Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and literary agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In 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), the first page has 16 or 17 lines.
The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?
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)
Let’s Flog Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Beautiful Ruins, the number 1 trade paperback on the May 5, 2013 New York Times bestseller list.
The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly—in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.
Twenty meters away, Pasquale Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite; a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep. Pasquale straightened and stopped what he was doing, what he was usually doing that spring, trying to construct a beach below his family’s empty pensione. Chest-deep in the cold Ligurian Sea, Pasquale was tossing rocks the size of cats in an attempt to fortify the breakwater, to keep the waves from hauling away his little mound of construction sand. Pasquale’s “beach” was only as wide as two fishing boats, and the ground beneath his dusting of sand was scalloped rock, but it was the closest thing to a flat piece of shoreline in the entire village; a rumor of a town that had ironically—or perhaps hopefully—been designated Porto despite the fact that the only boats to come in and out regularly belonged to the village’s handful of sardine and anchovy fishermen. The rest of the name, Vergogna, meant shame, and was a remnant from the founding of the (snip)
My vote: Yes
I first met this book in October of 2012 at the Wordstock Festival in Portland, Oregon. I was there to do my Crafting a Killer First Page workshop and to do a presentation of my novel, The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles. During some spare time, I attended a panel of authors. I don’t remember the topic, but the reading by and subsequent personality of author Jess Walter interested and charmed me. Both the reading and the author offered humor that drew me in. I’m now reading the novel, and there’s not as much humor as I had expected—but it’s there, along with fascinating characters, and I’m having a good time with it.
But the task here is deciding whether or not the first page compels reading further. For me, the promise of the story question raised on the first page was strong enough to move me on. Opening with a “dying actress” was a good initial hook for me, then came a very different character who is positioned to have something to do with her. And the locale is unique and different, a plus. I also liked the confident voice of the narrative—I felt that I was in the hands of a professional storyteller. I’ll be honest, the amount of exposition about Pasquale’s beach effort was almost too much of that sort of thing for me, but I still turned the page because of the story question—what will happen between the dying actress and Pasquale?
I don’t have much in the way of editorial notes—the writing is clean and elegant. If I were to make any changes, it would be to exchange the antecedentless pronoun “his” in the first paragraph with “Pasquale’s.” And then replace “Pasquale Tursi” in the second paragraph with “he.”
What are your thoughts?
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.