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

While it’s not a requirement that all of these 6 storytelling ingredients 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 first pages of this bigtime bestselling author’s new novel.

This novel was in first place on the New York Times trade hardcover and e-book bestseller lists for January 12. Let’s see just how strong the opening page is—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.

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. A front was moving through and Seth was soaked when they found him, not that it mattered. Someone would point out that there was no mud on his shoes and no tracks below him, so therefore he was probably hanging and dead when the rain began. Why was that important? Ultimately, it was not.

The logistics of hanging oneself from a tree are not that simple. Evidently, Seth thought of everything. The rope was three-quarter-inch braided natural Manila, of some age and easily strong enough to handle Seth, who weighed 160 pounds a month earlier at the doctor’s office. Later, an employee in one of Seth’s factories would report that he had seen his boss cut the fifty-foot length from a spool a week before using it in such a dramatic fashion. One end was tied firmly to a lower branch of the same tree and secured with a slapdash mix of knots and lashings. But, they held. The other end was looped over a higher branch, two feet in girth and exactly twenty-one feet from the ground. From there it fell about nine feet, culminating in a perfect hangman’s knot, one that Seth had undoubtedly worked on for some time. The noose was straight from the textbook with thirteen coils designed to collapse the loop under pressure. A true hangman’s knot snaps the neck, making death quicker and less painful, and apparently Seth had (snip)


My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

Sycamore Row GrishamDid you recognize John Grisham and his newest, Sycamore Row?

My vote: Yes.

What is there about a body that provokes such interest? It’s a great hook for raising immediate story questions—what happened? Why did it happen? The matter-of-fact tone/voice here lends credibility to the story; it almost reads as a non-fiction report, especially when it goes into details about a hangman’s knot. I simply can’t write that way—I’m the sort of writer and reader who wants something to be happening.

And there’s the potential drawback in this narrative, at least for me. There’s no real emotional content, no protagonist to connect with, and nothing really happening. For this reader, something had better happen soon or I’ll stop reading. But I did find this first page compelling enough to move me to the next one.

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 agree with you, Ray. I would read on for another page, but if the narrative continued with such a dry delivery much longer, I would close the book.

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  2. Jeanne Kisacky says

    First paragraph had me, but I glazed over at the details of the rope because it defused the larger question. The body posed an intriguing mystery; the omniscient tone of the narration in the second paragraph took the mystery out of it.

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  3. says

    The idea of a man hanging is compelling in itself. My initial response was Oh, this is interesting. But not for long. “They” in the opening line is weak and vague. If you use a pronoun coming out of the gate, the author really must tell us who that is fairly quickly … police? friends? coworkers? And then again “someone would point out …” Another weakness that leaves me disconnected and distant. Now if Seth’s best friend pointed that out, I’d feel something. “In the general area”? General area of what? I’ve no placement of where we are. Did he hang himself in his backyard? Woods? Where are we?

    I think Grisham failed in tension, voice, scene-setting, character. The logistics of the rope and knots paragraph is just dreadful. I wanted to skim.

    Grisham is a much better writer than this!

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  4. says

    My favorite line on the first page “He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind.”

    I like the description and detail about the hangman’s knot because it tells us that Seth was not crying out for help. He wanted to die. Or the narrator wants us to believe that because Seth took the time to make sure the rope would hold him and the knot would ensure a quick death. I’d turn the page simply because I want to know why Seth felt he had no other option than to take his own life.

    I can only assume the action will come within the next few pages, and I’d be willing to wait for it.

    Thanks for sharing!

    ~Melinda

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  5. says

    Hi, Ray. I liked this opening, and I’d even argue that the interest for the reader lies not in what happened to Seth What’s-His-Name–after all, he’s dead when we meet him–but in finding out more about the narrator. Who is this person? I feel like I’m in the hands of a controlling intelligence, but whether or not that intelligence is reliable or not is another question. I definitely want to know more about the narrator by the end of Page One.

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  6. says

    I liked the first paragraph quite a bit, but the rest of it left me cold. If it was an unknown author I might have gone on another page or two, waiting for it to pick up. Depending on what I was in the mood for. Or I might have put it down. It’s pretty dry.

    But if I knew it was Grisham, I would continue on much longer whether it picked up right away or not, because I have a long track record of enjoying his books and think he writes a terrific story.

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  7. says

    I’m a “yes.” I completely agree with Audra Spicer above. It’s the narrative voice that is a zinger, so finely controlled–and yet this rather dramatic hanging has taken place, raising the questions “who was Seth Hubbard? what were the factories he owned? Why did he kill himself?’

    Seth comes across as an exacting, measured man–and the narrative voice is equally accurate and exacting. What happens next?

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  8. says

    I certainly would continue reading. I found the entire page interesting and I wanted to know more about why the character killed himself. The details added to the mystery for me.

    Are most readers really impatient for more action by the second paragraph? That makes me sad. It’s the result of a television culture, I’m afraid.

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  9. says

    The first line intrigued me, but things went downhill for me after that. I was curious about how the body got there, and what poor Seth had done to end up in such a state. But the omniscient POV put me at a distance from what should be a dramatic and compelling event. Then all the technical business about the knots and the rope. Not dramatic. If I had felt that I was inside a POV character’s head, observing, that would have made the difference for me. As it stands, I’d close the book.

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  10. says

    As the author of a novel that opens with the prospect of a suicide that takes the entire book to unwind, I’m reluctant to criticize another writer’s starting at the opposite end and presumably working his way back.

    But… the opening is flat (intentionally so, I expect) and the description of rope minutiae isn’t compelling. A few details, though, did raise my interest. Why include a detail and then say it didn’t matter? It’s unlikely a man who can tie a hangman’s knot would tie his other knots haphazardly.

    Grisham’s name on the cover would help me turn the page. If this were the first page of a self-published e-book, I’d consider it sloppy and save myself the 99 cents.

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  11. says

    Yes! There’s something about a passage like this that draws me in. It doesn’t require me to do anything but to observe. Its descriptive elements paint a strong visual image in my head.

    I agree that something needs to happen after this to keep me reading, but I would definitely turn the page.

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  12. says

    Ditto for what most commentators wrote. Newbies would get flogged big time for going into such detail about the rope on page one.

    Oh double standard, where is thy sting? ;-)

    Chris

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  13. Densie says

    Just going to parrot what almost everyone else said. First graph was intriguing. Eyes started glazing over in the second. Don’t think an agent would have taken the bait from an unpublished author. Some of the language seemed a bit clunky “Evidently, Seth had thought of everything.” Why not just “Seth had thought of everything.” and

    “Later, an employee in one of Seth’s factories would report that he had seen his boss cut the fifty-foot length from a spool a week before using it in such a dramatic fashion.” Seems like this could be cut and revealed later? Drew me out of the narrative.

    Just my two cents.

    Ray, I love these installments from best selling authors!

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  14. says

    I’m with Audra. I think this is wonderfully written, and that most of the commenters are missing the very very subtle ways in which by underwriting he builds tension. For example, he suggests it won’t be a simple murder mystery because he describes things that a detective MC would spend book-time detecting. Yet at the same time he plants the seed that it might be a murder rather than a hanging by describing – and not telling – the mismatched knots that form the noose and bind the rope to the tree.

    I’m not a huge Grisham fan, though I like him, but I think the writing here shows a clean maturity of style that his earlier works lacked.

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  15. says

    Well said, MK. I agree.

    As a voracious reader, a writer and an editor, I can’t grasp why this would be considered bad writing. I certainly have been critical of Grisham’s writing in the past, but not this time. I think the small details presented from a detached point of view create a mood that, for me at least, was effective. If this were a movie, we’d be opening with a wide shot, and presumably we’ll be brought in closer as the story unfolds.

    I thought it was a nice piece of writing.

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  16. says

    Ray,

    I’m Yes on this. The fine quality of writing in the first paragraph juxtaposed with the certainly-flatter quality of the second draws my curiosity (as writer and editor) to see if the writer is in command of what he/she is creating. So I would turn the page. But I agree with others that good stuff–protagonist and why I should care–needs to come quickly.

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  17. says

    Hi Ray,
    While I agree that is compelling, it’s just not my genre. Even though my curiosity was piqued, I’d rather pick up something like this: “Edith Goodnough isn’t in the country anymore. She’s in town now, in the hospital, lying there in that white bed with a needle stuck in the back of one hand and a man standing guard in the hallway outside her room.” The Tie That Binds – Haruff
    Not only does this have voice, its tone reveals theme and launches the main character’s problem for the rest of the book. I get it, though.

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  18. says

    I actually have this book on my shelf to read and will go for several more pages before giving up if the action does not start soon. I did like the opening paragraph a lot and hope that the detailed second paragraph is just there to firmly establish that Seth did not do this to himself, and the narrative will not be so dry and detailed for the rest of the book.

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  19. Cal Rogers says

    The opening hooked me from the first line. I started to become a little impatient with details about the rope, and would have cut: “Why was that important? Ultimately, it was not.” But I loved the deadpan tone of the first page. It reminded me of the way he opened The Firm, which is my favorite Grisham novel. I think writing in a clinical, detached way about something as dramatic as a suicide is riveting, because the disconnect between the drama of the event and the lack of drama in describing it creates tension in me the reader.

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    • Hilary says

      I wouldn’t have cut, “Why was that important? Ultimately it was not” – in fact, that was one of the most compelling lines, for me, because that suggests that this is not a dry detective story but there is perhaps something more unusual in the content. In a standard detective story that would be a crucial clue – so what sort of story IS this?

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  20. says

    I found the back and forth detail tiresome and slow.

    My “no” vote was completely editorial. I wouldn’t have let a newbie client be that sloppy.

    Had it been something that I read when I was screening for a publisher, I might have gone further simply to see more of the story.

    I do not read John Grisham or anyone in this genre at all, so I did not recognize this opening.

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  21. says

    i liked it, voted yes, and thought the dry detail deepened the emotional horror straight from (for me) the second line :

    “He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind.”

    the person had been at the end of their rope more ways than one – was 6 feet up rather than down (in the ground), creating more unrest – and the “slight” twisting is just enough to feel inside one’s stomach

    who knows if several pages later i’d held interest, but this was good for me

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  22. says

    The diversity of comments shows how tough it is for agents and editors to judge material, particularly openings. For my money, that was one of John’s best opening sentences ever, though the “twisting in the wind” phrase struck me as tired and undercut the tone of the opening.

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  23. says

    I agree that it’s intriguing and well written enough to keep me going. And, in fact, I did continue reading. It moved along well for a while but now I’m halfway through and have lost interest. It’s rare and unfortunate that a book can hold my interest for so long and then fall flat. For me there’s no compelling story, just a history of a family and a relationship. There’s very little tension, small and uninteresting conflicts – not enough to even make me flip to the end to see what happens.

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  24. says

    I voted no.

    I wasn’t compelled to turn the page. On the contrary, I became bored reading the second paragraph. Sure, the first paragraph held my interest; I was hooked to find out how and why he was hanging, but not in the mouth, like a freshwater bass—a side gaffing, as if snagged while the author was reeling in for another cast.

    The information in the second paragraph seems like it should have come later…after I nibbled on the first, got the author’s attention, and was offered more time (and intrigue) before the dump of details.

    The line, “Someone would point out that there was no mud on his shoes and no tracks below him, so therefore he was probably hanging and dead when the rain began. Why was that important? Ultimately, it was not.”

    Grishom should’ve heeded his own words. It wasn’t important, nor the next slew of sentences. At least not at that point.

    I get bored with a story quickly if it doesn’t offer something more. It doesn’t always have to be action or adventure, murder or intrigue…just something I’m unable to put my finger on until I’m reading. This didn’t have it for me.

    Thanks Ray. Good article and series you have here.

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  25. says

    YES YES YES! Though I suppose it isn’t fair for me to vote, since I recognized the book right away. Just read it over the holidays and thought it was his best in over a decade.

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  26. P.S. Joshi says

    The first page definitely hooked me. I love John Grisham’s work so even though I didn’t realize this was his, I guess I’m conditioned to loving that type of writing from reading his previous books.

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  27. Ted Duke says

    I was completely unfamiliar with this book, and the first page caught my interest. I like the fact that the narrative gave me more information. That’s assuming that he really did commit suicide, or that someone wanted to make it look that way.

    I’ll have to read the book to find out. I haven’t read a Grisham book in a while, I guess it’s time.

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  28. says

    Had no desire to read his new book until I read this, now I must have the book (although it helps that I now know it’s John Grisham). For me, it doesn’t matter who “they” are and in fact it helps the narrative not to know. We need to find out, although we have some ideas. Another interesting thing is that we dont know who is narrating, except that it isn’t Seth. It could be a third person or first person narrative. All of the so-called flaws are actually carefully written clues and questions. I loved it.

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