Surfing social media a few weeks ago, I came across a reference to an article from Penguin Random House, one of the Big 5 worldwide publishers called “What Our Editors Look for on an Opening Page.”
It was advice for writers who wanted to have their manuscripts published by a big commercial publisher like one of Penguin Random House’s imprints. But rather than advice, it’s really just reinforcing the narrative that the big publishing houses put out good books — when the truth is that they don’t take chances on good books from new authors. As proof, let’s look at the opening pages of the latest releases from Penguin.
Let’s look at what they say they look for in a manuscript from a new writer
1. “A powerful opener”
is the most important thing, because it’s the first thing that editors see. If the opening doesn’t grab them, they’ll move onto the next submission in the slush pile.
For example, consider Robert B. Parker’s The Devil Wins. It was published last year by G.P Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Group, which is a subsidiary of Penguin Random House:
Jesse Stone no longer felt adrift. No longer a man caught between two coasts, he had finally left his days as an L.A. homicide detective behind him. If not his private shame at how his life had gone to hell. He was chief of police in Paradise, Mass. This was his town now. Yet there were still some things about the East Coast and the Atlantic he had never gotten used to and wasn’t sure he ever would. Nor’easters, for one. He found the brooding, slate-gray clouds and rolling tides a little unnerving. These late-fall or winter storms seemed to blow up out of spite, raking across whole swaths of New England or the Mid-Atlantic, leaving nothing but pain their wake.
As was his habit, he drove through the darkened streets of Paradise in his old Ford Explorer before heading home. He wanted to get a few hours’ sleep before going back to work. Maybe a drink, too. The storm wasn’t supposed to make landfall until about midnight, but the winds were bending trees back against their will, sleet already pelting his windshield. Jesse shook his head thinking about that. About how storms in the east warned you they were coming. About how they told you when they were coming and then kicked your ass.
Sorry, this doesn’t count as powerful. It’s an info dump, paragraphs of back story — exactly the kind of opening all the advice blogs and creative writing courses tell you not to write. Get to the story.
For all you writers out there, this opening breaks one of Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules: “Never start with the weather.”
Of course, The Devil Wins was not written by Robert Parker, who died in 2010. Reed Farrel Coleman, a successful mystery novelist in his own right, won the contract to continue the Jesse Stone series.
Speaking of information dumps, consider the opening of the newest volume in the Boys of Fall teen romance series by Shannon Stacey, published by Jove, another Penguin imprint.
Sitting in a hospital waiting room with a pack of scared and sweaty teenage boys while wearing a little black dress and high heels wasn’t Jen’s idea of a fun Friday night.
Nothing could have dragged her out of there, though. Not even the promise of flip-flops and her favorite yoga pants. The police officer leaning against the wall and staring at the ceiling was Kelly McDonnell, one of her best friends. Kelly had been the first to arrive when the 911 call came in from football practice. Kelly’s dad—Coach McDonnell—had collapsed on the high school’s field and they were afraid he was having a heart attack.
When Kelly called her from the emergency room, Jen had been in her car on her way to a second date with the first guy in a long time who actually had potential to make her forget the man she spent too much time thinking about, but she hadn’t even hesitated before cancelling. Kelly needed her.
That’s a lot of data crammed into three paragraphs, and there’s been no action, yet. Just a girl in a party dress, sitting in a hospital waiting room.
2. Unique perspective – ““What is one thing this book does better than any other book?”
Consider The Madmen of Benghazi, by Gérard de Villiers.
Ibrahim al-Senussi was stark naked when he stepped out of the shower, and he stopped dead at his bedroom door. Cynthia was sitting on the edge of the big bed, making a call on her cell phone. That wasn’t sexy in itself, but between the lapels of the young woman’s Chanel suit—his birthday present to her—he could see her nipples straining against the raw-silk blouse.
Cynthia’s shapely legs were bare from her upper thigh to her tawny, very high-heeled boots. The length of her skirt had once been quite proper—until she had the hem raised.
Al-Senussi felt the blood rushing to his crotch.
This does not do anything better than thousands of other books out there. In fact, it’s just plain bad writing. Who isn’t stark naked when they step out of the shower, other than drunks?
3. Attention-Grabbing Characters
Consider the opening of Danielle Steel’s Rushing Waters, published August 30, 2016:
Ellen Wharton was pensive as she studied the clothes she had hung on a rolling rack, and the folded items she had laid out on the bed for her trip to New York. Organized, impeccable, meticulous, she was a woman who planned everything and left nothing to chance—her business, her menus, her wardrobe, her social life. She was consummately careful and precise about everything she did. It made for a smooth, order life, with few surprises, but also very little opportunity for things to go awry. She had been planning this trip to New York since June, as she did every year, to see her mother. She also went on Thanksgiving every other year, and she usually went once in spring. She intended to do some shopping for two of her clients, and she had an additional purpose to her trip this time.
Ellen ran a successful interior design business, with three assistants, a color specialist, and clients in several cities in Europe who loved her work. She created beautiful environments for them …
For decades, Danielle Steele has been on bestseller lists with title after title. She’s popular. But that opening does not portray an attention-grabbing character. She strikes me like any number of uptight business people who think they can control the universe.
This opening also breaks a rule from all the creative writing classes: “Show me, don’t tell me.” If I submitted this to an editor, I’d be told to describe how she carefully folded every item of clothing, how she entered appointments into her daytimer, how she checked her airline tickets for Thanksgiving. But Danielle Steele has enough bestsellers behind her, and enough of a fan base to write whatever she damn well wants.
But they sell
Yes, they do. The success of these books supports arguments I have been making for years:
- The accepted tropes of creative writing classes do not translate into sales. Readers don’t care about Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Only writers and editors do.
- Commercial publishers do not necessarily publish quality fiction.
“But you can’t blame a commercial business for making money.”
I don’t. What I blame the commercial publishing industry for is their snobbish pretense that only they can produce quality prose. And for not pushing for better, fresher, more innovative fiction and non-fiction. And for contracting a writer to continue a dead writer’s series, instead of publishing that living writer’s original work.
Some of the Big 5’s titles are examples of great writing. The Girl on the Train is a timely example. But some of the most innovative and gripping work is published by individual, independent, self-publishing authors.
What I want you to do
Don’t settle for commercial quality. If you like good books, look down the lists for independent authors. And if you want to find some of the best, check out these two independent authors’ groups:
And tell me what you think of the books on those sites.