resized

Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and literary agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. A customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type) has 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Storytelling Checklist

Evaluate this opening page for how well it executes the following 6 vital storytelling elements. While it’s not a requirement that all of them must be on the first page, I think writers have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing, a given for every page.

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

Let’s Flog 50 Shades of Grey by E L James

Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of 50 Shades of Grey, a global bestseller.

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never hear of, for the student newspaper. So I have volunteered. I have final exams to cram for and one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no—today I have to drive 165 miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious—much more precious than mine—but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me. Damn her extracurricular activities.

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.

 

Would you turn this pro’s first page?
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

My vote: Nope

Somehow, a story opening with conflict/tension centering around a bad hair day just wasn’t compelling for me, and I don’t think it really satisfies the first two—and most vital—components on my story checklist: story questions and tension. I found the character to be unlikeably self-centered. The voice is clear and writing is okay—except for the amateurish approach to describing the character. A mirror? Really?

I understand that readers haven’t judged this series by its first page—according to Wikipedia, “It is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism.” Oh, I see.

I read the chapter and found it to be, for my taste, overwritten. Nor did it give any real hint of what the blurb promises. Here’s the blurb:

When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too—but on his own terms.

Shocked yet thrilled by Grey’s singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success—his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family—Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey’s secrets and explores her own dark desires.

50 shades gray coverEditorial thoughts:

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable. A mirror? Really? To me, this approach to describing the character is amateurish. The thing is, the first page foreshadows the nature of the writing that follows. I am already feeling as if I’m not going to be happy with this level of quality. For example, due to the nature of antecedents for pronouns, she is attempting to bring her mantra under control with a hair brush. And telling us that she’s reciting the mantra several times after we’ve seen her repeat it was, well, telling us something we’d already been shown.

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never hear of, for the student newspaper. So I have volunteered. I have final exams to cram for and one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no—today I have to drive 165 miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious—much more precious than mine—but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me. Damn her extracurricular activities. Aw, poor her. For me, a cup of self-pity didn’t turn out to be a good hook.

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.

Let’s see, what story questions have been raised? Perhaps what will the traffic be like on I5 driving to Seattle? How will the interview that isn’t important to her life go? Do we see any possible jeopardy or even discomfort for this person? What’s at stake in her life? Having to work a little harder?

Okay, maybe I got a little snarky there, but I felt that this was self-indulgent writing that hinted not at all at a story in the offing. I figure it was the sexual content and, perhaps, the story promised in the blurb that propelled this book to success. For me, it certainly wasn’t the first page—nor even the first chapter. I don’t think my gender that is the problem, either—I have enjoyed romance novels a great deal.

I’m not alone. Just for fun, I looked at the reviews on Amazon.com, and here are quotes from the first two:

”Then there’s the writing. If you take out the parts where the female character is blushing or chewing her lips, the book will be down to about 50 pages.”

“This has to be the most appallingly atrocious writing I’ve ever seen in a major release.”

On the other hand, a review from The Columbus Dispatch said:

“Despite the clunky prose, James does cause one to turn the page.”

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? As we saw with Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, storytelling can trump second-rate writing.

And, as they say, sex sells—in this case, over 65,000,000 copies worldwide.

What are your thoughts?

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 Wednesdays and Fridays for floggings 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.