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.
Here’s the question:
Would you pay good money to read the rest of the chapter? With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.
So, before you read the excerpt, take 30 cents from your pocket or purse. When you’re done, decide what to do with those three dimes or the quarter and a nickel. It’s not much, but think of paying 30 cents for the rest of the chapter every time you sample a book’s first page.
Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre or content—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 number one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for February 12, 2017. How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Following are what would be the first 17 manuscript lines of the first chapter.
“IF YOU REACH the camp before me, I’ll let you live,” the Soldier said.
It was the same chance he allowed them all. The fairest judgment for their crimes against his people.
The young man lay sniveling in the sand at his feet. Tears had always disgusted the Soldier. They were the lowest form of expression, the physical symptom of psychological weakness. The Soldier lifted his head and looked across the black desert to the camp’s border lights. The dark sky was an explosion of stars, patched here and there by shifting cloud. He sucked cold desert air into his lungs.
“Why are you doing this?” Danny whimpered.
The Soldier slammed the door of the van closed and twisted the key. He looped his night-vision goggles around his neck and strode past the shivering traitor to a large rock. He mounted it, and with an outstretched arm pointed toward the northeast.
“On a bearing of zero-four-seven, at a distance of one-point-six-two kilometers, your weapon is waiting,” the Soldier barked. He swiveled, and pointed to the north-west. “On a bearing of three-one-five, at a distance of one-point-six-five kilometers, my weapon is waiting. The camp lies at true north.”
“What are you saying?” the traitor wailed. “Jesus Christ! Please, please don’t do this.”
Was this opening page compelling to you? If it was, you can turn the page here. My vote and notes after the fold.
This is Never Never by James Patterson and Candice Cox. Was this opening page compelling to you?
My vote: no.
This novel received a fairly crummy average review rating of 3.2 stars out of 5 on Amazon, so I’m guessing that Patterson’s name and reputation are responsible for its bestseller status ‘cause, if you listen to the reviewers, it ain’t the story. It was good that the chapter opened with an immediate scene that plunges us into the “now” of the story. But where are we? Why does one character have a name and the other a label? Who are “his people?”
Clearly something is going wrong for sniveling, whimpering, wailing Danny, but I’m not inclined to root for him. There’s a bit of a logic flaw here, too—the Soldier points out the locations of two weapons with very specific detail, but also says that if Danny reaches camp before the Soldier does Danny will live. So why on earth would Danny go somewhere to get a weapon rather than directly to the camp? The camp is clearly visible. While the Soldier is off getting his gun, Danny could snivel his way to the camp and save his life.
And then there’s the writing. The Soldier barks. He has to lift his head to look at the desert. Instead of simply pointing in a direction, we have “an outstretched arm” pointing. And shouldn’t those be shifting clouds that create multiple patches on the sky?
Should you look inside to read more, you’ll find more overwriting—after the Soldier jumps from that large rock (inadequate description–“large” is relative), he straightens his belt and draws down his cap, which are clearly action details designed to not only rivet my attention but must certainly pertain to moving the story forward. Or perhaps characterization of the Soldier as fussy and tidy is necessary to understand what’s going on in this story. This reader anticipates more overwriting, lack of clarity, and unappealing characters ahead. No go for me.
Stop by my “Flog a BookBubber” feature (usually on Mondays) Flogging the Quill. BookBub is a website that offers free or very low cost ebooks. It is heavily used by self-publishers, though established authors are sometimes there.
We often see the meme on the Internet that self-published authors should have had editing done before they published. So the new Flog a BookBubber posts take a look at opening pages to see if that’s true. You can vote on turning the page and then on whether or not they should have sought an editor. Visit on Mondays and take a look.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!