The Peekby Charles Brownson
Probably you have noticed how quickly you can make up your mind whether or not to read a book. Last month I wrote here about cover design, which is one of the main elements in the decision to look further into an unknown book — to pick it off the shelf in a bookstore or a library (especially the new book displays in public libraries) and, increasingly, to extract it from the mass of books online. Online, before you ever get to the cover, you have sorted this mass by tag, title, author’s name, price (free, perhaps) and other criteria which you, the author, may or may not be able to control. But once the reader’s curiosity has led him or her to your book, there is one thing you can control absolutely, and that is first impressions.
It’s likely that nearly every reader will open a new book to the first page. And on that page, almost involuntarily, he or she will read the first sentence. (I am writing here of fiction. Academic readers might turn first to the index or bibliography, or readers of memoirs to the pictures.) The first sentence leads into the first paragraph, and at that point the matter is settled. Either the reader is intrigued and riffles through other parts of the book, perhaps decides straightaway to buy it, or sets it back on the shelf.
It is often said that acquisitions editors, agents, and other professional readers will decide within some number of pages – usually appallingly few – whether or not to give a book any further attention. The prospective buyer quite often does not give that much attention. He or she peeks inside, reads perhaps 10 words, or maybe as many as 100, and the matter is settled.
How does this work? A lot of people in the book business will insist on a grabber — a striking image or expression, something that tells the reader at once what the book is about, something that plunges the reader directly into the life of the book. Let’s look at the first sentences of some well-known novels.
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would do it herself.”
— Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”
— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
“Call me Ishmael.”
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead,
bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
— James Joyce, Ulysses
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the “Admiral Benbow” inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
Woolf, by the way, took two weeks to come up with her opening sentence. Hemingway is equally laconic, and Melville even more so, though Ishmael’s self-introduction has some interesting features. He doesn’t say his name is Ishmael, only that he is to be called so. He doesn’t ask politely (You may call me Ishmael) as would a character in an Austen novel. Dickens is striking, but perhaps a bit mannered. The opening of Treasure Island is impossibly wordy and gives no hint of adventure until we get to the old seaman with the sabre cut. All in all, the best of them, according to conventional advice, is Ulysses, which may surprise people who don’t think of Joyce as a bang-up storyteller.
How do these sentences do their work? The truth is, we don’t know. The only thing which is apparent is that the conventional advice is wrong. Or at least, inadequate. But one thing can be said. Your second sentence had better deliver on the promise of the first. And likewise for the second page. If the reader begins to feel he has been cheated, that’s the end of the book for him, and possibly of you, as well.
What lessons can we learn from this?
It’s the peek that sells the book, not the cover or the undying prose or the unstoppable action or the shocking, original plot. Selling the book has little to do with its being a good book..
And, there are no rules.
Charles Brownson is a novelist and book artist. He has an MFA from the University of Oregon and has taught beginning writers on occasion. He is also a (retired) librarian with a longstanding interest in the book trade, the history of publishing, popular readership, bibliometrics, and similar subjects. Charles Brownson’s website is ocotilloarts.com where his books can be seen and purchased. Read his blog at ocotilloarts.com/blog.