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 bestselling author’s new series novel. Although it will attract readers familiar with the series, it still needs to stand alone on a bookstore table—and an editor’s desk. Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—there are folks who reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason to reject it.

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 Let’s see just how strong the opening page is—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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

“Long live the King.”

At the sound of the deep, grave voice, Wrath, son of Wrath, had an instinct to look around for his father . . . a spark of hope that the death had not occurred and the great ruler was as yet still with them.

But of course, his beloved sire remained gone unto the Fade.

How long would this sad searching last? he wondered. It was such useless folly, especially as the sacred vestments of the vampire King were upon himself, the bejeweled sashes and silken coat and ceremonial daggers adorning his own body. His mind cared naught for such proof of his recent coronation, however . . . or mayhap it was his heart that remained unswayed by all that now defined him.

Dearest Virgin Scribe, without his father, he was so alone, even as he was surrounded by people who served him.

“My lord?”

Composing his visage, he turned around. Standing in the doorway of the royal receiving chambers, his closest adviser was like a column of smoke, long and thin, draped in dark robes.

“My honor to greet you,” the male murmured, bending low. “Are you ready to receive the female?”


My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

The-KingDid you recognize J.R. Ward and his newest, The King: A Novel of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, the twelfth novel in this series? Interestingly, the bestseller we looked at in last month’s Flog a Pro was also the twelfth in a series. Good for the authors.

My vote: No.

I’ll give the story a pass on the sort of stilted language as that style is part of the series and is often seen in this genre. On storytelling merit, however, it didn’t work for me. What actually happens? The character ruminates (set-up) and he’s asked to receive someone. For this reader, there were no story questions sufficient to raise tension, no stakes apparent for the coming encounter with “the female,” so it was a no-go.

Your thoughts? If this weren’t the 12th novel in a successful series , would you have turned the page?

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

    For me, there are too many things requiring explanation but not enough detail to draw me into this world. It is difficult (I know from personal experience) to begin a book in a series; how much back-story do you include, how much do leave until later? But this opening would not encourage me to read this book, or to start the series. And the language, for me, is a turn-off; a hint at the middle ages is one thing, but constant reference in linguistic terms is too much, I feel.
    So a definite ‘no’ for me.

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  2. says

    I like the imagery that immediately comes to mind while reading this passage, but I agree with what Stuart said and what you said. Stilted language and not knowing enough background make this a pass for me.

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  3. says

    I voted no. I didn’t really like the clunky language. Even if the author wanted to use words from that time period, I still feel the second sentence was way to long, and difficult to read. Even the “hook” for the next page was, “do you want to see the female?” I don’t know, that just seems very vague and not so interesting.

    Maybe a person who had been following the story would find this very exciting, like the previous book mentioned some powerful queen and they are eluding to that here. However, for any first time reader, I doubt they would find the interest to pick it up.

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  4. says

    I’ll be honest, I pretty much stopped at “Wrath, son of Wrath.” Then I pushed myself to read on and stopped at ‘vampire king.’ TO me, it’s part genre–this is not my thing. But I also found the language…overbearing. I think that’s the word I want. It feels too stuffy and cumbersome to be enjoyable.

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  5. says

    No. I can’t really tell what genre it is. At first I thought science fiction, for some reason. Then I thought fantasy or historical. But there is a vampire. The cover doesn’t help either, with the generic romance novel body builder type. I left the first page confused and uninterested.

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  6. says

    It felt very cliched and hackneyed–another story about the son of the king, who is probably not ready to take the throne, but is thrust into the seat of power due to circumstances. It’s been writte countless times. No thanks.

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  7. says

    The POV and the “telling” (‘this sad searching, had an instinct, his mind cared naught, his heart that remained unswayed’) created too much distance and formality. It read more like a report than inviting the reader into the character. The most interesting part was the adviser, “like a column of smoke, long and thin, draped in dark robes.” That jumped out at me.

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  8. says

    I voted yes. I didn’t recognize it at all, and can’t say I’m interested in vampire stories. But the last line intrigued me. I’d turn the page and read a few chapters at least.

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  9. says

    Ward’s choices in diction and syntax are too stereotypical for me. The language is trying too hard to create the POV of a cosseted boy-king, but it ends up sounding like every badly written fantasy novel.

    On the other hand, we’re meeting the main character at a huge moment of change: his father the king is dead, so he’s being made into the next king whether he likes it or not.

    On the third hand, though, there’s not a lot the main character does about that situation. If he had *done* something to pursue his own goal on the first page, then maybe. But the language still gets in the way.

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  10. Edi B. says

    I commiserate with the author, who likely feels immense pressure from agent, publisher, and readers to write quickly and get another book to press.

    The writing feels careless. Several story flaws irritated me: (1) The deep voice crying “Long live the king” remains unidentified and disembodied throughout the long reverie of Wrath son of Wrath (another irritant: will that be his moniker throughout the whole book?), and it took some reflection before I realized it was being spoken by the column of smoke (would a man that thin have a deep voice? Perhaps.). (2) “Sad searching” and “useless folly” are supposed to draw the reader in to some mystery; however, they are illogical in context. If his father is dead, why the sad searching for him? And is it the searching that is useless folly? Or is it all the pomp? Not clear, and again irritating. (3) Not sure why he had to “compose his visage” when we don’t get a glimpse of tear or frown or sad eyes in the previous reverie. (4) Why go to such trouble to describe in detail the king’s closest advisor (nicely done by the way), and then simply refer to him in the next line as “the male”?

    I don’t mind language that is high and courtly; Tolkien uses this style to great advantage. But this writer lacks Tolkien’s discreet use of it for the highest of moments; and his careless flaws on the first page, including the lack of action, clog the plot of what could be a good story. I would put the book down quickly to avoid a dangerous spike in my blood pressure.

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  11. says

    The writing is clunky. The character is conflicted but in a wholly expected way. King, vampire, destiny. Standard dark fantasy.

    But I voted yes. It was one poorly punctuated line that got me: “…without his father, he was so alone, even as he was surrounded by people who served him.” Standard issue fantasy, perhaps, but there’s a father-son heart beating beneath the genre robes.

    I also liked how the King’s closest adviser is like “a column of smoke”. Genre writing can have deft touches, often overlooked, that engage our imaginations. Not only is it descriptively deft, the line presents a built-in contradiction.

    If this commercial fantasy isn’t one’s cup of poison, I understand, but I’m sensing that this is better than the genre requires…and probably is a best selling series for a reason. I’ll read further.

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  12. says

    I also found the writing stilted and clunky. Here’s the sad part for me. As an editor, I frequently receive manuscripts from authors who try very hard to emulate this sort of writing.

    They are frequently shocked and dismayed when I get out the red pen. And now I’m wondering, perhaps I should leave it. Perhaps this is what fantasy readers truly believe is good writing.

    After all, it makes for best sellers, doesn’t it?

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  13. says

    Stilted, heavy, clunky language, yes, but what bothered me more was the static emotion. I felt like I was told he was sad, but I didn’t feel it. The senses needed to have come into play more to show me how he was feeling so I could connect with him, feel what he was feeling, care about him and his funk. Though to be fair, if I’d read the previous 11 books, I probably would be able to insert his emotions as I read this one. I did perk up a bit at the last two lines — the column of smoke (great imagery) and receiving the woman (a gift? a mate? a witch? I wanna know!). Hold on to your ceremonial dagger, Wrath; I have a feeling you’re about to be pulled out of your sad searching by your bejeweled sash! Let’s hope, anyway.

    Sophia Ryan / She Likes It Irish

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  14. says

    Here’s more evidence to prove the unreliability of bestseller designations, awards, badges, prizes, etc. It does seem there are many–inside and out of legacy publishing–who know how to game the system.
    Even so, how could “Wrath, son of Wrath” and “composing his visage” get by any editor?

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    • says

      Barry-

      Do you truly believe that a 12-book series remains a best seller only because someone knows how to “game the system”? Can so many consumers be duped for so long? Do do seriously believe that?

      We may not like this writing or this story type, but it seems to me that we must concede that there’s something in this series to which many, many people are responding. I, for one, don’t believe that anything else can explain its success.

      I do agree with Keith, though. Wrath Jr. Logical, if not exactly a ringing moniker.

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  15. KB says

    The issue with this book, to me, is that it is part of a
    series that started out great, and then died, a common problem with
    series. Some authors either lose interest in continuing to write
    well-crafted stories and/or they’re under pressure from their
    publisher to crank out another book. I have no doubt that Ward can
    write great stories, but this series is dead. It was dead by the
    7th or 8th book. I know because I bought them. I bought too many
    books in this series because I believed in the author. But then I
    gave it some thought. I’m tired of spending my hard-earned money on
    books that don’t deliver what is promised, or whose authors have
    fallen asleep at the wheel.

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  16. says

    Still working on my first novel, syzygy.org, so take this with a grain of something.
    **Mindset while reading.
    I read this and immediately tagged it as yet-another-vampire piece. It clearly was depending on the moldy vampire tropes that were old already in the 80’s.
    **Looking for an excuse to read.
    Pushing that aside, the question was “Is this likely a break-out vampire story? One that said something about the human condition like the original Frankenstein’s Monster? Or a deeply developed character with at least as much depth as Adian on “Being Human” Brit or American versions.” Did I see either promised in the first page. Nope
    **Last gasp. Do I drool over vampires? Nope.

    Bottom line why did I read the first page.

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  17. says

    To Donald Maass’ point: “Can so many consumers be duped for so long? Do do seriously believe that?”

    I think that we habitually try to render “objective” what is actually “subjective” – especially things that become wildly successful (but that we don’t like). We think that because we don’t like them/ appreciate them, that they are “bad,” despite that millions of other people think they are “great.”

    And of course, we’re right and they’re wrong!!! Why? Because degrees! And I read and stuff!

    To me, this exercise really proves that while many people don’t care for it, sometimes it’s about finding “your audience.” Getting your material into the hands of the people who will love it, and who will think it’s “good.”

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  18. says

    I voted YES. I’m not into Vampire stories, but what got to me in J. R. Ward’s, The King, was in the story line, “without his father, he was so alone.” BOING!

    My book, the book that has me so emotionally tangled, has that, “without her father, she was so alone.”

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  19. says

    I was ready to vote no, but then my eyes skimmed that last line. “Are you ready to receive the female?”

    What the WHAT? Receive her for what? There are vampires afoot – I get that – but does he intend to drink her blood – or worse? And for women stranded in a nest of vampires, something worse is definitely an option.

    So while I probably wouldn’t have turned the page, because I wouldn’t have been standing on this particular isle of the bookstore (not because I don’t like vampires, I love them, but the writing strikes me as high fantasy – not my thing) I would have turned the page because of that one line (if, you know, I’d accidentally wondered into the high fantasy section).

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  20. says

    These things need an “edit” button…”wandered” not “wondered” in the last line of my reply.

    Note to self: don’t type and talk at the same time.

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  21. says

    Oh, phooey– didn’t read the instructions closely enough. Sorry. Ok, genre aside, no, I wouldn’t turn the page– the language is stiff and heavy-handed, and there is nothing really here that compells me to sympathize over much with the character. Maybe if I was invested in the series, it would be different, but this is still clunky stuff.

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  22. Abe says

    Definitely NO. It took too much effort to read even those 17 lines. And I was mostly just confused by how the sentences were constructed. I can’t believe ANYONE would make it past page 1. Yikes!

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  23. says

    Sorry, for me this was a definite yes. Maybe because I am a fan of J.R.Ward and love her writing style, or maybe it’s because as a reader I like to immerse myself in the story, not pick apart every component of style and grammar that might or might not be perfectly written. I may be a new writer, still learning the ropes, but I am a professional reader with about forty years experience. Believe me, when I love a book it’s certainly not because it’s written to a certain standard. It’s all about the emotion, which J.R. Ward manages in spades. Each and Every time. Which is why she’s where she is.

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  24. Poeticus says

    A shortcoming for me of this fragment is the dramatic complication of the scene is underdeveloped for introductions’ sake.

    Dramatic complication: antagonizing wants and problems wanting satisfaction, which are expressed though antagonizing events antagonizing characters in antagonizing settings.

    Antagonizing events compel a protagonist’s dramatic action, that drives plot movement along the rollercoaster track. An introspective opening scene is one-dimensional, without other antagonisms, like characters and settings, especially agonistic (competing–competitors) characters, whose interactions with a protagonist-agonist expose character traits most.

    Wrath-sire Wrath wants to find his father, alive. A fierce battle has taken place. Wrath-sire Wrath presumes and concludes his father died. Not much antagonizing problem development there. Plot hole; false interiorization ploy [sic] hole. He waits for an audience with a dame mysterious, at which time I guess plot movement might actually begin after an otherwise weak and pointless bridging dramatic complication taking up all the first page, below page sink, real estate.

    The overwrought language adds shortcoming weight to the scale, tipping the balance beam toward more shortcoming than strength. However, as an ongoing installment, much other pre-positioned context and texture in prior installments probably set up for this decidedly not standalone novel opening.

    I read the Hardy Boys franchise from cover to cover, bookend to bookend. Though the plots, premises, and motifs became repetitive and derivative about halfway through the whole for this at the time young reader, I still felt a pull to read the whole collection. I wanted to see the boys’ emotional growth and endpoint, I realized. It never came to fruition. They were the same personalities and emotional maturation states as the saga began.

    I suppose this Black Dagger Brotherhood franchise has a similar pull on its audience. If vampires are deeply involved, there must be an abusive idle elite society premise and motifs, and dedicated saga readers wanting to see how that turns out, for good or ill poetic justice.

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  25. says

    Allthough the writing felt a bit clumsy to me (any writing, especially fantasy, that tries to sound old by using words like “mayhap” REALLY annoys me) and most vampires suck the joy of reading out of me, I was going to vote yes because the character’s inner conflict captured my interest.

    But then I read the line about “the female”. That kind of story… No, thanks.

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  26. Alisha Rohde says

    I voted yes, though barely. The language wasn’t working for me (too much muchness), and I’m not a vampire fan, but I removed those issues from the decision here. I think two things caught my attention in those last few lines–the same ones other folks noted: the advisor like a column of smoke and “the female.” Yeah, “the female” schtick might make me want to throw the book across the room in a few pages, but I’d be willing to read another page or two first, to see if I found more to draw me into the story.

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  27. Tony DiMeo says

    I voted no. For me, it felt like it was wandering aimlessly until the “without his father” line. Nothing much happened until that point.

    But after reading the comments, specifically the ones by Mr. Maass, I thought I’d pose the following question:

    If the line “without his father, he was so alone, even as he was surrounded by people who served him,” was what grabbed your attention, then wouldn’t it have been better suited to begin the story with?

    It seems like it’s the type of thing that an established author can get away with, because readers are familiar with his work and characters, and they trust that this author will deliver. So there is leeway given.

    But I think a newbie, like myself, would need to lead with a line like that and build from there (especially if an agent like Don Maass cites it as being an attention grabber). Would new authors on the slush pile be given that much slack on the first page?

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  28. says

    As someone who dislikes vampire novels in general, I would still vote yes.

    The writing is clunky, sure, but I’m intrigued enough by the line about being alone without his father, even as he’s surrounded by his servants.

    I’m also intrigued by the way “the female” is introduced. Why “the female” (an alienating, distancing term, in my opinion) and not “the woman” or “the girl” or “your next victim” (whatever the case may be)? I’d turn the page and see what’s going to happen.

    Of course, in real life, I wouldn’t even pick up the book because I can tell from the cover that it isn’t my type of thing.

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  29. says

    Unlike the majority, I voted ‘yes.’ While the words were a bit grandiose, I felt like the character was on the verge of something big. I would definitely turn the page. Guess I like ‘stilted’ language. lol

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