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.
A First-page Checklist—Protagonist
- It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
- Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
- What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
- What happens moves the story forward.
- What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
- The protagonist desires something.
- The protagonist does something.
- There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
- It happens in the NOW of the story.
- Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?
Caveat: a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and create page turns without doing all of the above. A recent submission worked wonderfully well and didn’t deal with five of the things in the checklist.
This novel was number one on the New York Times trade hardcover fiction bestseller list for May 13, 2015. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 manuscript lines of Chapter 1.
Skye and Henry stood on a corner of Union Square on a fading San Francisco afternoon in early June, the occasional odor of popcorn swirling through, trying to busk up a few dollars. Skye saw the devil go by in his black ’85 T-top, crooked smile, ponytail, twisty little braids in his beard. His skinny blond girlfriend sat beside him, tats running across her bare shoulders like grapevines, front teeth filed to tiny sharp points. Skye turned away, a chill running down her back.
Henry was strumming on a fifty-dollar acoustic guitar he’d bought at a pawnshop. Skye played her harmonica and kept time with a half tambourine strapped to one foot, jangling out into the evening, doing their version of “St. James Infirmary,” Henry banging between chords and struggling through,
“When I die, bury me in a high-top Stetson hat . . .”
He did not sound like any kind of black blues singer from the Mississippi Delta. He sounded like a white punk from Johnson City, Texas, which he was.
• • •
SKYE WAS STOCKY with high cheekbones and green eyes. She wore an earth-colored loose knit wrap over a sixties olive-drab army shirt, corporal’s stripes still on the sleeves, and gray cargo pants over combat boots. Her hair was apricot-colored and tangled, with a scraggly (snip)
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
My vote: no
Actually, if I offered an “Almost” choice, the voice and the interesting details might have gotten me that far. I was a little irritated at the notion that the odor of popcorn was trying to busk up a few dollars, and the fact that I have no idea of what a “T-top” car is. On the “no” side of things, nothing much is happening here, and there is no problem facing either of the characters. It’s clear to me that this is setup—tension-free setup— and it didn’t pass the “tension on every page” smell test for me. The only tension was in Skye when she saw someone that she may or not know drive past. Then “the devil” was gone and clearly no problem at this time. In other words, there’s little hint of story here, so why turn the page?
Someone will no doubt point out that, since this is Sandford’s 25th book in the series, he must be doing something right. Well, sure. But that’s not the challenge here. Here the hurdle is a narrative strong enough for an unknown writer to guarantee the turn of a page. For this reader, it wasn’t cleared.
As for why there is no “almost” choice in the poll, the compelling-first-page hurdle is the one that a new writer has to pass when submitting to literary agents who see as many as 30 queries a day, and they don’t have an “almost”—it’s only yes or no, the latter about 99% of the time. So, IMO, a first page has to be compelling, not interesting, not “almost.”
Please help beginning novelists with constructive criticism, join me on Wednesdays and Fridays for floggings at my site, Flogging the Quill.