I’ve often muttered that, with that vast volume coming in over the transom, publishers’ editors can’t avoid falling into the habit of judging an unsolicited manuscript by its first and last sentences. These two thus become the most important in your manuscript: work on them. Of course, if you manage to catch the editor’s attention by these two hooks, you’d better have something more to back them up. It’s ever so easy to reject a book: much harder to decide that it’s good.

Here’s Michael Bourne at The Millions suggesting something similar. He proposes, and demonstrates, judging a book based on the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40. This can work, but there could of course be trouble. What if there are not five paragraphs on page 40 (the case with John Williams’ Stoner)? What if you look at different editions of the same work where page 40 differs? In the 3-volume Everyman edition of War and Peace, para. 5 on page 40 reads in its entirety “Boris did not stir: ‘Mamma, do not you want the carriage ordered to go out?’ he said, with a smile.” The Modern Library edition has “‘He’s just the same,’ answered Anna Mihalovna, ‘so affable, brimming over’.” With the Penguin Nicholas Nickleby we haven’t even got to the book by page 40: we have just reached a facsimile title page. Mathematical adjustment might take us to page 100, the fortieth in the text, where we’d find “‘Yes it is’ said Squeers, answering a nod of Ralph’s head with a nod of his own.” (Again the entire para. 5) The Heritage Press catches Mr Squeers a few paragraphs earlier in the same scene: “‘It is not for me to say so, sir’ replied Mr. Squeers, ‘but I don’t think you could possibly do a better thing.'” (Once more the entire paragraph.) Even worse might be that horrid memory of Friedrich Hebbel’s introduction to one of his plays which contains a German sentence which went on for three pages before one met with the relief of a full stop.

But with each of these quotes one might well argue that something of the flavor of the writing does come across. Squeers and Ralph nodding knowingly to one another does point to one strand of the plot, and of course demonstrates Dickens’ virtuosity in naming characters. I don’t think the War and Peace lines tell us much: but maybe one sentence from a book that size is just too little. But it shouldn’t be too surprising that an author sounds like him(her)self. Just as you can tell who wrote a piece of music you’ve never heard before just because Beethoven sounds like Beethoven, R. Strauss like R. Strauss etc. etc., so a page of William Faulkner won’t sound like Sir Walter Scott and so on.

For those who think there really is some validity to all this, there’s a game called Ex Libris, published by The British Library and the Bodleian Library. Each of the 100 cards in the supplied pack gives the title, author and a plot summary of a novel or short story. One player reads this out, and the others have to write a first and last sentence from the book, in an attempt to bluff the others into believing that their’s is the genuine script. The reader writes out the correct first and last sentences, given on the back of the card. All the attempts are mixed up and read out by the reader. Players vote for the version which they think real: the winner is the player with the most votes. We have never dared play this game: it requires some knowledgable friends to be anything other than a boring farce, and might be thought to be a bit immodest by those who’d be any good at it. But a pitch-perfect reader would have a field day with this game.

 

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