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 September 21, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 17 lines of Chapter 1.
Eight days ago my life was an up and down affair. Some of it good. Some of it not so good. Most of it uneventful. Long slow periods of nothing much, with occasional bursts of something. Like the army itself. Which is how they found me. You can leave the army, but the army doesn’t leave you. Not always. Not completely.
They started looking two days after some guy took a shot at the president of France. I saw it in the paper. A long-range attempt with a rifle. In Paris. Nothing to do with me. I was six thousand miles away, in California, with a girl I met on a bus. She wanted to be an actor. I didn’t. So after forty-eight hours in LA she went one way and I went the other. Back on the bus, first to San Francisco for a couple of days, and then to Portland, Oregon, for three more, and then onward to Seattle. Which took me close to Fort Lewis, where two women in uniform got out of the bus. They left an Army Times behind, one day old, right there on the seat across the aisle.
The Army Times is a strange old paper. It started up before World War Two and is still going strong, every week, full of yesterday’s news and sundry how-to articles, like the headline staring up at me right then: New Rules! Changes for Badges and Insignia! Plus Four More Uniform Changes on the Way! Legend has it the news is yesterday’s because it’s copied secondhand from old AP summaries, but if you read the words sideways you sometimes hear a real sardonic tone between the lines. The editorials are occasionally brave. The obituaries are (snip)
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
Did you recognize Lee Child and his Personal? Was this opening page compelling if you picked it up to sample it in a bookstore?
If I had known it was Lee Child, I probably would have turned the page on the strength of his reputation and previous work—but that’s not the challenge here. The test is a simple one—is there enough gripping story on the page to force a page turn?
What happens on this page? We’re told about (not shown) nonspecific musings about the character’s life, a shooting six thousand miles away that he has nothing to do with, an unattributed “they” looking for him, a brief and meaningless hook-up with an actress, his travel itinerary, picking up an old Army Times on a bus, and then the narrative launches into the history of the paper, it seems. For this reader, this narrative, on its own, was far from gripping.
Here’s my view: why not start a novel with compelling storytelling? Why mutter around in this fashion when there’s a story waiting to be told? Weave in this kind of stuff while something happens! Gets a No from 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.