resized

Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and 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), there are 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 these 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 The Hit by David Baldacci

David Baldacci’s new thriller was in first place on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for October 6. Let’s see just how thrilling the opening page is—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Chapter 1 in The Hit.

Feeling energized by the death that was about to happen, Doug Jacobs adjusted his headset and brightened his computer screen. The picture was now crystal clear, almost as if he were there.

But he thanked God he wasn’t.

There was thousands of miles away, but one couldn’t tell that by looking at the screen. They couldn’t pay him enough to be there. Besides, many people were far better suited for that job. He would be communicating shortly with one of them.

Jacobs briefly glanced around the four walls and the one window of his office in the sunny Washington, D.C., neighborhood. It was an ordinary-looking low-rise brick building set in a mixed-use neighborhood that also contained historical homes in various states of either decay or restoration. But some parts of Jacobs’s building were not ordinary at all. These elements included a heavy-gauge steel gate out front with a high fence around the perimeter of the property. Armed sentries patrolled the interior halls and surveillance cameras monitored the exterior. But there was nothing on the outside to clue anyone in to what was happening on the inside.

And a lot was happening on the inside.

Jacobs picked up his mug of fresh coffee, into which he had just poured three sugar (snip)

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

Here’s the blurb from the Amazon.com page—did the opening page deliver?

Will Robie is a master of killing.

A highly skilled assassin, Robie is the man the U.S. government calls on to eliminate the worst of the worst-enemies of the state, monsters committed to harming untold numbers of innocent victims.

No one else can match Robie’s talents as a hitman…no one, except Jessica Reel. A fellow assassin, equally professional and dangerous, Reel is every bit as lethal as Robie. And now, she’s gone rogue, turning her gun sights on other members of their agency.

To stop one of their own, the government looks again to Will Robie. His mission: bring in Reel, dead or alive. Only a killer can catch another killer, they tell him.

But as Robie pursues Reel, he quickly finds that there is more to her betrayal than meets the eye. Her attacks on the agency conceal a larger threat, a threat that could send shockwaves through the U.S. government and around the world.

My vote: No

Maybe it’s not fair of me to say no. After all, the opening sentence has a strong hook, and something of a story question is raised. On the other hand, I’m judging this as if it were submitted by an unknown writer to an agent or an editor.

With that in mind, there were, shall we say, irritants that got to me. First came a cliché—the “crystal clear” picture on his monitor. Surely he could have done better. In fact, it wasn’t really needed. It could have read something like this:

The picture was now crystal clear, It was almost as if he were there.

And then there was what looks like signs of overwriting. He “briefly” glanced? A glance is, by definition, quick or brief. His room has four walls? So? And who cares if his coffee is fresh or how much sugar he puts into it? Neither the coffee cup nor the amount of sugar he uses is germane to the story. I would have cut it.

There is a clarity issue in the not-so-interesting description of his office, too–his office is not an ordinary-looking low-rise brick building, it is in an ordinary-looking low-rise brick building. Where’s the copyeditor?

So, discouraged by these signs of less-than-crisp writing, I passed. Having read Baldacci before, if handed the real book I probably would have read on and been satisfied. But, looking at it as a submission by an unknown author, I found it not compelling.

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.

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.