First Pages of Best-Selling Novels: Rogue Lawyer

In our weekly look at first pages of best sellers, we’re examining what works and what doesn’t. We’ve covered numerous genres, and seen some pretty unique first pages. Some seem to break a lot of the rules authors are warned not to break: using a lot of narrative, lacking dialogue, slow getting into action, starting with the weather.

But that just goes to show the rules are made to be broken. However, what really matters on these opening pages transcends the do’s and don’ts about opening scenes, and that’s engaging the reader. And that can be done in any number of ways.

This week we’re taking a stab at mega-famous author John Grisham, whose many legal thrillers have dominated the tops of best-seller lists for months. His novel Rogue Lawyer fits right in with his twenty-six (?) other legal thrillers in presenting engaging characters and high tension.

His protagonist Sebastian Rudd is called “one of John Grisham’s most colorful, outrageous, and vividly drawn characters yet.” I’ve read a lot of legal thrillers and a lot of Grisham’s books, and he’s done a great job carving out a throne in the legal thrillers genre. However, I sometimes find the commercial style tedious and boring, and I’ll address this a bit further down. Yes, this is just my taste, and it’s clear a lot of readers—a whole lot—devour these kinds of books. Which brings me to my next point.

Genre Is the Key to Success

Keep in mind, as we go through this first page and the checklist points, that genre is key to all these novels. While some of these first pages we examine may not be your kind of book, what makes these novels successful is in the way the authors nail their genre. They know who they are writing for and what that audience expects.

This applies even more specifically when an author is well known for a certain type of novel, which can be a blessing and a curse. It’s often hard for famous authors who’ve branded themselves to write a different kind of book or even veer off within their genre into a novel with a different tone or structure. Something to keep in mind as you tromp down the road toward success.

I know this is shameless promotion, but since it’s my blog, I feel I can put in my brief commercial. Here’s my point: if you really want to sell well, you do need to understand the part genre plays in doing so. This is something that took me decades to learn, and it wasn’t until I was ready (for the millionth time) to quit writing for good that I stepped back and looked at the part genre played in seeing success.

I won’t bore you with my spiel, because you’re hearing about it this month in my Friday posts. But because I want you to have every advantage to sell big with your books, I’ve created an online course that teaches you why genre is important, how you can target genre, how to choose a niche genre that sells big but doesn’t have outrageous competition, and then how to target Amazon by optimizing your books so they’ll come up at the tops of the search results when customers are looking for a book like yours.

Want to know more? Here’s the link to Targeting Genre for Big Sales. And if you enroll before March 31, you will get $100 off the course price by using the coupon code LIVEWRITETHRIVE. After that, no discount. And since I offer a 30-day money-back  guarantee, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking this unique course.

No, you don’t have to complete it within a certain time frame. The course will be up and available forever (or as long as the Internet still works).

Okay, let’s dive into Grisham’s first page. I’m done with my speech.

 

Contempt

1.

My name is Sebastian Rudd, and though I am a well-known street lawyer, you will not see my name on billboards, on bus benches, or screaming at you from the yellow pages. I don’t pay to be seen on television, though I am often there. My name is not listed in any phone book. I do not maintain a traditional office. I carry a gun, legally, because my name and face tend to attract attention from the type of people who also carry guns and don’t mind using them. I live alone, usually sleep alone, and do not possess the patience and understanding necessary to maintain friendships. The law is my life, always consuming and occasionally fulfilling. I wouldn’t all it a “jealous mistress” as some forgotten person once so famously did. It’s more like an overbearing wife who controls the checkbook. There’s no way out.

These nights I find myself sleeping in cheap motel rooms that change each week. I’m not trying to save money; rather, I’m just trying to stay alive. There are plenty of people who’d like to kill me right now, and a few of them have been quite vocal. They don’t tell you in law school that one day you may find yourself defending a person charged with a crime so heinous that otherwise peaceful citizens feel driven to take up arms and threaten to kill the accused, his lawyer, and even the judge.

But I’ve been threatened before. It’s part of being a rogue lawyer, a subspecialty of the profession that I more or less fell into ten years ago. When I finished law school, jobs were scarce. I reluctantly took a part-time position in the City’s public defender’s office. From there I landed in a small, unprofitable firm that handled only criminal defense. After a few years, that firm blew up and I was on my own, out on the street with plenty of others, scrambling to make a buck.

One case put me on the map. I can’t say it made me famous because, seriously, how can you say a lawyer is famous in a city of a million people? Plenty of local hacks think they’re famous. They smile from billboards as they beg for your bankruptcy and swagger in television ads as they seem deeply concerned about your personal injuries, but they’re forced to pay for their own publicity. Not me.

Why This Works

Opening Hook: Clever writing and image that grabs the reader—Nothing too clever, pretty straightforward writing. The first paragraph feels introductory—we meet the protagonist and learn a bit about him through his narration. Piques curiosity.

Introduction of main character in first few lines: Yes, the first sentence introduces the protagonist: “My name is Sebastian Rudd . . .” He is telling this story about himself.

Starting the story in the middle of something that’s happened (or happening): The author begins with Sebastian Rudd telling the reader that he’s not your typical attorney, so the reader will assume something has happened to make him unlike others—one who carries a gun to protect himself, lives and sleeps alone, and is married to the law.

A nod to setting; avoid excessive exposition or narrative: A nod, yes. The character mentions living in “the City” and his descriptions of billboards, crime, and public defenders, support the city atmosphere.

A catalyst, inciting incident, or complication introduced for your character: It’s evident he’s in danger, threatened by  those who are angry that he’s defended horrible criminals. He is trying to stay alive, and we might assume there is one person or group of people after him right now.

A hint at character’s immediate intentions: Survival.

A hint at character’s hidden need, desire, goal, dream, fear : Again, survival seems to be the only need hinted at in the first page. We’re not sure if he is actually fearing for his life. He seems to exude a bit of casualness about the whole thing, not dissimilar to the voice we heard in the opening pages of The Martian. A character in trouble with a bit of humor about his dire circumstances.

Unique voice/writing style: Straightforward, no fluff—typical Grisham. The style is appropriate for the genre, and the character’s voice fits the role of an attorney hardened by the crime he’s seen.

Setting the tone for the entire book: Definitely. Again, the voice of the protagonist, Sebastian, sets the tone for a story told from the POV of a criminal defender. It’s chatty and introspective, and we assume this is what we’ll get for the entire novel.

A glimpse at character’s personal history, personalityshed light on motivation: Through the character’s narration, the author reveals that Sebastian struggled early in his career, then had one case that put him on the map. He isn’t famous, he states, but he also doesn’t need to “pay for his own publicity.” His motivation is unclear at this point, beyond staying out of sight—hiding from those who, the reader will assume, are after him. He says he “fell into” this profession, and to him it’s “occasionally fulfilling.” He also makes it a point that he’s different (read: superior to) other lawyers who do unethical things like pretend they care.

Hint of character’s initial plot goal: No, other than to survive.

A course of action/decision implied: introduction of high stakes/dramatic tension: The reader will assume the stakes are Sebastian’s life, but the tension seems lacking.

Pacing: jump right into present action. No backstory: There’s quite a bit of backstory hidden in Sebastian’s introduction of himself and the telling of his story. And I’ll address that below.

  • One characteristic to reveal that makes your character heroic and vulnerable: He’s heroic because he fights crime and he says it’s consuming and “there’s no way out” (whatever that means). He’s vulnerable because he’s put himself at risk to protect others.
  • One element of mystery, something hinted at that raises curiosity: One element out of the ordinary, unusual, that makes the book different/stand out. What’s happened, what case, made the protagonist who he is—a man who carries a gun and lives in hiding. And who is after him now?
  • Concise, catchy dialogue (if in the first scene) that is not boring or predictable: No dialogue—all narration.
  • A way to hint at your theme, if you have one: Survival, maybe? Both the plot and theme seem a bit muddy at this point.

What Could Have Been Better

I’m going to take my chances and complain about a few things here. As I said, I enjoy this genre and I know what to expect from the top authors. So with that perspective, let me first talk about the narrative.

It may be Grisham’s intent to have Sebastian come across talky and a bit full of himself. He’s the kind of character, to me, who won’t stop talking about himself and reiterates a lot of the same stuff. He spends a lot of time telling us who he is and why, but it feels like “all talk.” In other words, if I were sitting with him, I’d get bored and a bit annoyed and excuse myself.

A character that is more obnoxious and outrageous (I picture Benedict Cumberbatch giving the wedding speech as Sherlock in front of Watson’s horrified guests) would be more engaging. Larger-than-life, wild characters grab us, and even if they’re annoying, they’re fascinating and we’re riveted watching them behave. Sebastian Rudd isn’t unusual enough to merit that kind of fascination. Sure he’s a lawyer on the edge, but . . .

Meaning, at this point, all I can go on to decide if I like him or find him fascinating is to hear what he says about himself, which is, to me, too much for page 1. I wouldn’t mind a paragraph on his situation and work, but a whole page with that is tedious to me. And, personally, I dislike novels that start off with the character introducing himself to the reader. You talking to me? I wonder. He sounds kind of like an advertisement.

Next, I shouldn’t have to say this: it’s all telling and no showing. I always prefer seeing a character in action and watching what kind of person he is, rather than be told. So nothing’s happening on this first page, and Grisham is hoping that the character’s voice is so engaging that readers won’t care. But I do care, because it’s not engaging enough to me. Even though I enjoy this genre, as I said, I won’t last long if I have to listen to a character blab for pages.

Now, if he had something fascinating to tell me, that would be different. Reveal some mystery that makes me sit up and pay attention. But do I really need to know all the stuff he tells me? Here are some of the things I’d rather see later, in an active scene with him interacting with other characters:

  • That he’s well known and doesn’t have to pay for advertising
  • That he sleeps alone, is in hiding from someone after him
  • That he’s a rogue lawyer, by name, and that he fell into it ten years ago (later he can flash on some memory of how he got into this, but we don’t need to be told it on page 1)
  • All the backstory about how he started his business and how it grew (boring . . . )

What I’d really like to get a sense of one page 1 is something suspenseful and dangerous. He talks about it, but that’s a problem to me. I often comment in critiques that if you have two people talking about how dangerous a situation was and how they felt, it lacks emotional engagement because it’s just talk. Readers want to see the danger.

This issue often crops up with characters talking over the phone or reading a letter. Scenes/moments like that lack impact because there really isn’t anything happening “on screen.”

What’s Your Point?

By the end of page 1, I want to ask him, “So, what’s your point?” What is the point to all that? I don’t know. I’m sure the aim of the author is to get the reader thinking Sebastian is pretty interesting, but he isn’t (yet) to me. Since reviewers say this character is one of Grisham’s best, I’d love to see something on the first page that really blows me away. With all the hype about this character, I had high expectations that didn’t deliver soon enough.

Seriously, a much better first scene would be to throw Sebastian into danger because of his situation. It would be easy to drop in the info needed for the reader to figure out he’s a rogue lawyer, people are angry at him and after him for defending some scumbag, and that he’s moving from cheap motel to cheap motel trying to stay alive.

I can picture some great possible scenes that I know Grisham could write well.

An interesting comparison, perhaps, would be the opening pages to Scott Turow’s terrific breakout novel Presumed Innocent, which is a favorite of mine. It’s also in first-person POV, and it starts with Rusty (the protagonist lawyer) talking about his life as a lawyer, and it has a bit of backstory.

Take a look sometime (look inside the book here to read the first pages). You’ll notice Turow has “Opening Statement,” which is brief, a kind of italicized prologue. But then he gets right into action. Grisham, by contrast, goes on for pages like this, and while it seems he gets into action, with a couple of lines of dialogue, we read pages more of narrative. It’s just a bit too much for me, especially in this genre.

Would I read this novel? Maybe. But it wouldn’t be at the top of my list.

Since I’m going on and on here, I’ll stop. What did you like or not like about this opening page? Do you find Sebastian interesting and engaging enough to keep reading? Other observations?

10 Responses to “First Pages of Best-Selling Novels: Rogue Lawyer”

  1. Dennis Kearney March 16, 2016 at 8:14 am #

    The ex-prosecutor in me agrees with your take on Grisham. I much prefer Turow’s style, perhaps because I find it more credible. This rogue lawyer comes off more like a private eye than attorney. The credibility issue would stop me in my tracks. To get over that problem, like you, I’d need to know out of the gates why this guy feels threatened. It otherwise rings hollow and I’d move on.

    • cslakin March 16, 2016 at 8:16 am #

      Thanks, Dennis. I’m glad to get your attorney take on this. I find your lawyer characters in your novel way more interesting and believable!

      • Dennis Kearney March 16, 2016 at 10:23 am #

        Thanks. I was blessed to find the best teacher!

  2. James Dewar March 16, 2016 at 8:28 am #

    I read this page recently about why first pages of novels work and what doesn’t come out right with them. I would agree with the points that are brought forward in this post. It gives a good amount of detail in getting across particular examples as to what is good about it. I can see exactly how the scene has been set and how the writer has gone about crafting the plot of the book and the threads come together nicely.

  3. Christine Goodnough March 16, 2016 at 10:04 am #

    Having the protagonist talking directly to the audience, with nothing else happening, is really hard to pull off well. To me he sounds arrogant, emotionless. Taste definitely factors in: if a reader likes that type, this guy may appeal.

    IMO it could use a bit of PING to grab readers right off, even something like “I listened as he explained his problem. At length. Ad nauseum. I said I’d see, then I hung up the phone. I spent the next hour contemplating what he was asking me to do — and just how hard it would be to pull it off.”

    Then go into the intro. Even if he decides, on reflection, to opt out on this current proposal, I think some kind of opening “happening” would pack more punch.

    • julie mayerson brown March 16, 2016 at 12:55 pm #

      I like your lines, Christine, very much. My guess is when one has a tremendous following, readers, as well as agents and publishers, are more forgiving. Readers know they enjoy the author’s writing and publishers know his/her books will hit the best-seller lists the minute they come out!

  4. Harald Johnson March 16, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

    Well, I disagree. I like Grisham’s opening. I think another point to consider (beyond Targeting Genre, which he nails) is: Who’s the Author? Are we familiar with them? Is there reader history with their work? Don’t forget: Grisham’s already written a billion legal thrillers, and we basically know what we’re getting. And in this case, I’m pretty sure there’ll be all sorts of dangerous events, complications, rising stakes, etc. occuring. The BANG doesn’t need to hit me on the head the first page; I know it will be coming. I like it simmering a bit. Scott Turow, on the other hand, was releasing his first book in your comparison. A different situation.

    But I do love these first-page analyses! Thanks for them.

    • cslakin March 16, 2016 at 12:47 pm #

      Right, I did say that. Readers who know and love Grisham will recognize his trademark style and even if they feel this beginning is a lot of narrative and nothing is happening in the story (for pages), they’ll bear with him, knowing he will deliver. However, most writers don’t have that luxury and might not keep readers engaged (or even engage them at all) with this type of opening.

      I personally feel every author, even famous ones, should work hard with every novel to write the best book they can. Just saying it’s a first novel so of course it’s going to be better than future novels isn’t a good argument, to me 🙂 But as I said, it’s my blog so I get to be critical and opinionated (and gladly welcome y’all’s opinions!).

  5. Rebecca Vance March 16, 2016 at 5:27 pm #

    I agree completely. It was difficult for me to even get through this sample. I found it boring and although the voice was good, there was nothing of substance to hold my interest. It was all telling, not showing, as you mentioned. I must admit to not being a Grisham fan, either. I love Scott Turow. I studied paralegal for awhile and I appreciate legal thrillers. I wouldn’t read this book. I remember that it was included in a blog, Flogging the Quill. That is a first page excerpt of a book on the national bestseller list and the reader isn’t given the name of the author. They are asked to vote if they thought that an unknown author would be accepted or rejected. The majority voted: NO.

  6. james haugh March 24, 2016 at 11:46 pm #

    Readers like Harald who are familiar with Grisham’s extensive catalogue, come to that first page with a backstory already built into the reader’s head. I guess when you have so many fanboys and fangirls eager for each submission, the author can use that fact as a unique dimension.
    That’s all I got to say.

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image

STRATEGIC PLANNING IN 4 EASY STEPS

STRATEGIC PLANNING IN 4 EASY STEPS

Don't wander aimlesslystrategize your writing career!

 

 

Sign up for my newsletter and get cool updates on releases, special offers, and your free ebook!

 

You have Successfully Subscribed!