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 four on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestseller list for June 18, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 I’d known I was about to meet the man who’d shatter me like bone china on terra-cotta, I would have slept in. Instead, I roused our florist, Mr. Sitwell, from his bed to make a boutonnière. My first consulate gala was no time to stand on ceremony.
I joined the riptide of the great unwashed moving up Fifth Avenue. Men in gray-felted fedoras pushed by me, the morning papers in their attachés bearing the last benign headlines of the decade. There was no storm gathering in the east that day, no portent of things to come. The only ominous sign from the direction of Europe was the scent of slack water wafting off the East River.
As I neared our building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-ninth Street, I felt Roger watching from the window above. He’d fired people for a lot less than being twenty minutes late, but the one time of year the New York elite opened their wallets and pretended they cared about France was no time for skimpy boutonnières.
I turned at the corner, the morning sun alive in the gold-leaf letters chiseled in the cornerstone: LA MAISON FRANÇAISE. The French Building, home to the French Consulate, stood side by side with the British Empire Building, facing Fifth Avenue, part of Rockefeller Center, Junior Rockefeller’s new complex of granite and limestone. Many foreign consulates kept offices there then, resulting in a great stew of international diplomacy.
Was this opening page compelling to you? If it was, you can turn the page here. My votes and notes after the fold.
This is Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: no.
This story received an average review rating of 4.6 stars out of 5 on Amazon. I had mixed feelings about this. The prose and voice are just fine—I liked the simile in the first sentence. And I appreciated the lure of the foreshadowing tease in that first sentence. And it the hint of trouble to come in Europe—this novel takes place in 1939 and, even without a blurb, the author does a good job of letting us in on the period nature of the story. So far, so good.
And I can’t fault the fourth paragraph, which does a fine job of setting the scene and giving us the era. But . . . But I wasn’t engaged with this character or, for that matter, the story. There’s nothing not to like, but what’s to like? I wish the third paragraph had slipped more into the character and hinted at something about to go wrong for her—or him; the gender is a little unclear. After the first sentence, I’d thought the character was a woman because of the way the narrative referred to “the man,” but then we’re buying a boutonnière, a male ornament. In the end, while I found the narrative interesting, I didn’t find it compelling. So I have 30 cents I can splurge elsewhere.
Flogging the Indie side: you’re invited to walk a little on the Indie side most every Monday, when I flog an author who has offered their novel free on BookBub. Just visit Flogging the Quill. You get to vote on turning the page and whether or not the author should have hired an editor. I occasionally find a gem that’s free, so it might be worth your time. Hope to see you there.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!