Can you be successful with a first novel? Yes, and the key is found with The Law Of Trouble which states: First Novels Should Have Life-Or-Death Trouble In The First Few Sentences.
My first novel did (as did #s 2, 3, & 4), and it was one of the smartest (luckiest!) things I've done.
I've talked about this before. But it bears repeating. And repeating...
Multiple times in the past, I've checked the bestseller lists looking for first novels, there to peruse the first few sentences and see how they run. Because bestselling first novels are very rare, it seems especially instructive to see how they grab potential readers and pull them into a story successfully enough that a browsing reader decides to purchase the book.
Here's what I found. Nearly always, the first few sentences of bestselling first novels either had a character in life-or-death trouble, or the narrative intimated that a character was soon to be in life-or-death trouble. Note that I'm not talking about Big Trouble or Serious Trouble or Really Bad Trouble. I'm talking about LIFE-OR-DEATH Trouble. Note, also, that I'm not talking about the first few pages. I'm talking about the first few sentences. Often, the life-or-death trouble shows up in the first sentence.
(I've previously pointed out that the Law Of Trouble doesn't apply to established writers because their readers will buy their books based on other books by the author or the author's reputation, a luxury new authors don't have.)
Last week, I once again checked in with the bestseller lists. The most complete one, with the 100 bestselling books of all kinds, updated every minute or so, is Amazon's. Another one, less complete but equally popular, is The New York Times. As in the past, I was looking for first novels. If I noticed anything different in this last check, it is that there were even fewer first novels than ever before. There were only four first novels on Amazon's Top 100 bestseller list!
Of the four first novels on the current lists, novels that were recently written, the highest ranked on the Kindle list was The Good Neighbor by A.J. Banner, #1 on Amazon's Kindle list as I write this. How does the book open? The first words are, "I'm drowning." By the second paragraph, we realize that the person drowning is trying to save another person who's also drowning. A few lines later, we find out the drownings that are about to happen are murder. Life-or-death trouble.
The next first novel on the lists is The Martian by Andy Weir. As many of you know, the novel has been a monster success (at #2 on Kindle as of this writing) and has been turned into a soon-to-be-released movie starring Matt Damon. What were in its first sentences? Trouble from the first four words. Trouble that, by the end of the first eight lines, reveals itself as life-or-death trouble. Trouble that continues to build and get worse.
The next first novel breaks the pattern and belies my law. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins (#3) on the list does not open with life-or-death trouble. Does that suggest that my law is no good? I looked closely at the first few lines. What about this book is compelling from the beginning? I decided that it is voyeurism. And of course voyeurism pretty much always leads to trouble. So perhaps that is its reason for success.
Even so, it still doesn't fit my Law Of Trouble. Is there anything else about it? Well, it should probably be pointed out that it isn't really a first novel. According to the New York Times, Paula Hawkins published five other novels under the pen name Amy Silver before she wrote Girl On The Train. She also wrote a financial advice book. Did her previous writing successes make a difference? No doubt. You expect a or 6th or 7th book to be pretty sophisticated. But of course many or most of Hawkins' readers were drawn into the book thinking it was her first novel, so they didn't know beforehand that they could count on Hawkins to tell a good story. But her publisher knew that she'd written multiple other books, and that no doubt affected their marketing approach.
So I'll call Girl On A Train a qualified exception to my law, a "first novel" that doesn't begin with life-or-death trouble, but it isn't really a first novel either.
The fourth first novel on the bestseller lists is In A Dark Dark World by Ruth Ware. It opens with someone in a panicked run. The words are rushed, and the tension is significant. By the end of the first page, we've gotten to Life-Or-Death trouble.
In sum, of the four "first" novels among the top 100 bestselling books, three demonstrate my Law Of Trouble, and the fourth isn't really a first novel.
What about those experienced novelists on the list who already have an audience for anything they write? They don't have to put life-or-death trouble in their first sentences. But do they do it anyway?
To check, I looked up other novels on the list. The first one I came to was Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See (#21) on Amazon. If any writer need not put trouble up front, it is Doerr. Yet All The Light begins with trouble, which, by the 5th line, seems life or death. By the 9th line, it appears that mass casualties are imminent.
What to take away? The lesson seems clear. Why not emulate those writers who write bestsellers, whether they are first novelists or experienced novelists. If you want to find an audience with your first novel, move some life-or-death trouble up to the very front of your story.