Flog a Pro: The Hit by David Baldacci

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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 Let’s see just how thrilling the opening page is—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    I used to read Baldacci years ago and enjoyed his stories, but I’ve not read him lately. In this opening I found the POV of his “feeling energized” (telling me this didn’t make me feel it) and his watching the screen then shifting to the description of the outside of the building, guards, etc. to be awkward and dull.

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  2. says

    It was a no for me, mostly because of the first sentence. As a writer, I didn’t like the structure of the opening sentence, nor the passive language. As a reader, that the protag. would be energized by death that was about to happen and that he’d be watching from a distance was deeply unattractive to me and signaled that it wasn’t the kind of book I’d enjoy.

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  3. says

    Ray, I thought the same thing when I read it. A bit cliche’. Baldacci is a master, no doubt, but I often get the sense that well known authors tend to fall back into old habits after a while. Too much description, perfect characters, and settings that have been used too often. I know thrillers aren’t the place to look for deep characterization, but give the guy a human quality, bad or good, to get us into his head. I think if I hadn’t know this writer, I would have put it back on the shelf.

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  4. says

    I love these flog a pros!

    I’ve already rewritten the opening of my WIP three times and edited it at least as many… and I’m still not completely happy with it.

    It frequently seems to me that once an author has a following, they let a lot of things slide–things we beginners cannot get away with. I suppose that’s only fair; they have already paid their dues.

    But I’d like to think that my writing would get better with each novel, not lazier/resting on my laurels. That is my goal. I want to write scenes and characters, use language in ways that excite me, as well as my readers.

    I found this beginning dull and uninspired as well.

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  5. says

    “They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he had promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind.”

    Great opening from Grisham’s new novel “Sycamore Row”. Spare, simple prose that (aside from the cliche) makes you gasp a bit, and hooked, read on.

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    • says

      That’s a dynamite opener. However, I’ve found Grisham to be, well, uneven. Sometimes a strong opening deteriorates into backstory and exposition, sometimes it launches a great story.

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  6. says

    I agree, Ray. In addition to your peeves, a few of mine:
    • His need to put the anemic word “there” in italics feels like a flag to me—a signal he should have gone back and been clearer.
    • The glance leads to the stereotypical rookie desire to give a tour, which is never interesting in and of itself. Showing the security measures the character had to take to show up at the office, although still low-tension, would have been better.

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  7. Lori Owen says

    I found myself skimming the 17 lines. I had to go back and actually reread it. If I had not known the author’s work, I may have only given it one more page. I guess my problem is that I give most writers 2 or 3 pages to get me hooked. There was nothing interesting to get me hooked other then the title and the author.

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  8. Ronda Roaring says

    I have to agree with you, Ray, and with all the people who have commented up to this point. I’ve read many of Baldacci’s novels and enjoyed them, I went back and re-read this piece and was disappointed by everything already mentioned, and I enjoyed Tony’s post of the beginning of Grisham’s new novel. Thanks, yet again, Ray, for posting these floggings. They’ve taught me that even veteran writers don’t always write the best stuff and could use the services of of a good editor.

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  9. says

    Good opening line, but the guy’s opinion seemed to shift, so the opener felt like an obvious gimmick. Then the paragraph “Jacobs briefly glanced” really slowed down for me. I skimmed it. So did the last paragraph snipped; coffee tastes aren’t interesting to me unless there is poison in the brew or he’s going to choke on it or use it as weapon. ;-)

    Jodi

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  10. says

    Agree with you, though I do wonder how many best selling books are actually well written. Thinking of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Great story…but the writing could have been better.

    I haven’t read anything by this author and these snippets don’t encourage me to click onto Amazon and download the book. Perhaps if authors become well known fans are more likely to overlook sloppy writing. On the other hand we expect the writing of well known authors to serve as an example for the rest of us.

    Interesting too, when so many indie authors are being advised of the necessity for good editing of their work, that some editor has allowed this to pass.

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  11. says

    This is a great exercise and I voted No. But for me the learning here is whether we focus on the writing technique or the story. The novel was released in April of this year. It’s #202 ranking on Amazon at the moment, with a cumulate rating of 4.4 with 2650 ratings, this tells me that most readers, perhaps most readers who buy books, focus on the story.

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    • says

      I think the focus here *is* on the story or, more specifically, the storytelling. A strong storyteller should already have the writing techniques down. Also, the challenge here is a compelling first page. I have seen many agents and publishing editors declare that they can, and do, judge a submission by the first page. If this had been submitted by an unknown writer to one of those agents and editors, would they have turned the page? With them, it’s the storytelling that counts as it can be exhibited on the *first* page. At least that’s how I see it. On my blog, I’ve flogged more than 725 first pages, and it soon becomes clear how well the first page foreshadows the writing and storytelling to come.

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      • Doug says

        Hi Ray,

        I’ve learned a lot from your series. Do you have a top-ten list of your favorite openings? Would love to see it.

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      • Cal Rogers says

        “…how well the first page foreshadows the writing and storytelling to come.” I totally agree.
        So, adding to my previous comment, I do have an appreciation for the predictament agents and editors are in. If I were an agent, looking at this first page, my reaction would be: “If this first page contains this much fluff, oh my God, just think how much more fluff must follow. I can’t waste my time reading this.”
        It still doesn’t make it fair that so many A-Listers seem to get a pass, just understandable, from a strictly business perspective.

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      • says

        Not to flog a dead horse;) but sometimes I wonder if this kind of gatekeeping is a fundamental element in the explosion of self-published books? i.e., are readers bypassing published works that are, uhm… masterfully written & edited, but don’t tell much of a story?

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        • Cal Rogers says

          Oh, no, this horse isn’t nearly dead enough (-:
          Writers frustrated by the seeming unfairness are starting to take matters into their own hands.
          I think the gatekeepers feel the unfairness, too. But what else can they do? Allow everyone in whose first page is better than the fluff Baldacci wrote? There aren’t enough agents to represent, publishers to print or shelf space at B&N to hold that many books. The traditional publishing industry only has so much capacity. They have to set the bar high for those who wish to occupy what marginal space has not already been consumed.
          While the nature of the traditional publishing business frustratingly ties the hands of the gatekeepers, the electronic age of social media euphorically unties the hands of some writers. It also creates a new set of issues, such as trying to separate the wheat from the chaff in the mountains of grain piling up.
          The answer to all of this is still to just write a great novel. The rest will take care of itself.

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  12. says

    I’m torn on this one. Heck, if I can fight my way through Vince Flynn and find it somewhat enjoyable, this guy’s sins aren’t any worse. But still, I get the sense that at this point he’s in the business of writing, not the art.

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  13. Sevigne says

    Ray, have you read the book? Curious, because you said, “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.”

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    • says

      I read the chapter. Spoiler alert: this character is assassinated at the very end. The flavoring of his coffee in no way had anything to do with what happened to him.

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    • says

      Maybe David was trying to help his readers relate to, “Feeling energized by the death that was about to happen.” Drinking coffee is more common than watching people die. I think. Could it be a part of a possible theme?

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  14. says

    Great as always, Ray.

    Granted, writing a stellar first line and first page are a feat. But I’d pass for all the reasons above. He lost my support at, “Feeling energized by the death about to happen. . . ” Robie might be feeling energized, but it’s not about something that hasn’t happened. Not exactly. That’s a writer’s trick. Feeling is more accurate than that, more complex. Had he been authentic, really inside Robie, we would have learned more about the character and his role in it . . . all in a sentence. Baldacci should know better.

    (IMO the Amazon writing needs an editor, too.)

    For balance, I guess I’ll have to be as tough on my own writing this morning. It’s never easy. (The NYT bestseller list will let you know when I accomplish the task.)

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  15. says

    With the blurb added, I would vote yes. In the blurb it says, “-call on Will Robie again.” Now, I’m lead to believe there is another book. I’m going to find the other book and read the blurb on that book. If it’s interesting I will probably read both book’s.

    In this case, I’ve already read the first book, so thanks for the heads up Ray, I’m definitely going to turn the page, as matter of a future action, I’m going to read the whole book.

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  16. Cal Rogers says

    I gave it a no and wondered where was this guy’s editor? All of that fluff could have been reduced to:
    “Frozen by the impending death, Jacobs thanked God he wasn’t there. Here was a better place, behind the heavy steel gate of this otherwise ordinary building in one of Washington, D.C.’s decaying historical districts.”
    This points to the unfairness that a lot of unpublished writers feel. We seem to be held to a much higher standard than the A-List authors who crowd the shelves at B&N.

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  17. Bob Greene says

    Ray, thanks for posting this. My reason for voting no is the passive style and other items mentioned. Doesn’t want me to come inside the story. Weak characterization and while the opening hook of sorts is interesting the rest is not.

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    • says

      I’ll volunteer that masterful writing is writing that sweeps you away, that fires up your interest and curiosity unimpeded, effortlessly, in a way that makes what you’re reading feel as natural and right as it can be. How’s that?

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  18. says

    Ray-

    Since apparently no one who left comments voted yes for this piece, I feel I should jump in and speak up for the ones who did.

    Here’s the thing. Without even reading the book blurb, which you wouldn’t if you got only the MS, right from the first sentence you know this is going to be a thriller. It’s not trying to be literary fiction.

    I don’t like the passive voice, or the “crystal clear” screen cliche or the “brief glance” redundancy. But they didn’t trip me up here so much that I wouldn’t turn the page. Because…

    Because it’s an interesting situation. Here’s a guy who’s obviously getting a bit buzzed – and not from the coffee with the 3 sugars, although I think that’d do it for me – about this killing that’s going to happen. And yet, the difference is he’s going to kill someone thousands of miles away. (And, about the coffee. Even with your spoiler, it seems to me you could make the case that this is the writer giving the character a bit of an affectation, a little something that makes him a bit more human than if we didn’t know that he wants to be not just caffeinated but also on a sugar high when he executes his kill order.) (Just a thought.)

    OK, this got my attention. Because it’s different, and it’s current. We’re droning people to death – but I haven’t run across a POV in a thriller that addresses it.

    So I’m not quite hooked yet, but yeah, I’d turn the page.

    Now, to find out it’s Baldacci … probably makes me less inclined to get to into it. I’ve read a couple of his books and while they strike me as OK, as serviceable, I’m not a big fan. I think if you look at his first books you’ll find the same type of writing as in this short sample here. Passive writing, cliches, etc.

    He’s not known (that is, as far as i know) for being a writer – the guy’s a storyteller. And plot, action, keeping the pages turned – that’s what he’s all about.

    So, I voted yes. If the question had been: would I buy this book, the answer might’ve been different.

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    • says

      Glad you chimed in, Jim. It’s not without virtues–but an unknown has to clear some serious hurdles. The agent/editor biz is, as it must be, subjective. So a first page that would clear one agent might not others. That’s the value of the voting on these floggings–the outcome can (not will) give you good insight into the strength of the storytelling that is on that first page. And I do believe that first pages are first-rate prognosticators of what is to come (don’t you love it when you get to use a word like “prognosticators?”).

      I teach a workshop at writers conferences about the first page, and writers are often very lenient in what they would accept, much more lenient than the gatekeepers that we need to please/interest/engage.

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      • says

        Ray-
        I totally agree about the importance of the first page. As a former newspaper reporter, no question that your lead has to be the strongest part of your story. I love a great first line, an impressive opening paragraph, writing that drags you right into the story.

        And I think you’re dead on about the start being compelling. It’s the word I use most when I’m talking with journalist buddies about the death of newspapers – mostly when I’m saying that it wouldn’t be happening (at least as much), if the writing was compelling.

        I did, however, look at this first page as a reader – and thrillers / mysteries / detective books are what I tend to read. I do think these type of novels tend to get by more on story than on writing. Not that they should, but some really good writers in the genre tend to drive me crazy by writing with so much passive voice. Still, the stories can be compelling although the writing doesn’t quite measure up to that standard.

        In this case, the question is: would you turn the page to read further. Even not being a Baldacci fan (and I tried to judge it as if I didn’t have that info), I would have.

        And the fact that there are different opinions about that is pretty much the reason you should submit to several agents and publishers.

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  19. says

    I was not even remotely interested in reading this book. I stopped reading after a few boring lines.

    On the other hand, prognosticators is a great word. Last time I heard it was in ‘Groundhog Day.’

    Always a pleasure to read your posts, Ray.

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  20. says

    I would say no even with a well-known author. I was bored. The “over-descriptivenes” belonged to a novice writer.
    Bad thing is, I write a lot like this. I just finished the editing for my second novel last night. I’m now tempted to go back and reread it.
    Clichés tend to sneak in whether I want them or not. I have yet to worry about the number of spoons of sugar, unless it was relevant to the story; e.g., a man uses 3 teaspoons of sugar and later his diabetes goes awry at a crucial time. However, unless you’re a nurse or have diabetes, I doubt anyone cares about the sugar.
    Commas are my bugaboo. If my editor charged me by the commas needed or deleted, she would make a small fortune per manuscript.

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  21. says

    I’m no longer convinced that excellent prose–prose constructed to make a writing coach or copy editor twitch with glee–results in substantial financial success. As I read a lot of contemporary genre fiction, I’m left wondering if the cherished rules are relevant to what the general fiction readership now finds appealing.

    I’d vote no, but the people who vote with their reading dollars are voting yes, time after time.

    A daunting puzzle, for an author.

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