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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 this bigtime bestelling author’s first page:

We’re trying out a change in Flog a Pro— withholding the title and author’s name until after the fold so you can judge this opening page “cold.” Please tell me what you think.

This novel was in first place on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list for November 17. Let’s see just how strong the opening page is—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think it’s compelling? Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Chapter 1.

Winter 1263

Near the shadow of the castle, deep in the green woods, Sorcha led her children through the gloom toward home. The two youngest rode the sturdy pony, with Teagan, barely three, nodding with every plod. Weary, Sorcha thought, after the excitement of Imbolg, the bonfires, and the feasting.

“Mind your sister, Eamon.”

At five, Eamon’s minding was a quick poke to wake up his baby sister before he went back to nibbling on the bannocks his mother had baked that morning.

“Home in your bed soon,” Sorcha crooned when Teagan whined. “Home soon.”

She’d tarried too long in the clearing, she thought now. And though Imbolg celebrated the first stirrings in the womb of the Earth Mother, night fell too fast and hard in winter.

A bitter one it had been, crackling with icy winds and blowing snow and ice-tipped rain. The fog had lived all winter, creeping, crawling, curtaining sun and moon. Too often in that wind, in that fog, she’d heard her name called—a beckoning she refused to answer. Too often in that world of white and gray, she’d seen the dark.

She refused to truck with it.

Her man had begged her to take the children and say with his fine while he waged his battles over that endless winter.

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

Dark WitchDid you guess Nora Roberts and her newest, Dark Witch?

My vote: No

Oh, it was close because the writing is strong and so is the voice. But compelling? Could I put this down? Yep. There’s really nothing happening—someone is traveling in an ancient time—and there are zero story questions raised on this first page. Surely that could have been done. You can do it. I can do it. But, as we’ve seen here, the big names don’t have to. Not that I wouldn’t love to have the opportunity to be a big name and take that out for a spin.

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.