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 October 14, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 the prologue.
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
The work van was a new Mercedes, white and high roofed, with the bloodred words TURNKEY LOCKSMITH hand-painted on its side.
At a little before 7 a.m., it was winding through the Hollywood Hills northwest of LA, the steady drone of its diesel engine briefly rising in pitch as it turned onto the long climb of Kirkwood Drive in Laurel Canyon. Two hundred feet below the intersection of Kirkwood and Oak, the van coasted to a crackling stop on the gravel shoulder of the secluded road and shut off its engine. A minute passed, then two. No one got out.
As the bald Hispanic driver flipped down the visor to get the sun out of his eyes, he spotted a mule deer nosing out through the steep hillside’s thick underbrush across the street.
Go for a lung shot, he thought as he imagined getting a bead on it with the new compound hunting bow his girlfriend had gotten him for his birthday. Track the blood trail down between the infinity pools and twenty-person funkadelic hot tubs before lashing it to the van’s front grille. See how that would go down with George Clooney and k. d. lang and the rest of the Laurel Canyon faithful.
He was feigning a bow draw when the elegant deer suddenly noticed him and bolted. The driver sighed, leaned slightly to his right, and depressed the intercom intercom button under the drink holder.
My vote: No
Our fellow Unboxer Donald Maass said in Writing the Breakout Novel, “To hold our attention, a novel’s action needs to compel us to read every word.” I agree.
The action on this opening page distills down to:
- Man drives a van.
- Man parks the van.
- Magically, the van shuts its own engine off.
- Man sees a deer.
- Man imagines shooting the deer with a bow.
- Deer runs away.
- Man presses intercom button in car.
Compelling action? Not for this reader. How about a compelling voice? Not for this reader. How about a compelling character? Not for this reader. How about turning the page? Not for this reader.
I understand the need to set the scene, but this was ridiculous. Nothing about story here, not a single hint at a story question in sight. I took the liberty of picking up some of the narrative that follows and cobbled together the following alternative. A poll and then a rant follow.
The work van was a new Mercedes, white and high-roofed, with the bloodred words TURNKEY LOCKSMITH hand-painted on its side. It coasted to a stop on the gravel shoulder of Kirkwood Drive in Laurel Canyon and the engine shut off.
There was a dull mechanical hum as the copper-haired woman in the back of the van flicked the joystick for the high-definition video camera concealed in the van’s roof. On the console’s flat screen in front of her, an off-white stucco bungalow a hundred and fifty feet up the canyon slowly came into view.
She panned the camera over the bungalow’s short, steep driveway of bishop’s hat paver stones, the broken terra-cotta roof tiles above its front door, the live oaks and lemon trees in its side yard. She’d been here several times before and knew the target house as well as her own at this point.
She was halfway through the tea-filled Tervis tumbler from her kit bag when a truck slowed in front of the target house. It was a new Ford Expedition SUV, glossy black with heavily tinted windows. After it reversed up the driveway almost butt-up against the garage, the passenger-side door opened and out stepped a lanky middle-aged white man in a gray business suit. He adjusted his Oakley sport sunglasses for a moment before he reached into the open door and retrieved what appeared to be a military-issue M-16.
At least this gives you a story question or two and a sense of action to come. But I still wouldn’t have turned the page because I don’t see this as top-level professional writing. For me, it’s overwritten, burdened with micro-detail and product placements—who among you knew (or cared) what a “Tervis tumbler” is? It’s an insulated glass. And how does that impact or advance the story?
In the same way, I guess, that “bishop’s hat paver stones,” “new Ford Expedition,” or “Oakley sport sunglasses” did. I have to wonder where an editor with a sense of story and crisp narrative was when this thing was being readied for publication. Off reading an actual good book, I hope.
The cover states that this book is a “thriller.” Really? When?
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.