675 beautiful first pages stand before me.
675 first pages who were fierce and who made it work and who cried whenever I asked them tough questions, because that is the best way of advancing in America’s Next Top Model I mean Surprisingly Essential First Page. But only six can continue on in the hopes of becoming America’s Next Top Surprisingly Essential First Page.
But first, let’s review the prizes. The winner of America’s Next Top Surprisingly Essential First Page will win a photo spread in Publishers Weekly with legendary fashion photographer Gilles Bensimon, a $0 cash prize to start their modeling career, and their choice of a query critique, partial critique, 10 minute phone conversation, or one of my clients’ books. Runners-up will receive a query critique or other agreed-upon prize.
You all know our judges, uh, me, and living legend and blogging icon Holly Burns, author of the blog Nothing But Bonfires.
But I only have six photos in my hand. These six photos include two finalists that appeared on both of the judges’ list of favorites, two choices from Holly, and two choices from Nathan. These six photos represent the six who will continue on in the hopes of becoming America’s Next Top Surprisingly Essential First Page.
In no particular order, the first name I’m going to call… is Julianne Douglas.
Julianne, the judges were impressed by the sense of atmosphere and the flow of the conversation. Here is your Surprisingly Essential First Page:
Still Life with Flowers (Women’s fiction)
The afternoon sun sliced the room like scissors through cellophane and exploded against the laminated flipchart in a blast of white light. Elaine shielded her face with an out-turned palm. “The slats,” she interrupted. “Excuse me, Mr. Severson. The slats.” She jerked herself to her feet. Wadded tissues tumbled from her purse like confused sheep. She herded them under the chair with her toe and navigated around the artificial ficus to the window. The room smelled fusty, like last week’s forgotten bagel. She muted the glare with a twist of the dowel, then reached beneath the blinds to raise the sash. Cool air rushed in; she forced a deep breath. The slats clattered into place as she dragged herself back to her chair. “I couldn’t see, Peter.” Over by the door, her husband grunted.
Cars whisked by on Trindle Road. The noise was louder now with the window open. Flashes from passing fenders raked the fuzzy dimness of the ceiling. A steady stream of commuters rushed home to let out their dogs. Defrost pork chops. Hug their kids. Elaine swallowed hard and tried to concentrate on the reedy voice of the man behind the mahogany desk.
“These are our most popular arrangements.” Mr. Severson propped the spiral-bound catalogue upright against his forearm. “Typically, in a closed-casket service, a large floral spray covers the lid. Two matching wreaths flank the casket. An urn decorates the foot of the altar.” His free hand tapped the mock-up with a pen as he listed each element.
She focused on the picture with puzzled fascination. “Lilies.”
“Yes, Mrs. McArdle.” Mr. Severson lowered the book to flip a page. He raised it again, this time displaying a checkerboard of smaller shots. “As you can see, all of our arrangements feature white lilies. Lilies symbolize purity, eternal life. People expect to see them at Christian funerals.” He scratched the side of his nose with the pen.
“I did a painting of lilies once. I’m a painter, you know.” She fumbled for a tissue. “Five white lilies in a golden vase. One for each of Christ’s wounds, though I doubt many people understood the symbolism. Hardly anyone does anymore.” Mr. Severson smiled blandly and glanced at Peter, who, arms crossed in front of his chest, leaned against the wall and examined the weave of the carpet.
Severson sighed. “Of course they do, Mrs. McArdle. Of course they do.” His voice caressed her with well-practiced compassion. “Especially in the case of lilies.” He cleared his throat gently. “Now, there are other options to choose from besides the standard four-piece package. For example, the front pews can be draped with garlands. . .” He ruffled the book, searching for an example.
“It was a difficult painting. Especially the reflections.” Elaine frowned, recalling how hard it had been to capture white on gold. “I never did get it quite right.”
The second name I’m going to call… is Kari.
Kari, the judges were impressed with the sense of style you brought to this first page, and you nailed the dialogue, which is both evocative and worked perfectly with the rest of the page. Here is your surprisingly essential first page:
He did not remember her as beautiful and did not find her particularly so that evening.
Every man at the party would have said the same, would have sworn that their wives and mistresses and secretaries were far lovelier, that they passed twenty women on the street each morning who were more pleasing to the eye. They would have claimed, with little prodding, that she measured just an inch too short, just a year too old, just a hair too wide, and that it was not one but all of these features together that subtracted “beauty” from the perfunctory sum of assets they might otherwise settle on a woman. They did not know her, or know why she was in attendance or which of their hosts might have invited her. No fanfare announced her arrival and she did not directly precede or follow any notable luminaries, so the men could not say with any certainty why—when scores of prettier women wandered in their midst—they each had turned to watch her as she entered the ballroom, only that she seemed to expect it, as though she had lived her whole life in a crowd and it was simply her nature to be appealing. Nor could they explain why their eyes continued to follow her as she weaved her way through them, whether it was the silk of her scarlet gown fluttering around their ankles or the scent of fresh gardenias that made their palms grow damp. Those who stood close enough to brush against her longed to reach out and release her hair from its complicated arrangement, to watch the dark waves tumble to her shoulders in the glow of the chandeliers. She made no sound and yet some imagined they heard the silvery trill of a laugh as she swept past them. When she reached the far edge of the marble dance floor and stopped, these men found themselves peeling away from their partners to lean toward her, eager for her true voice, and they were rewarded. “Schnapps,” she commanded of her escort, a tall fellow in a tailcoat whom they had failed to notice until that moment and ceased to recall in the next moment when he stepped away from her.
A minute passed (two? three? they could not be certain) before the women descended to recover their errant prizes. The youngest wives, who would have considered their mates immune, could see very clearly the misguided enthusiasm with which she had applied the rouge to her cheeks, and noted the black lace at the hem of her billowing gown beginning to unravel, just a bit there, just above her left foot. The mistresses smiled as they stroked the mink stoles that curled around their own pale shoulders. They understood the power of distraction and admired her for it.
“Marian said she’s some sort of actress Philip used to know. Come now, darling, I’m sure it was nothing like that. Although…yes, perhaps it was something like that.”
The third name I’m going to call… is Charlotte.
Charlotte, the judges were impressed by the sense of place you work into this page. It’s an evocative setting, and yet the reader does not feel lost because you ground the work in emotion and description. Here is your surprisingly essential first page:
Another Saturday, another funeral. Lindiwe dusts breadcrumbs off her lap, takes a final sip of her sweet tea and places the mug in the sink. She’ll wash it later. She takes her coat off the hook and puts it on. She always wears her coat, even though it’s the height of summer. Putting on her beret, she leaves the house. Carefully, but conspicuously, Lindiwe locks the front door so that the scabengas who have moved in next door notice just how locked it is, and then she stands on the kerb waiting for her lift to arrive.
She and Sipho do funerals every weekend. Often they organise them; finding the cash to put caskets of different sizes in the ground and to arrange food and drink for the mourners. If they’re not organising, then they’re attending. Sometimes they are the only attendants. Last Saturday, they buried five-month-old Maria. She’d been dropped at the Mission and had not lived long enough to draw a crowd. Lindiwe mourned her, though. She always mourns, every baby, child and adult who they bury. Every time is like the first time. Sipho knows to have tissues and he passes them to her at the appropriate moment. Such a nice young man. Lindiwe wonders when his time will be.
Sipho drives up in his aging yellow Golf and she climbs in. He drives them past the over-flowing cemetery outside the township, along the dusty road into town and up the hill through the once white-only suburbs. They join the highway and climb an-other, steeper hill, Sipho’s car chug-chugging behind articulated lorries. Today Lindiwe has not had to arrange anything, but she has been asked to give a reading. She holds her Bible closely to her heart to muffle its thumping.
They leave the highway and turn right, hugging a road through plantations and farmlands. Saturday shoppers walk along the roadside, carrying babies on their backs and plastic car-ier bags in their hands. Many of them carry on their heads the large fabric bags that supermarkets now force people to buy. Lindiwe opens the car window and allows the cooler hilltop air to fan her face. She sees the faintest outline of the far-off mountains to her left, but much as she is drawn towards them, Sipho’s Golf coughs its way forward.
After a deep dip, they drive through an avenue of trees. To the left, Lindiwe sees cows in a hilly meadow, and vervet monkeys walking surefootedly along a barbed-wire fence. Through the trees she glimpses flashes of white: buildings. The funeral is being held in the chapel of his old school; a prestigious academy for boys of the elite, a place with so much money that they can afford the folly of all-white buildings that require constant repainting. Lindiwe has never been here before. She has visited the sick in villages nearby, seen the dying and the dead in shacks on the surrounding farms, but she has never been to this school for rich children.
The fourth name I’m going to call…. is Heather!Anne!.
Heather!Anne!, you took on a high degree of difficulty with a young narrator and a historical setting, but the judges think you nailed it. Here is your Surprisingly Essential First Page:
He was carrying a can of soup and needed to make change for a nickel.
I told him if I had a nickel, or five pennies amounting to a nickel, I’d be out behind the old school house with my brother’s friends, gambling on dice. You need two nickels for a Coca-Cola and a Clark Bar, and one really ain’t worth having with out the other.
He chuckled in that old man way, which seemed inviting enough, so I asked him what the heck he was doing with that can of soup anyway. He said, “Oh, nothin’,” and went on his way.
Over dinner I asked if anybody’d seen an old man wandering around town with a can of soup. My daddy said, “You ought to try reading a book some time instead of sitting outside Mitchell’s Pharmacy all day, staring at folks.” My mama said, “Sarah Beth, I told you not to talk to strangers.” And Tim, my older brother, he said, “You owe me ten cents. Don’t be spending any more money at Micthell’s ‘till you pay me back.”
I was quiet for a while, mulling it over in my head, wondering about that soup can a little bit but also about the five pennies that would have made nickel-change. Who needs pennies? They make your hands stink like copper. (Although if I’d had ten pennies, I could have paid Tim so he’d get off my back about that loan.)
Mama must have noticed I was quiet, which she called an ‘abnormality,’ so she said to my daddy, “Thomas, why don’t you tell Sarah Beth to leave it alone? There’s no need for her to be off chasin’ a strange man.”
My mama was always forbidding things by telling my daddy to forbid me to do them. I would have called that an abnormality, but nothing gets you spanked faster than a smart mouth.
“Don’t go chasing strange men,” my dad said, which caused my mama to give him that gushy smile that always made me feel kind of gross.
One time I was at the dentist and he poured some fluoride in my mouth. “Don’t swallow it,” he said. And the only thing I could think of was how bad I wanted to swallow that fluoride. It was the dentist’s fault, I reckoned. If he’d just put it in my mouth without saying nothing I could have probably kept it in there for a half hour, especially if he bet me I couldn’t do it.
But he said don’t, so I wanted to, and I did. I swallowed that fluoride.
I was afraid I might die, but the dentist just laughed and said, “You don’t die from swallowing fluoride.”
That’s how I learned that sometimes when grown-ups tell you not to do something, it’s just a suggestion. And I guess that’s the reason I went looking for that soup can man.
The fifth name I’m going to call… is terryd.
terryd, the judges felt that this is a textbook example of steadily easing a reader into a unique world while building tension, revealing the protagonist’s personality, and introducing a plot. Here is your Surprisingly Essential First Page:
JERRY SHARPE – 64,000 words
It’s been two weeks since the cars died, and we’re walking out. My family is here with me in the Sierra, and I don’t know if that’s a blessing or a curse. Most electrical devices are dead, and we don’t have any reliable information about what happened, but we can guess. We’ve heard some rumors, and they’re all bad, and I can’t afford to expect anything good to happen to us, so it takes me by surprise when an airplane flies low over us. We’re walking a deer trail that parallels the interstate. The plane is on us very quickly, and I motion for Susan and the kids to get under cover. We run to a thin stand of pines and look up. It’s been months since we’ve seen anything in the sky except military aircraft, but this one is hanging from its prop and flaps, just above stall speed at tree-scraping altitude. It doesn’t fly directly overhead, but I catch a gleam of painted aluminum above the pines and I feel the pressure of searching eyes. When the pilot adds power to hold a turn, we run for better cover.
We get into a thicker stand of trees and form our four-person perimeter. It’s a sloppy diamond formation but it allows us to cover the road with three guns. Susan gives me a flat look. Her lips are moving, and at first I think she’s trying to tell me something, but then I see that she’s praying, and I wonder if she knows it.
Our son Scotty is prone with his scoped .22. God help him, the boy looks like he can’t wait to shoot somebody. Our eldest, Melanie, is farthest from the interstate. She won’t carry a weapon but I’m grateful that she still more-or-less follows my orders, no matter how it must gall her.
The old Cessna drags itself over the freeway and circles above a meadow. The pilot drops something. I watch the lumpy gleam of a bubble-wrapped package falling from the sky. There can’t be anything half-assed about it. It’s either something very good or something very bad, and I watch its flawed shape pass down through the trees and into God’s nature like a gift or a curse. I’m a naturally pessimistic bastard, and my pessimism has stood me well, as of late, so I motion for Susan and the kids to put their heads down. The ground here is dry and it smells clean and infertile. I listen to the soft, buffeting sound of my breath pushing against hard earth, but time passes and there isn’t an explosion. It isn’t an improvised bomb at all and I hear people cheering, the voices of men, women and children.
Another group is travelling the road. They’re on foot too, and we’ve been trailing them for most of the day.
And the last name I’m going to call… is luc.
A poor family in space? Where can I read more? luc, even when you were referencing things the reader doesn’t know about, you made. this. work. Here is your Surprisingly Essential First Page:
Deana Horsehead Chidder:
Our whole stinking family lived on a half-derelict salvage ship that floated so far from the space station, we sometimes had trouble telling it from the stars. There was Ma and Da and seven of us whelps, rattling around in an 80-year-old narrowcruiser with only one working rocket. Phyllis and Wyoming were born deformed from Ma not taking precautions against radiation during pregnancy, but Phyllis–with one eye glued permanently shut and a forehead like an old man’s backside–had all her faculties.
At the station they figured us for morons, because none of us would go to that school they had. Why should we, when they wasted your time making you learn about the primary commerce drivers in Procyon A system and how to use a proto-language translation program–who needed it? No Chidder, that’s for sure. We’d rather wallow on the ship in our own filth, God’s honest truth, and make what living we could from salvaging burned-out probes and trash and the occasional derelict starship.
Except for me. I’d been wallowing with the rest of them all my life, but at sixteen years old I figured I was old enough to run away. Which is why I was on my way to Bay C to meet a Luytenite and a Centipede. Bay C because the airlock there didn’t work right and if you hit the wrong button you could get spat out into space like a piece of bad meat. We usually kept away from Bay C, so it was a good place to keep out of sight.
I was taking extra care, because Ma was a certifiable paranoid and she did security sweeps all the time. She once accused me of being a robot spy and tried to poke me with a power probe to prove it. If she’d got me, I would have been dead that much earlier, and maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in the Valley of the Dead and dealt with all those demons and everything. I’ll get to that later. Anyway, I got clear of her and hid ’til she came to her senses, that time.
So I’d told the Centipede and the Luytenite they had to boost just once, at the station, and then they had to power down and use chemical brakes to dock. Chemical brakes are expensive because of all the wasted gas, but they don’t show up on the sensors, so that was the only way I could have them do it. See, I had to be careful about Ma all the time, even when I wasn’t up to something. Now that there was really something going on, I wasn’t about to give it away and lose my chance.
I’d been hoping Ma would be in the middle of a security audit, or in bed with one of her headaches, but she must have smelled something was up: she was prowling the corridor outside the shuttle ports. She stared at the wall there, at
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Who will become America’s Next Top Surprisingly Essential First Page? Let’s find out.