Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?

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 Let’s see just how strong the opening page is—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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

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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. Merry says

    I recognized this book right away because I just bought it, just started it and just put it down after the first couple of pages. I’ll force myself to give it another try because it’s Nora and I spent money on it. Otherwise… meh.

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  2. says

    I voted “Yes” but it was close. For me, there was a sinister sense of something “bad” about to happen – how she was alone with the children, how dark was falling etc. I would’ve read for at least a few more pages before making up my mind whether to read the whole book or not.

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  3. says

    Ray,
    I agree, no story question. And yes, strong voice, but I found myself annoyed by Sorcha. What knucklehead drags a three-year-old through more of the bitter weather she claims they’ve been having all winter? Also, the POV jumps to Eamon for a breath, which was enough to make me have to re-read it. The names are cliche Irish as well. I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet, so I might be a bit grumpy. But in a nutshell, I didn’t like Sorcha, so I don’t care if she makes it home. I do, however, feel sorry for her kids.

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  4. says

    Pretending I’m an agent and this an unknown’s submission…I would read on for a few pages at least, because the writing is good and the situation interesting enough. I would be looking for something compelling to happen pretty quickly, though. Within five pages, at least.

    Of course, given that it’s Nora Roberts, readers will know what they’re getting–romance with woo woo elements–and wait patiently for her to spin the usual magic. She’s definitely earned their trust through 150+ books!

    Cheryl

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  5. says

    I voted no, mostly because two moments that irritated me: “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.” She showed us Teagan’s weariness and then told us that the child was weary — I strongly dislike the show-then-tell.

    And then this, “And though Imbolg celebrated the first stirrings in the womb of the Earth Mother, night fell too fast and hard in winter.” The words sounded pretty and atmospheric, but when I looked at them closer, they were rather empty.

    But I’m not generally a fan of Nora’s writing — she can craft a compelling story, and there are a few novels of hers that I’ve inhaled, but I’m not surprised that this was a “no” for me.

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  6. says

    I agree with you, Ray—close, but no cigar.

    You and commenter Susan both used the term “story question” though and it might be prudent to point out that THE major story question (the one raised by the inciting incident) need not be raised on page one. You just need to raise some questions that beg the reader’s interest. Something story-specific, beyond the generic “Who are these people and what are they doing?”

    Do you agree?

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    • says

      Yes, I agree, Kathryn. I look for something strong enough to make me want to know what happens next, that kind of story question. It’s tough to bring up the main question on the first page, but there needs to be something that engages me enough to make the page truly compelling–and that means irresistible. This one I could resist.

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  7. says

    To my surprise (as I wouldn’t normally touch Nora Roberts with a bargepole) I would have read on. The name-whispering in the wind was spookily compelling enough. Questions raised (Is there actually whispering? Is it her imagination? Has she heard such “beckoning” before, and knows what it means to refuse to answer?) were enough for me.

    The last sentence, however, doesn’t make sense. What does “say with his fine while he wages his battles” mean? Surely a typo, rather than a strange medieval turn of phrase?

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  8. Tina says

    For me, any book is given a chance on the strength of it’s writing, which is this case is obviously, very good.

    I will always give a story at the very least 3 chapters. But, if the characters are still not engaging me, and I do not understand at that point yet, what will be driving the story, chances are I will put it aside.

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  9. says

    Ray-

    I disagree with only one point, that big names don’t have to raise story questions, or otherwise compel us to read further, on page one. It’s true that having built a loyal readership over many great stories, fans will forgive an author some stumbles. But reader loyalty has limits.

    I regularly see royalty statements of best selling authors and I can tell you that with each new title the cumulative sales of those authors are not always rising or even the same. Every title sells a different number of copies. New readers arrive, others depart.

    What happened with the readers who didn’t return? I can tell you: They gave up on the author. At best seller level you might say, well who cares? You might be right. But why disappoint fans with a weak page one, a flabby middle, or a contrived and hasty ending?

    As to Nora’s page one flogged here, I would have kept reading. It’s a drearily inactive opening, tiresomely domestic and small, and yet the writing is assured. There are hints of strange things, even magic. There’s a bit of foreboding. The husband is off fighting a war, this mom is alone. Something’s going to happen, I feel it.

    That said, I’m not sure how much further I would have gone without greater conflict, drama, questions or change. But her opening has earned her a few more pages of my attention, which I suspect she’ll reward.

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  10. says

    I’ve been reading Irish history lately and memoirs and in the mood for more … so yes, I’m intrigued by the children and their mother.

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  11. says

    I’m not “into” this type of historical fiction, but I might have read on if I’d felt more invested in the main character. The writing is lovely; just not enough there to make me want to read it.

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  12. Hilary says

    As soon as I read the date 1263 I was put off. I’d expect a bleak grim tale including cold hunger squalor and domestic violence.

    The rest put me off even more.

    It reads like a 21st century middle-class value system imposed upon a historical scenario. I find myself not believing that a 1263 woman would be so kind to her children – more likely they’d get a clip round the ear and told to stop whining. Why take bannocks to eat on the way home, if you’re going to a feast? Why would the pony be with her, not with the husband working the land? And the youngest children are 3 and 5, and the older one(s) are walking – wouldn’t any child older than 5 be working too in those days? Didn’t they consider 7 to be virtually adult?

    The “womb of mother earth” line just made me cringe – sounds more like 21st century new-agey than 1263.

    I agree that woods aren’t green in winter, either.

    And “Home in your bed”? – would a 3 year old have a bed that counted as “yours” in those days? Surely not, surely the whole family slept in The bed – if there was a bed at all …

    Agree that the last line makes no sense.

    I’d read on until I found one more anachronism that I could be certain of, then throw it on the “No” pile.

    I’m not familiar with Nora Roberts. Maybe I just don’t like this genre ….

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    • says

      Thanks Hilary, for saving me from writing just the same as you!
      Only one point to add – I zoned out as I read it, and had to go back and re-read

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  13. says

    I vote yes. There was a foreshadowing of something lurking in their near future. What was in the fog? What darkness was tempting her? Yeah, I’d say there was something intriguing there. I do agree that a first time author couldn’t afford to be quite so subtle, though. I may have inserted a few lines with her actually hearing her name and feeling the draw. The struggle between her maternal instincts and whatever it was that was calling from the fog.

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  14. says

    To me, the writing here is not my cup of tea. Plus, I’m in the “drop them dead with the first sentence school” as in Grisham’s latest with his opening sentence, “They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he had promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected.”

    Also like my own first sentence from my new novel, “Sleeping Dogs”; “Anyone would say it was too nice a day for bad things to happen.”

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  15. says

    It’s a lot easier to flog a bestseller than it is to write one.

    I’ve never read anything by Nora Roberts before, and evaluating this first page ignorant of its author and genre, I found it much better than most of the first pages out there.

    Not every book has to start with a boom and a crash. This type of book, especially, is a mood piece–something to curl up with on a frosty autumn night with a mug of cocoa. People rarely read for “the story.” The story is just a vehicle for the emotional roller-coaster. Taking the audience into account, this first page delivers. It plops you straight into the mystical fairy-tale world of long, long ago in a land far, far away.

    Real-world readers don’t go into the first page blind, like we did for this exercise. An agent or editor will request a sample only after reading the query letter. Readers will open to the first chapter only after seeing the cover, reading the blurb, and seeing reviews or hearing recommendations from their friends. Everyone opens to the first page with foreknowledge of the genre conventions and the central conflict, and with their own ideas of how the story is “supposed” to go.

    So what the first page really needs to do isn’t necessarily to pose unanswered questions, but to promise that the rest of the book will deliver what the reader wants. If it’s a comedy, the first page needs to be funny. If it’s a thriller, the first page needs to be thrilling, or at least hint at the thrills to come. If it’s a romance, the first page needs to introduce a romanticized setting and characters the audience can identify with, etc.

    You do have to get things moving quickly–at least by page four or five–but you don’t always have to do it within the first 250 words.

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  16. Laurel says

    Perhaps this is silly of me, but I don’t completely buy into this whole checklist for an opening page, and I find it a bit sad that nowadays these things are required to have a chance at being published. I love older literature, especially 19th century, and almost none of it opens with tension or questions, or anything fast-paced. I suppose we all have to find the right balance for our own stories.

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    • says

      To be clear, Laurel, that checklist is not a list of requirements. It is a guideline designed to help writers evaluate any page, not just the first one, for elements that help crate a strong narrative. And writers trying to get published in today’s market can’t, as nearly as I understand it, open their narratives with the sort of thing you describe from the 19th century. As WU contributor Donald Maass says, tension on every page. That’s the world we live in.

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    • says

      Laurel
      You’re right of course, about the great nineteenth century authors taking a year and a day to get anything-like-what-we-might-think-of-as-going.
      But that was a different time.
      I might confess that I used to / sometimes even now start the big nineteenth century classics 20 or maybe even 50 pages in, and then come back later to read the now-obviously-relevant-and-wonderful preamble section.
      I think Ray’s “checklist” just flags up some things to titillate agents who are more than happy to have an excuse to dump a manuscript back onto the huge huge slushpile.
      Maybe you’re braver than me, and if so do stick to your guns, but I want to maximise my chances of them keeping reading, and even asking for more
      Good luck and best wishes
      Caroline

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  17. says

    Ray,

    I wouldn’t have read further as a reader. If I have to read any sentence three times, on page one, it’s a no go.

    But my inner editor found enough originality to make me think I could learn something by going a little farther. Maybe yes, maybe no, but there’s something going on in the writing that is compelling that is deeper than merely following the rules. I think there’s talent in there that bodes well for the following pages.

    But as a reader, no.

    Clayton

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  18. says

    For inquiring minds: the word fine Nora Roberts uses in the last line quoted (and it should be italicized as it is in the book) is a Gaelic word for kindred group, or family. So her husband wanted her to go stay with his family, which makes perfect sense.

    Also, a wood with holly and pines in it would be green even in winter.

    Just sayin’.

    Cheryl

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    • Down Girl says

      But the excerpt says “say with his fine,” not “sTay with his fine.” It’s really unintelligible.

      This would be a No for me for several reasons:

      – Sorcha is married with children. I don’t really care what comes after “And they lived happily ever after.”

      – On the first page I’m hit with bannocks, Imbolg, Eamon, Sorcha, Teagan, Earth Mother, and “fine.” I don’t want to slog through a whole book like this, especially since —

      – Sorcha is just another suburban 21st-century mom driving her kids home from the fair/grandparents/daycare/ plopped into the 13th century. Other readers have noted the anachronisms of “your bed” and the excessive solicitousness of a parent who should expect to put the 50% of her kids who survive infancy to work cutting wood, gathering nettles, or whatever it is the family does for a living. I’m not feeling transported to a different time and place, but I’m paying the price with all these old Irish words.

      – Also on the first page, we’ve got such a rash of hardships: 1) the unusually cold winter, 2) a family separated by 3) some distant war, and 4) some mysterious darkness that tempts Sorcha. It seems to me that 4 is the greatest of them and the one that will pose the central conflict, which could really excite me — except that I’m already a bit bored by Soccer Mom’s mundane domestic routine with its minute-by-minute disruptions. The first page bodes a life of “Eamon, help your sister.” “Finish your bannocks or you won’t get dessert.” “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” “Imbolg is boring.” “Because I said so, that’s why.”

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  19. says

    I love this exercise! Wearily, I voted yes. I could picture the scene, see the movement to something. Even the lack of clarity, if you would call it that, led me to want to turn the page. Like what the heck is “say with fine”? If the writing wasn’t compelling, I wouldn’t care to know. it was a close call. I recently went through this exercise with an agent at a retreat. We all submitted two pages and in the mix were the first two pages of five bestsellers, twenty submissions total. The agent nixed 4 out of 5 bestsellers. She nixed 14 of 15 of ours. Mine made it through a page and half with her calling my first page a prologue that worked. I knew my second page didnt work but wanted her input so I submitted it anyway. Yes I knew it was a darling that had to be killed. People who read it ,oved it, but i knew it wouldnt make the almighty agent checklist. That said, I am still revising it. The life of writer is anything but easy. Why do we do it? Hmmmm?

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  20. Eric says

    Look at some of the words in just the first paragraph: Shadow, gloom, sturdy, nodding, plod. Why would I even read the second paragraph? I’m already falling asleep and slipping off the horse.

    This is the type of stuff that I have seen from people who want to be writers but are not sure about the craft. It is the result of forcing oneself to sit down and do what all writing instructors say: Just write. That is fine for a class exercise, but doesn’t work if the intent is to create a compelling story line. Where is the mystery? The excitement? The fear? Is there anything that starts the question machine in the reader’s head? Not here. And what about this one:

    “Too often in that world of white and gray, she’d seen the dark.”
    I wouldn’t accept that sentence from a freshman college student. These are throw away words that do nothing more than fill out the page. It violates the most fundamental rule of good writing: Show us! Don’t just tell us!

    Here’s a five minute exercise that may not be ready for NY Times bestseller list, but certainly improves the story intro.
    ———————————————————————————
    The shadow from the castle turret cut across the sunlit forest, tricking the eye with sharp contrasts. Was that a wolf? No, just a lilac bush. Sorcha stopped her pony and turned around. The far end of the path opened to the fairgrounds and she could see movement. He was there, she thought, with his big horse and those boots and a razor smile that sliced her heart with indecision. She couldn’t be with child again. Not from him. Not from anyone. She had forbidden herbs in a clay jar at home. She would be miserable for a few days.

    She turned back and kicked her mount. Her son, Eamon, sat astride a small pony, holding his sister in front. “Pick up the pace, Eamon, we’ve got to get home before nightfall”. She slapped the pony on the rear and it broke into a trot. They still had miles to travel and while the days were brisk fall, the nights were cold winter.

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  21. says

    I voted yes, because by the end– the name calling in the wind, the fog— the story had piqued my curiosity.

    I admit to being a little surprised it was a Nora Roberts book. Her openings have often drawn me in to where I’m reading page 5 without realizing it. This one didn’t have that same pull for me, but I did enjoy it enough to keep reading.

    And I’ve wanted to buy the book and will still do so, so for me, the opening did the job. :)

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  22. says

    I love this feature, Ray, and am always interested to read the responses.
    I agree. I would not have read on. In fact, I had a hard time getting through these few lines. I have to qualify this, however, since this isn’t my genre. As soon as I saw 1263 I was pre-disposed not to be engaged. That said, I always want a story to capture me right off the bat, and regardless of genre, this one did not do it for me.

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  23. says

    Yes – If I picked this book up in the first place, it’d read another chapter or two before making a final decision.

    A good example of an unsuccessful opening is Nicholas Spark’s A Bend in the Road. In the past, I have enjoyed Sparks’ stories, but with this particularly story, I was immediately frustrated with too much back story and the long, opening prose to continue.

    It made me pause to consider if he queried agents with this book, would he have had any takers.

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