the manuscript to follow would add to the current offerings in that category. Here’s what Jennifer told us:

What if Dorothy landed in Hollywood instead of Oz? DIVIDED STATES spins a new twist on Cozy Mysteries as a Midwestern insurance adjuster arrives in Los Angeles to find her coworker lying unconscious in earthquake rubble. Navigating natural disaster and local rules with more cracks than sun-baked Nebraska clay, she brings fresh perspective to light.

Quite a close match with the opening, isn’t it? Millicent would appreciate that. So did the judges: all of them commented on how beautifully this page 1 fulfilled the promise Jennifer had made in the book’s description.

I can already sense literal-minded readers thinking about raising their hands. “But Anne,” these detail-oriented souls point out, “the protagonist doesn’t discover her coworker in the rubble on page 1, nor do we hear much about the differences between Nebraska and Los Angeles. So in what sense does her page 1 fulfill the promise of the description?”

Glad you asked, literal-minded ones; aspiring writers often confuse the imperative to let Millicent know right away what the book with an expectation that page 1 would be crammed with backstory. Usually, though, backstory-heavy openings are slow — your garden variety NYC-based Millie tends to prefer manuscripts that open with conflict (or at least the potential for it), with the backstory filled in later.

Jennifer’s page 1 contains several different species of conflict — we learn right away that her protagonist is a fish out of water, coming into an inherently dangerous situation with an already-tense boss breathing down her neck. Furthermore, it appears that the last person sent to do her job ran into some serious difficulties. That’s a pretty rich set of possibilities for a single page of text, no? But rather than stop the action short to explain what precisely happened to her predecessor that necessitated flying our heroine out from Nebraska, the reader gets to figure out the situation along with the narrator.

Thus, how this page fulfills the promise of the premise is not by resolving all of the questions it raises on page 1, but by (a) giving the protagonist hints about what the conflicts in store for her are and (b) doing so in a manner that allows the readers to speculate — yes, even by the bottom of page 1 — how she is going to be drawn into those conflicts-to-come.

Of course, as the organizer of this contest, I enjoy a considerable advantage in anticipating those conflicts. I had the power to ask for a longer description of the book:

Divided States description

The judges were also looking for page 1 to present a narrative voice appropriate to the intended target audience. Here, Jennifer is showing us a very literate, likable, thoughtful voice, appropriate for a high-end cozy mystery or women’s fiction.

Wisely, she has not designated this voice as literary fiction, as many aspiring writers would have done: it’s an excellent example of well-written genre fiction. Rather than trying to pitch the book on the writing alone, though, she has made the market-savvy choice of categorizing her manuscript by its subject matter.

The hyper-literal have raised their hands again, have they not? “But Anne, are you saying that the judges — or, even worse, Millicent — would have liked this page less had it been categorized as literary fiction? To my admittedly less experienced eye, the writing has literary sensibilities.”

In a word, yes. In several words, that’s to be expected, isn’t it?

Miscategorized submissions are, after all, among the easiest for Millicent to reject. As we have discussed many times before, no agent (or editor, or publishing house, or even most contests) handles every conceivable kind of writing. They specialize.

So when Millicent is confronted with even a very well-written submission that does not seem to fit comfortably into a book category that her boss represents, it just doesn’t make sense for her to keep reading once she’s determined it’s not something her agency is going to pick up. Even if she positively loves it, she is not in a position to help that book come to successful publication.

She has only one option, unfortunately: “Next!”

Starting to gain a better sense of what kind of first pages don’t provoke that response? If not, don’t despair — you’re going to get quite a bit of practice over the next week or two, as we continue to go over contest winner’s first pages. Except for the days during which we shall be taking a brief-but-content-heavy detour for Querypalooza, of course.

Lots of action in store at Author! Author! Tune in tomorrow for more first page high jinks.

Well done, Jennifer — and as always, everybody, keep up the good work!

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