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 page of this bestselling author’s newest novel. 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 when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

This novel was in first place on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestseller list for May 11. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.

I’d know her head anywhere.

And what’s inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

My eyes flipped open at exactly six A.M. This was no avian fluttering of the lashes, no gentle blink toward consciousness. The awakening was mechanical. A spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the lids: The world is black and then, showtime! 6-0-0 the clock said—in my face, first thing I saw. 6-0-0. It felt different. I rarely woke at such a rounded time. I was a man of jagged risings: 8: 43, 11: 51, 9: 26. My life was alarmless.


My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

Did you recognize Gillian Flynn and her Gone Girl?

My vote: No.

While I think the writing is strong and involving with a literary flavor, what is happening here? A man wakes up. Oh, add that he thinks about his wife if you wish, but that’s all that’s happening. What is the story question? I didn’t see one. Sure, with a bestselling author and a cover blurb I would know that his wife disappears, but still . . . This is primarily nicely written set-up. No clue as to story. I have a hunch many of you will disagree on the strength of the writing, and that’s a perfectly reasonable choice.

However . . . on my blog I often look through submissions for a more compelling opening. Just for fun, here’s another set of 17 lines that I edited from later in the chapter. Yes, it’s rough, and the scene needs to be set, but I see story questions in this that I didn’t in the original. See what you think. Could the novel open this way and introduce the set-up stuff later? A new poll follows.

One day the phone rang. My twin sister was on the other end. Margo had moved back home after her own New York layoff a year before—the girl is one step ahead of me in everything, even shitty luck. Margo, calling from good ole North Carthage, Missouri, from the house where we grew up, and as I listened to her voice, I saw her at age ten, with a dark cap of hair and overall shorts, sitting on our grandparents’ back dock, her body slouched over like an old pillow, her skinny legs dangling in the water, watching the river flow over fish-white feet, so intently, utterly self-possessed even as a child.

Go’s voice was warm and crinkly even as she gave this cold news: Our indomitable mother was dying. Our dad was nearly gone—his (nasty) mind, his (miserable) heart, both murky as he meandered toward the great gray beyond. But it looked like our mother would beat him there. About six months, maybe a year, she had.

“I’ll come back, Go. We’ll move back home. You shouldn’t have to do this all by yourself.”

A long exhale. “What about Amy?”

That is what I didn’t take long enough to consider. I simply assumed I would bundle up my New York wife with her New York interests, her New York pride, and remove her from her New York parents—leave the frantic, thrilling futureland of Manhattan behind—and transplant her to a little town on the river in Missouri, and all would be fine.

My point here is not that this is the best opening possible, but that there could have been good story questions and mood on the first page that would keep the pages turning. 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

    No. I’d put this one back on the shelf. The author is trying too hard, and spending too much time, describing his wife’s head and brain. If zombies don’t pop out of the bushes in the next paragraph, I don’t see the beginning of a story here. Your second example does present a story opening. It is rough, but I’m intrigued by these adult children of what must have been horrifying parents. I’d much rather follow that trail than see where Gillian Flynn is going with the brains and the corn kernel head.

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  2. says

    I am always jarred by metaphors which seem inapt. These didn’t work for me:

    shiny, hard corn kernel

    riverbed fossil

    centipedes

    However, the clicking of the ventriloquist dummy’s lids was unique and fitting for the moment. It didn’t jump off the page demanding to be recognized for literary merit.

    I have read the book and it is that mix of literary and genre that someone around here keeps calling “21st Century fiction.” So the opening strategy is not necessarily a bad one, but it does strain a bit too much for my taste. That said, I did like the book quite a bit once I got into it. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say I’ve known people like that.

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  3. says

    Ray-

    I agree with Ron. The author is straining for effect:

    “Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil.”
    “I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it.”
    “I was a man of jagged risings.”

    You know how in formulaic romance fiction there is a lot of emotional churning? You know the stuff: restating the obvious, turning feelings over and over for examination like they are gems with facets?

    Well, ask me literary fiction can churn too, raining down sparkling imagery as if to shower the reader with a useless grace. Nice writing is nice but only to a point. When it stops serving the story and only shows off, I skim. (“I’m a man of jagged risings.” Really? I was thinking that very thing to myself this morning!)

    Having read Gone Girl, I can report that Flynn has a helluva story to tell, one complex and ultimately compelling. She wouldn’t be on the best seller list if she didn’t. But man, at times, you do have to wade through a swamp of style to get there.

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  4. says

    I think if it had started with the last paragraph about his eyelids flipping open mechanically at exactly 6, that would be interesting. The character thought it unique enough to mention so that made me think, why *did* he wake up at exactly six? Why *did* he pop awake this morning?

    The stuff about the wife’s head could have been way way condensed. And a hard corn kernel? Really?

    But otherwise, I liked the voice and story questions in the second selection better.

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  5. says

    Sorry to say my first impression was that this writing was quite self-conscious. The character struck me as obsessive and self-absorbed. I’ve very little tolerance for a real person like that, so I’m unlikely to spend my reading time on a fictional character that starts off so obnoxious. I would close the book.

    The second opening is appealing but has too much crammed into it. The sister, the parents, the wife, the POV character all created a jumble. Maybe one quick thumbnail about Margo would do and save the longer description for later. Needs streamlining and tighter editing for sure.

    That said, I don’t mind a story taking some time to open. As a reader I don’t need to have “the story element/question” revealed on the first page. In fact, I sometimes like bit of an introduction with a fascinating voice and engaging language of images. Susan Hill’s “Dolly, A Ghost Story” opens this way: she has some 40 lines of description of Iyot Lock, a hamlet where the story takes place. No direct story question, no characters, mild tension, but very evocative with voice and scene-setting. I absolutely had to turn the page to find out who lived there.

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  6. says

    I was actually okay with the brain/skull musings; it was the last paragraph that got me. It felt like an abrupt change of tone and the numbers seemed out of place – I had trouble even getting through it. I would have preferred to see the author introducing the actual story elements here, which would have flowed better from the preceding paragraphs and also made for a more compelling opening.

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    • Jayne Moore Waldrop says

      I agree, Lori. I liked the early paragraphs. There’s a creepy tension about studying the wife’s head and dipping into her thoughts. There’s a physicality about his analysis of her brain that feels threatening (I haven’t read the book yet so I don’t know the plot). And then, the last paragraph didn’t seem to fit.

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  7. Karen says

    This was a tough one for me. I’ve read the book for book club and recognized the opening. The corn kernel comparison was jarring the second time around, too. However, there’s something sinister about a man talking about cracking his wife’s perfect skull open so he can understand what the heck she is thinking. Even though his thoughts come across as confused and harmless the fact that he doesn’t understand her speaks to me of serious marital problems. There is darkness with the reference to centipedes. So here is a husband thinking confused and somewhat creepy thoughts about his wife. Intrigued, yes. Yanked in, no.

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  8. Denise Willson says

    Gone Girl really was an interesting (if not disturbing) read, so it’s a shame if readers pass based on the first page. That said, it’s a prime example of a best seller with a cliche “waking” start.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  9. says

    What’s funny is I typically find myself uninspired to turn the page on these exercises, sometimes viscerally repulsed by the writing. But I actually like this opening. While nothing like my writing style, evolving though it may be, I nevertheless find myself intrigued.

    I think it all boils down to this. Though arguably overwritten, these first paragraphs leave the unmistakable sense this book is going to take me somewhere. The journey may be unsettling, and the narrator may be off his rocker (all that focus on the love he has for his wife’s head – literally, her head). But I don’t think I’ll be bored, and I might even be challenged.

    What’s more, the lines also ooze with a confidence of voice. I’d be willing to follow this somewhat akilter narrator onto the next page, which is the point. I’d venture at least a few more, just to see how the premise opens up.

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    • says

      I agree with you, John, that “these first paragraphs leave the unmistakable sense this book is going to take me somewhere” and “the lines also ooze with a confidence of voice.” The end result for me is reader trust; I feel I’m in the hands of a storyteller.

      I would turn the page.

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      • says

        OMG, the voice! Yes, overstretching… but here’s a writer with confidence of the magic element most publishing pros can only describe as “I know it when I see it.” The voice here is authorial and the protag combined into a sort of magic than trumps story beats.
        The author is gauntlet-slapping the reader in the face, asking “Are you up for this?” If not, pass on… because I ain’t changing.

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  10. says

    I have to agree with Donald Maass. I felt as if I was wading through a swamp of style in order to figure out what was going on. I would continue reading, however the author does everything, everything that we are told are “no, no’s” with regard to beginning a book. But, see? It became a best seller anyway!

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  11. says

    My first impression was “what a weirdo.” Since I would have known from the book jacket about the “Gone Girl” theme, I would have kept reading to see whether the weird narrator was indeed involved in making the wife a “gone girl.”

    “What have we done to each other?” this narrator asks. “What will we do?” There is an ominous feeling here, enough to make me turn a few more pages.

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  12. says

    I voted yes, because it becomes clear within the first few sentences that our narrator views the world through a rather odd lens. To me, this is where first person POV is so often wasted, when authors bring us into a generic “everyman” viewpoint with nothing distinctive about it. That’s not the case here – we’ve got an ominous/creepy vibe right away, and although there’s no action or conflict, there’s a clear sensation that this guy is going to take us someplace that’s a little weird (and possibly quite dangerous).

    The third paragraph sealed the deal for me, in a rare case of somebody actually succeeding in making the much-overused “woke up this morning” trope into something new and interesting.

    Yeah, the writing is self-conscious. But I prefer that to the overly transparent and unambitious prose I see in so many other books, so I’d give this author a few more pages before giving the book flying lessons.

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  13. says

    This example shows the checklist approach doesn’t always work. Overwritten? A titch, but nearly as badly as some of the other genre stuff Ray has given a pass.

    There’s a disturbed mind here and an unusual and possibly unequal relationship that is going somewhere strange. And it is not just to Missouri.

    On the other hand, someone gets the call that mom is dying? Think I’ve been there a few dozen times.

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  14. Poeticus says

    The catchy title speaks more than the opening fragment. Gone Girl, what, physically, emotionally, psychically, medicatedly, all the former, gone girl? As a suspense question, the title starts the plot train moving. When, where, why, how does the girl go?

    The opening, though, starts off in a misdirection; that is, a reminiscence of meeting the wife and what first attracted the husband. The shape of her head? Surprising peculiar as that is, does it reflect a man’s thoughts? I don’t believe so.

    Which calls undue attention to this man is written as a woman thinks a man thinks. The language is overly feminine for a man’s stream of consciousness. Sex and competition are never far from a man’s backmind thoughts. Firm assertion and directness also are part of man’s language. This voice challenges my willing suspension of disbelief.

    This man may have a strong feminine identity proportion; however, the language feels emasculated; the man is invariably, naturally a product of birth accident and biology and masculine social acculturation. The audience is probably more feminine than masculine anyway and in keeping with how women know, believe, think men think. New Feminism, for sure: artistic portraits of women’s unique lives. I wonder if the wife might also be portrayed as having a heavily masculine proportion.

    I suspect similar unnatural inconsistencies crop up from time to time in the novel overall. They will keep me from being as open to the novel’s reality imitation as is ideal and keep me aware of the fictional artifice. Perhaps that’s a good thing, the Anton Chekhov “distancing effect” Verfremdungseffekt that keeps audiences consciously, critically, responsibly thinking, instead of being swept up and away by the drama, so that the message comes across loud and clear and subject to evaluation.

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  15. says

    I was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by this narrator and wanted to know more. The author promises an interesting journey.

    The second sample is ho-hum. Nothing special about parents dying. They do all the time.

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  16. says

    I recognized this opening instantly as I loved this book….but I didn’t love it right away. In fact, I thought the first few chapters were very slow and I picked this book up and put it down a few times. It wasn’t until I was on a 6 hour plane ride that I dove into it again because I had heard how good it was. That is the only reason I kept going. Normally if I’m not hooked, I’m on to something else.

    Once I got into this book, I enjoyed it immensely. It was a wild, fun and very different book. Looking forward to the movie.

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  17. says

    I agree with Keith in that the opening creates a weird vibe (which I like). I wonder if there is follow-up on the expectation it creates, though? I almost expect him to be a killer of some sort.

    Personally, I like writing with flair (when it works). I also like stripped down, straight-forward writing (when it works). I see this as preference/ taste, to some degree.

    If the author is going for a creepy point of view, then it works for me. Especially if by nature the individual is kind of self-absorbed, which would mean that the language of the opening really reflects the character.

    At the same time, I’m with Ray, too. The current opening could maintain the “creepy” vibe while bringing in one or two more direct story questions. While personally, I would have read a ways more as-is, I think having a story question would provoke even more interest.

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  18. says

    I gave it a qualified yes because the writing was to me obviously professional, but it was certainly not compelling nor did it pose any story questions or tension. But the fact that he thinks of his wife’s head when he thinks of her is unique enough to want me to read on and find out why he thinks like that. Most men would, I guess, imagine their wife’s smile, eyes, hair, some part of her body, a personality quirk.

    I read Gone Girl and thought it was good, not great. It was already a best-selle,r and I give those books the benefit of the doubt and don’t judge them by the first page. Unfair, but that’s the double standard which plagues unpublished or unknown writers: we have to write better than the best selling authors merely to have a chance to be read. They can get away with mediocre openings. I can’t.

    Chris

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  19. says

    I feel like it should have started at the last paragraph. The transition from the bizarre description of the wife’s head to the waking up was like hitting an enormous pothole at 80 mph.

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  20. says

    Although I rolled my eyes at the corn kernel and the riverbed fossil, I soldiered on. But then I came to the frantic centipedes, and that did it for me.

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  21. says

    I haven’t read the book, but Gone Girl has been recommended to me by a friend whose judgment I trust and who hasn’t yet let me down. Still, based on the first page alone, I would probably not read this book. I wasn’t quite sure what kind of story I was getting myself into. It sounds like a thriller written in the first person POV of a psychopath, and the style was trying a bit too hard to my taste. The imagery didn’t really help me imagine.

    Fortunately, I very rarely read the first page to decide if I want to read a story. I read the backcover description, and if it appeals to me I read a couple of pages, not just one. I have very rarely been hooked by a first page alone, or a first sentence for that matter. The only exception so far is Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

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  22. says

    Guess I’m an anomaly, because I have great appreciation for this opening. The first time through it, I was unsettled and had so many questions: Why the scientific language in the midst of what could otherwise sound intimate and loving? Why would a male be so interested in dissecting his wife’s thoughts? (In my world, it’s always the woman who asks the “what are you thinking” question.) After having read the book, I can appreciate that the dynamics being raised in the first three paragraphs are explored in the novel and have particular significance to turning points. And as stated above by others, I never doubted this was going somewhere interesting or big.

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  23. says

    I didn’t recognize the opening of GG, but I was loving the demented thoughts this guy was having about his wife. I found myself skimming the last paragraph (even after I saw what the sample was from and went back.) I don’t need a paragraph analyzing eye-openings. I wanted to skip that paragraph and turn the page early.

    The alternate opening set-up feels too common. I prefer the original.

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  24. says

    I haven’t read Gone Girl, but just by the comparison of his wife’s head to a corn kernel would keep me reading. I’d be curious to know what’s going on in this guy’s head.

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  25. Francene says

    For me the first opening page works far better than the second and it’s a perfect example of why authors shouldn’t use a cookie-cutter approach.

    As many have pointed out, the voice is distinctive and creepy with a hint of violence that’s intriguing. The fact that the husband wants to get inside his wife’s head suggests a lot about their marriage and lack of communication. It raises questions in a subtle way that are central to this story and the writing has real texture.

    The second example has none of this depth to it and it doesn’t even come close to touching on the themes of the book in the sophisticated way that the first does. I found it to be flat and boring in comparison.

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  26. Atkins says

    It’s eerie and off with unexpected metaphors I have never read. It sets the tone and shows us who we’re dealing with here, and hints at the implications. I turned the page the first time I read it. I don’t think the writing is self-conscious, the narrator is.

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  27. hilary says

    I recently heard “Gone Girl” recommended, so I read the first page (thanks, Amazon) and thought – nah. So yes, I recognized it.
    But I only just decided against continuing. I agree, there is no story in the first page, but lots of style. I agree, too much style!
    And I agree, the second extract has much more story, though poor style.

    Yes, people’s parents die all the time, but isn’t the point of a plot that it starts with something that upsets the status quo, but then builds up to a climax of a really unusual disaster later – so a common sort of upset, with promise of more to come (his wife wouldn’t like moving from NY to a small town – how will that work out?) – is OK. It promises some insights into human nature, at least, though probably not zombies or car chases. Maybe a murder …

    Digressing from the first page, what REALLY puts me off Gone Girl is the TITLE. If she’s married, she’s NOT a “girl”, she’s an adult woman. Why would I want to read a novel that’s so sexist, right from the front cover? OK, I’d give it a chance, but I did, and the first page wasn’t enough. A man describing his wife’s hair doesn’t promise much political correctness, though at least he does mention her brain. And a man saying he took it for granted that his wife would go with him isn’t much more promising on the sexism front, though the sister wearing overall shorts has some hope – reminded me of Scout Finch …

    The title “Gone” would, IMHO, be much better.

    I love this feature, by the way – more, more !! …. It’s a great exercise, and a lesson to us all on how to write first pages.

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  28. Liz Tully says

    I did read Gone Girl, but was very turned off by the first page and I put it down.

    Obviously, I picked it up again and ultimately finished. However, Gone Girl was recommended to my by someone on the WU Facebook page as having a very unique voice. Only for that reason did I stick with it, but not without a few day wondering if I would be able to read the entire book.

    I guess I am not the only one who pushed past the objectionable first chapter.

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