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?
Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—some 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 August 10, 2014. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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? Reminder: “compelling” is much different than “interesting”—it means that you are irresistibly urged to turn the page by what you’ve read. Following are what would be the first manuscript page of the Preface and the first 17 lines of Chapter 1. There are two polls.
On October 18, 1969, Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence vanished from the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in Palermo , Sicily. The Nativity, as it is commonly known, is one of Caravaggio’s last great masterworks, painted in 1609 while he was a fugitive from justice, wanted by papal authorities in Rome for killing a man during a swordfight. For more than four decades, the altarpiece has been the most sought-after stolen painting in the world, and yet its exact whereabouts, even its fate, have remained a mystery. Until now . . .
It began with an accident, but then matters involving Julian Isherwood invariably did. In fact, his reputation for folly and misadventure was so indisputably established that London’s art world, had it known of the affair, which it did not, would have expected nothing less. Isherwood, declared one wit from the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s, was the patron saint of lost causes, a high-wire artist with a penchant for carefully planned schemes that ended in ruins, oftentimes through no fault of his own. Consequently, he was both admired and pitied, a rare trait for a man of his position. Julian Isherwood made life a bit less tedious. And for that, London’s smart set adored him.
His gallery stood at the far corner of the cobbled quadrangle known as Mason’s Yard, occupying three floors of a sagging Victorian warehouse once owned by Fortnum & Mason. On one side were the London offices of a minor Greek shipping company; on the other was a pub that catered to pretty office girls who rode motor scooters. Many years earlier, before the successive waves of Arab and Russian money had swamped London’s real estate market, the gallery had been located in stylish New Bond Street, or New Bondstrasse, as it was known in the trade. Then came the likes of Hermès, Burberry, Chanel, and Cartier, leaving Isherwood and others like him— independent dealers specializing in museum-quality Old Master paintings— no choice but to seek sanctuary in St. James’s.
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
Did you recognize Daniel Silva and his The Heist? According to the Amazon page, this was Gabriel Allon Book 14, a series starring Gabriel Allon, art restorer and occasional spy. Clearly this author does something right, but was this opening page compelling if you picked it up to sample it in a bookstore?
Preface: it worked for me, raised a very strong story question and promised to introduce me to a world I don’t know for a fresh adventure. Yes, I turned this page.
Chapter 1: I wasn’t happy with the “it” in the opening sentence that refers to nothing whatsoever, but the opening paragraph did introduce a very interesting character—and then the narrative slumped into laborious description. If the description were colored by the character’s perceptions and experience, which I call “experiential description,” it could contribute to characterization, but this is just a report.
In critiquing more than 800 first pages on my blog, Flogging the Quill, the first page just about always foreshadows what the rest is like, and I’m not into a drone of description at the cost of having something happening that involves this interesting character. Sorry, I’m busy, got no time to be coy, no page turn for me.
Your thoughts? 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.