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 engaging the reader with the character
- Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
- The character desires something.
- The character 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.
What about ebooks? This novel was number one on the New York Times ebook fiction bestseller list for August 23, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
“Mike, Mary Catherine here said you’re NYPD. So you’ve gunned down a lot of people, then, have ya?”
I raised an eyebrow over the rim of my glossy waiting-room magazine at Billy, the slim, scruffy law-office receptionist typing at his computer.
Like many of the Irish folk I’d come into contact with in southern Ireland over the last week, Billy had a distinctive, mischievous twinkle in his Irish eyes. Akin to hurling and Gaelic football, pulling the legs of dumb Yanks like me seemed to be an Emerald Isle national pastime.
“The land of saints, scholars, and sarcasm,” I whispered to Mary Catherine, who was sitting on the leather couch next to me.
“Well, that depends, Billy,” I said as I went back to reading about what Camilla was up to in my OK! London celeb mag.
“Oh? On what, pray tell, Detective?” the receptionist said, finally turning from his screen.
I casually put down the magazine and lifted the floral-patterned china cup of Gevalia coffee he’d fetched us when we came in.
“On what you consider ‘a lot,’” I said.
The law office was in the city of Limerick, around ninety minutes west of Mary Catherine’s family’s tiny farmhouse outside Clonmel, in Tipperary. It was in a new modern (snip)
My vote and notes after the fold.
Did you recognize James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge in their Alert? It was also number one in the combined ebook/fiction category. Was this opening page compelling if you picked it up to sample it in a bookstore?
My vote: no
I liked the voice and the writing is clean, and we do start with an immediate scene in the “now” of the story—unfortunately, there really isn’t much of a hint of a story. And, thus, no story questions, certainly none strong enough to compel a page turn for me.
When you think about it, what’s happening here? What’s the action? Where is the micro-tension that friend Don Maass talks about? For this reader, absent. A receptionist chats up a police officer who is in a waiting room reading a magazine. Sure, the blurb and knowing this is another one from the Patterson thriller machine would ordinarily clue me in that there’s more interesting stuff to come, but that’s not the challenge here. The challenge is whether or not the narrative on the first page is compelling
This narrative, while pleasant and nicely written, didn’t succeed with me.
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