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?
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 hardcover fiction bestseller list for July 13. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Would this opening page be compelling if you picked it up to sample it in a bookstore? Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Chapter 1.
This time I know it, I know it with a certainty that chokes my throat with panic, that grips and twists my heart until it’s ripped from its mooring. This time, I’m too late.
This time, it’s too hot. This time, it’s too bright, there’s too much smoke.
The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—
The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window, the only part of the bedroom still available. The enemy is cornering me, daring me, Go ahead, Emmy, go for the window, Emmy—
This is my last chance, and I know, but don’t want to think about, what happens if I fail— that I have to start preparing myself for the pain. It will just hurt for a few minutes, it will be teeth-gnashing, gut-twisting agony, but then the heat will shrivel off my nerve endings and I’ll feel (snip)
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
Did you recognize James Patterson and David Ellis and their Invisible ?
I had mixed feelings about this, but the story question was strong. On the other hand, the over-dwelling in minute details in a situation that would have a normal person taking instant action was off-putting. It felt like it became labored for me. SPOILER ALERT: on the next page, I found that it was a dream. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen advice to not open with a dream—and, in almost 800 chapters submitted to my blog, Flogging the Quill, I’ve seen plenty of dream openings that flopped. This one is better, but, for my money, it would be stronger if the dream were trimmed down so that we broke out of it while we’re still on the first page. I mean, how long does it take to understand the horror of waking up in a fire—the line about nerve endings being seared off sure did it for me. We could have gone to reality right after that.
What are your thoughts on opening with a dream? How did you feel about this one?
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.