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?
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)
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 How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.