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?

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 How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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

Preface

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 . . .

Chapter 1

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.

HeistDid 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?

My votes:

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.

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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

    Perhaps because I had consumed only three cups of coffee prior to reading the submission or because it was too wordy, my focus wandered from the writing to fantasies about a rearranging my sock drawer.

    That this book has experienced success gives me hope that, one day, my 200,000-word “The Fascinating History of the Sock Drawer, Vol. 1 (1392-1394),” will also earn some coin.

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  2. says

    Although I’m not crazy about omniscient narrators, I felt the same as you, Ray. The promise of an adventure kept me reading. The first chapter didn’t. Too wordy, nothing happening. The momentum fizzled one sentence into the second paragraph. And I love London…

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  3. says

    Ray-

    I’m shocked by the number of no votes so far. For me this was a huge yes.

    Objective narration is characteristic of thrillers, but where often it is cold here it is warm. Isherwood is drawn in loving caricature. I like him already.

    London is not only sketched in from an art world perspective, it tells us something about Isherwood and his place in it. I loved the “pretty office girls who rode motor scooters”. I used to drink in a pub like that in Soho.

    There’s story promise too, albeit minimal. I’m not big on Caravaggio but I’m curious now why this Nativity is so special.

    I’d not only turn the page, I’m going to buy this book. Perhaps it’s personal but I’m drawn in. Count me a yes. I loved this opening.

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  4. says

    Ray–
    I too am in the minority in voting yes, and my reasons are these. I am tired of openings in crime fiction that try too hard and too obviously to make me gasp. Enough already with the breathless short sentences and punchy consonants. This makes me sympathetic to a less hectic opening–even when the first two sentences in chapter one are pretty clumsy. But as you say, the character sounds interesting–and I like the description of place. It makes excellent use of specific detail. And I am sympathetic to an art dealer displaced in a contemporary London overrun by rich foreigners and high-end retailers.
    I also like Caravaggio’s work. In other words, for very personal reasons I would go on reading.
    Thanks for this series. It invites readers to think about a successful book’s opening, and then explain themselves.

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  5. says

    I voted an eager yes. Was it because I am an art history buff and write about lost art? Partly. But I felt compelled by the description and will definitely read on.

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  6. says

    The preface was a big yes, as it hints at a good yarn and invokes a sense of adventure.

    The opening was trickier. First pages are brief, some more than others given white space choices or sizing of the chapter heading. This one felt particularly short, perhaps due to the lengthy exposition. I honestly can’t say I felt compelled to turn the page, though I was interested. Considering your precise distinction of the two, I therefore voted no.

    Having said that, I liked the writing and found the character appealing. Plus I had story questions from the preface. So, in the end, I might swing back by and snatch it off the shelf on the way to the register.

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  7. David Edmonds says

    Sorry, just too much description with nothing happening. I like the “pretty office girls on motor scooters” and might have turned the page if one of them had crashed a scooter into the building. Deliberately. And pulled out a Glock and started chasing one of the owners. But alas. . . .

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  8. says

    I turned the page on the preface but not chapter 1. I have to be hooked from the word go, especially with a book like that – there needs to be more action, a faster pace.

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  9. says

    I could have voted either way on the Preface, but chose “No” because it sounded more like a textbook entry than a novel preface.
    My interest in Chapter One came to a halt when the character development momentum was interrupted with setting details at “His gallery . . .” I agree the opening was a welcome change from the typical crime openings. Had the character development continued, it would have kept my interest.

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  10. says

    I agree, Preface yes, Chapter 1 no. Something needs to happen. There’s some hint of a mysterious “it” that began with some sort of accident, but then nothing else happens. The description paints an interesting picture, but it could have been interspersed with some sort of action to keep up the interest level.

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  11. Edi B. says

    I voted yes to both polls, then was a little embarrassed to see how many voted no. But I’m with Don, I would not only read this book but buy it (Kindle version, if available). Part of it is personal taste—I love galleries, London, and history. I read books to learn something new. But also, Isherwood is a strong, intriguing character who promises whimsy along the way, the kind of character I like to see triumph, and something already promises that he will, in his bumbling way.

    I agree that the second paragraph’s description could have been more closely linked to Isherwood in a personal way—perhaps how he disliked Arabs and Russians, how he felt walking through his sagging Victorian warehouse, how the floors creaked, how it smelled, if he enjoyed watching the girls on motor scooters. But still…I would have turned the page.

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  12. Carol P. says

    The question, as I understood it, were the first lines compelling as opposed to interesting. I was not compelled to turn the page, but probably would out of curiosity.

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  13. Alisha Rohde says

    I actually voted No on the Preface and Yes on the first page, although in retrospect I don’t think the preface would be a deal-breaker for me. It felt very much like an author’s note (versus a real piece of the story), but it was so short I would probably turn the page anyway to see what I *really* thought.

    While I agree that too much exposition could really backfire, (and if I were standing in a bookstore with this volume I would start flipping ahead to determine whether that was going to be a problem), I don’t mind a slower start. Even high action can start to feel forced or cliche, and here I felt we were getting in interesting character and an interesting setting. A setting that has recently changed, too–the move from New Bond Street. Granted, London history always fascinates me (I’m with Edi B. on this), so Silva had a slight edge. But had the gallery been in some other city I might still have been intrigued.

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  14. says

    Yes, definitely. I was charmed by the wit and intellect that clearly simmered beneath the surface of this seemingly meandering prose. I suspect that we’re in for a tantalizing tale, relayed in a voice that is a refreshing departure from all the Joe Friday “just the facts, ma’am” prose that populates so much popular fiction.

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  15. says

    Despite the description in the first chapter, I found it all compelling description. I voted yes for both. There is sophistication to the narrator’s voice which, to me, instills confidence and a authenticity to the details I’m reading about, which causes me to slow down and visualize, and thus enter the world of the story. That second paragraph of description made me feel not just that I’ve entered London, but the familiar world of a character with a perspective on that world I want to know more about.

    I found this an interesting example today, Ray, because it demonstrates (for me) how it’s easy sometimes to read as a critic or read as a reader. I found as I read the example that I was pulled in as a reader, without thinking about why. Upon a second re-read (later in the day) I tried to analyze what was happening (the above paragraph). I am by no means a critic or expert, but I enjoy these examples – not only does it let me train some more but it also allows me to appreciate different ways that narratives can compel that cannot be boxed in by rules. Thanks for this!

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  16. Brian Hoffman says

    I voted no on both. I did recognize the author as Silva. I’ve just finished his book The Fallen Angel. I did finish the book but I doubt I’ll read another. The story rambles on this way and that. It had unnecessary characters and the it felt like he kept adding new parts to the story until he got over 400 pages.

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  17. says

    My “Yes” votes were both qualified. The preface piqued my interest, so I would read on from there. I like the fact that it grounds the rest of the story.

    My “yes” for the first page is only modestly strong, because I am the curious sort. I found the writing convoluted enough that I had to re-read a sentence or two. That always means tedious reading for me. If it didn’t simplify and begin more momentum on the second page, I’d put it down and not go any further.

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  18. says

    I keep seeing this feature in my email thread, and may have checked it out once some time back, but am glad I finally got myself take a look. It’s short and it’s interesting, down to the comments.

    I voted no to both, because I didn’t feel either was that compelling, and I’m also an artist. Tempting? Yes. But what I’ve notice about my reading lately is, I’m veering, for awhile anyway, toward work by writers I’ve samples, and now want more of (courtesy of Scribd or ebook sale deals).

    All that aside, I was slightly tempted by the art premise, but Caravaggio is not as interesting to me as, say, Monet or Renoir. Though the bit of him having killed somebody in a sword fight and in the run from the Vatican was intriguing. (smiles)

    I did esp like this below:

    “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.”

    I tried to think how the description depicted could have been made more experiential without having it all stream directly from the character’s perceptions, and I think if he/she had been at least present within one or more of the descriptive sets; like if he had had to side step the girls’ scooters; or he’d pass by and they’d tease him – something; that might’ve been enough.

    The comments are interesting ’cause they make me think I might not care for the writer’s style that much, at least right now, not having gone through a full work and got a true taste.

    Anyway, very interesting. Thank you much :-)

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  19. says

    I think this should have been the first sentence:

    “Julian Isherwood made life a bit less tedious. And for that, London’s smart set adored him.”

    And then the description of promises to be a fun character to follow.

    However, I voted no on the preface (it can’t be saying anything the cover copy wouldn’t hint at so it seems like it would be redundant) and I voted no on the ch. 1 first page. I too got lost in the description (with too many proper names) and wished instead for a more specific anecdote about Julian Isherwood. Had the first page ended in the middle of an amusing tale about his exploits, I would certainly have turned the page to find out what happened. And then I could have been hooked. I’d save the description of the exact locale of his building for at least page two.

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    • Alisha Rohde says

      Hm, I agree that would have been a good way to start the first chapter. “It began with an accident…” isn’t bad either, but in the end perhaps it depends on the signal to send to the reader? Starting with “Julian Isherwood made life a bit less tedious” would make me think he is either the protagonist, the antagonist, or the murder victim. (I say this not knowing his role, except he’s not the protagonist of the series.)

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  20. CK Wallis says

    I voted yes and, like Don, was shocked to see so many no votes. I don’t need a story to bang me on the head to get my attention. In fact, I tend to be suspicious of such beginnings, fearing yet another story relying on a series of cheap thrills in place of substance–a roller coaster ride that may have a few exciting moments but in the end will leave me right where I began.

    Reading Flog a Pro the past few months, I’ve discovered that what compels me to turn the page isn’t just curiosity, but a sense of invitation (for want of a better word) to another world. A dead body isn’t much of an invitation to anything except to gawk, but a London art dealer who’s “both admired and pitied” and who makes “life a bit less tedious” for “London’s smart set”, and who accidentally set some chain of events into motion–that’s an invitation into his world.

    I’ve never read Silva but, based on this intro, I’m now going to sample at least one of his books.

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  21. Kate Kimball says

    Ray:

    This shook me up — in a good way.

    I had assumed authors like Daniel Silva were all action, bullets buzzing and a pace that increases my stress levels.

    Instead I found myself wanting to meet Julian Isherwood and move into his world for 496 pages. I never imagined this kind of fiction would begin so succulently. Others have mentioned favorite phrases (I agree) and I’ll add one more: “no choice but to seek sanctuary in St. James’s.” Chuckling at first paragraphs is a very good sign. Am I about to become a Silva fan? It’s worth finding out.

    Thanks for sharing this opening. I wouldn’t have found it on my own.

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  22. says

    Like many of the others I voted Yes on the Preface, and No on the first page of Chapter 1.

    The preface definitely made me want to know the story of the painting and what happened to it.

    The Chapter, however, was as dry as dust. Far too much description of where his gallery was, and frankly I find the lovably clumsy character trope very over done. At least it was a man this time, so kudos for that.

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  23. says

    I adore Silva and read everything he puts out. I already finished the novel a few weeks ago (I bought it on midnight of the day its release), so this wasn’t really a test for me. I’m relieved that Donald Maass liked the opening page. I’m tired of going to writing conferences and being told that the first page has to be full of a certain kind of action. Some readers don’t need the gimmicks and want to lose themselves in a story the develops slowly. Some of us kind of like backstory and description. Yes, some of us still read Charles Dickens. If this were Silva’s first novel, I would say, yeah, Chapter One starts a little strangely–with a secondary character and not Gabriel Allon. But Silva has a loyal following of readers who have read the entire series, and they know who Isherwood is and why he is significant.

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  24. Jackie says

    Spot on critique. No page turn for me. Too much narrative telling, not enough sensory imagery to pull me in. No hook equals no reel.

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  25. Jim Snell says

    Yes on both.

    Never have read any of Silva before, but I’ll be picking up a couple of his books now.

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