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.[pullquote]
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. And I would seriously applying the checklist to the first page we encounter the antagonist.[/pullquote]
This novel was number one on the New York Times hardback fiction bestseller list for June 14, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
It was late afternoon, a Wednesday in September, and Colonel Vasily Petrov of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service sat in his New York office and stared at the red envelope on his mahogany desk. On the envelope’s flap was a wax seal, also red.
The envelope had arrived from Moscow an hour before on the Aeroflot flight that carried the daily diplomatic pouch to the Russian Federation Mission to the United Nations on East 67th Street.
Handwritten on the front of the envelope was his code number, 013575, and beneath that the identification number of the message: 82343.
A cipher clerk stood patiently in front of Colonel Petrov’s desk, then cleared his throat. “Sir?”
Petrov picked up a pen and signed the logbook, acknowledging receipt of the envelope and also receipt of a sealed satchel from Moscow that the clerk had placed on his desk.
The clerk retrieved the logbook, then gave Petrov another sealed envelope, saluted, and left.
Petrov sliced open the red envelope and flattened the sheet of paper on his blotter.
The communication from Moscow was typed on flash paper, encoded in four-letter groupings that appeared to be meaningless. Eye charts, they were called.My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
My vote: no
What happens on this first page? A man who is perhaps a spy receives a message. That’s it. He doesn’t react to receiving it. There’s no suggestion of something going wrong that could force him to act. Basically, there’s no there there for this reader. What’s this story about? No idea.
For me, this is hugely overwritten as well, a slog of detail that doesn’t impact the story. The promise of more of that flab was enough to stop me even if there had been a compelling story question—the only question I see is what’s the communication, but there’s nothing at stake here. In looking later in the chapter, I came across this line:
At the bottom of the satchel were two objects wrapped in blue gift paper that he knew were the two MP5 submachine guns he had requested and also about twenty extra magazines.
If I were editing this, I’d suggest something like this:
At the bottom of the satchel were
two objects wrapped in blue gift paper that he knew werethe two MP5 submachine guns he had requested and also abouttwenty extra magazines.
For this reader, turgid.
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