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On my blog I critique (“flog”) the opening pages of novels submitted by wannabe novelists. So far I’ve flogged 650+ submissions. Now I’m adding a twist: flogging the first pages of published novels—the pros. This episode is exclusive to Writer Unboxed.

The challenge: does the first page compel me to turn the page?

Storytelling Checklist

When you critique this opening page, consider these 6 vital storytelling elements. While it’s not a requirement that all of them must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Evaluate the opening narrative in terms of how well it executes the elements. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a given for every page.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

What’s the big deal about the first page? Editors and literary agents see so many submissions that they often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. To quote Chuck Adams, Executive Editor, Algonquin Books:

“You can usually tell after a paragraph—a page, certainly—whether or not you’re going to get hooked.”

Literary agent Dan Conaway, Writers House, says:

“I know most of what I need to know about a writer’s chops in about a line and a half.”

And editor/publisher Sol Stein reports that browsers in bookstores make decisions within a page or so.

What’s a first page? In a customarily formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page, there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

Let’s Flog Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks

I typed up the opening of Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks to see what the first manuscript page would consist of. Safe Haven is the number 1 combined print and e-book fiction book on the New York Times February 10 bestseller list. Here’s what the first page of the manuscript would consist of:

As Katie wound her way among the tables, a breeze from the Atlantic rippled through her hair. Carrying three plates in her left hand and another in her right, she wore jeans and a T-shirt that read Ivan’s: try Our Fish Just for the Halibut. She brought the plates to four men wearing polo shirts; the one closest to her caught her eye and smiled. Though he tried to act as though he was just a friendly guy, she knew he was watching her as she walked away. Melody had mentioned the men had come from Wilmington and were scouting locations for a movie.

After retrieving a pitcher of sweet tea, she refilled their glasses before returning to the waitress station. She stole a glance at the view. It was late April, the temperature hovering just around perfect, and blue skies stretched to the horizon. Beyond her, the Intracoastal was calm despite the breeze and seemed to mirror the color of the sky. A dozen seagulls perched on the railing, waiting to dart beneath the tables if someone dropped a scrap of food.

Ivan Smith, the owner, hated them. He called them rats-with-wings, and he’d already patrolled the railing twice wielding a wooden plunger, trying to scare them off. Melody had leaned toward Katie and confessed that she was more worried about where the plunger had been than she was about the seagulls. Katie said nothing.

She started another pot of sweet tea, wiping down the station. A moment later, she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. She turned to see Ivan’s daughter, Eileen. A pretty, ponytailed (snip)


My vote: nope

While this includes a good voice, is clear, sets the scene, and introduces the character, for me there wasn’t a wisp of tension in this page, and there were no very important story questions raise, certainly nothing with a hint of stakes or trouble for Katie. The only question I see is whether or not she will become involved with the movie company—but that’s abandoned right way. Some editorial notes:

As Katie wound her way among the tables, a breeze from the Atlantic rippled through her hair. Carrying three plates in her left hand and another in her right, she wore jeans and a T-shirt that read Ivan’s: try Our Fish Just for the Halibut. She brought the plates to four men wearing polo shirts; the one closest to her caught her eye and smiled. Though he tried to act as though he was just a friendly guy, she knew had a feeling he was watching watched her as she walked away. Melody had mentioned the men had come from Wilmington and were scouting locations for a movie. I think the “one closest to her” is a touch of overwriting—it really isn’t germane as to how close he was unless it motivates something, and it doesn’t. And she can’t really “know” that he watched her as she walked away—he’s behind her. This is a small POV glitch.

After retrieving a pitcher of sweet tea, she refilled their glasses before returning to the waitress station. She stole a glance at the view. It was late April, the temperature hovering just around perfect, and blue skies stretched to the horizon. Beyond her, the Intracoastal was calm despite the breeze and seemed to mirror mirrored the color of the sky. A dozen seagulls perched on the railing, waiting to dart beneath the tables if someone dropped a scrap of food. For me, the “stealing a glance” was a clunky way of describing the scenery and not needed. And calm water doesn’t “seem” to mirror the sky, it does. That’s the way it works. I also think that this leisurely bit of description could come later, or it should be experiential to help characterize Katie.

Ivan Smith, the owner, hated them. He called them rats-with-wings, and he’d already patrolled the railing twice, wielding a wooden plunger, trying to scare them off. Melody had leaned toward Katie and confessed that she was more worried about where the plunger had been than she was about the seagulls. Katie said nothing. What does this have to do with the story? Where’s the story?

She started another pot of sweet tea, wiping down the station. A moment later, she felt someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned to see Ivan’s daughter, Eileen. A pretty, ponytailed (snip)

Photobucket Here’s the blurb that describes this book. Take a look—I don’t see any of the story it describes in the opening page. BTW, I skimmed the rest of the chapter and found mostly backstory and exposition, plus talk. It was nicely written, but nothing really happened.

When a mysterious young woman named Katie appears in the small North Carolina town of Southport, her sudden arrival raises questions about her past. Beautiful yet self-effacing, Katie seems determined to avoid forming personal ties until a series of events draws her into two reluctant relationships: one with Alex, a widowed store owner with a kind heart and two young children; and another with her plainspoken single neighbor, Jo. Despite her reservations, Katie slowly begins to let down her guard, putting down roots in the close-knit community and becoming increasingly attached to Alex and his family.

But even as Katie begins to fall in love, she struggles with the dark secret that still haunts and terrifies her . . . a past that set her on a fearful, shattering journey across the country, to the sheltered oasis of Southport. With Jo’s empathic and stubborn support, Katie eventually realizes that she must choose between a life of transient safety and one of riskier rewards . . . and that in the darkest hour, love is the only true safe haven.

Now that sounds like a story I’d be interested in. Like many of the submissions I see for my blog, I think this story could have started much later.

What do you think ?

Nominations wanted: Suggest novels for the Flog the Pro feature in Comments. If it’s used, it could be fun to see what the WU audience thinks.

If you’d like to help beginning novelists with your constructive criticism, join me on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at my site, Flogging the Quill.

About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.