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 online or at the bookstore.
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. In a sense, time is money for a literary agent working her way through a raft of submissions, and she is spending that resource whenever she turns a 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 nine on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for September 17, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
“State your name, please.”
“And you are the head of the Sûreté du Québec?”
“The Chief Superintendent, oui.”
Gamache sat upright on the wooden chair. It was hot. Sweltering, really, on this July morning. He could taste perspiration from his upper lip and it was only just ten o’clock. It was only just starting.
The witness box was not his favorite place in the world. And far from his favorite thing to do. To testify against another human being. There were only a few times in his career when he’d gotten satisfaction, even pleasure, from that and this wasn’t one of them.
Sitting uncomfortably on the hard chair, under oath, Armand Gamache admitted to himself that while he believed in the law, had spent his career working within the justice system, what he really had to answer to was his conscience.
And that was proving to be a pretty harsh judge.
“I believe you were also the arresting officer.”
“Is that unusual, for the Chief Superintendent to actually be making arrests?”
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 Glass Houses by Louise Penny. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: no.
This novel received a strong review average of 4.7 stars out of 5 on Amazon for this story of a series character. The writing seems fine at the time (more on that in a moment), and there is tension on the page—but it’s internal tension in the character. Was that tension—caused by musing rather than something happening—enough to create page-turning tension in a reader, most particularly an agent?
There is the curiosity element of the scene being that of a trial, something we like to see in mysteries. Other than the musing, though, this is pretty much setup—the character’s name, position, and role in the scenario as the arresting officer. Hardly compelling action or information.
So we are left with the character’s discomfort in both the environment—heated, a hard chair—and in his internal musing. For this reader, not enough.
Something that troubled me: I did read on, of course, as part of my process for flogging, to see if there’s a better, more gripping opening. I didn’t see much of anything until the next chapter. However, just three paragraphs after the first page came a head-hop, right from the deep third POV of the Chief Superintendent and into the head of the judge, where we are treated to her internal observations of what is going on, of something surprising her. Here’s the passage, where we move from what Armand is thinking directly to this as the judge observes Armand:
And what Judge Corriveau saw was a not particularly pleasant smile. More a sneer, really. Which surprised her, given the Chief Crown and the Chief Superintendent were apparently on the same side. Though that didn’t mean, she knew, that they had to like or respect each.
Head-hopping bothers me. I understand that an omniscient POV moves from one POV to another, but, done well, doesn’t yank a reader from one mind to another. It happens again in this chapter, but not in a more arms-length, omniscient way, but vaulting from close third POV to close third POV. Not a good sign. Oh, and there were little writing hiccups that I see as less than professional, such as this: “He shifted his eyes back to . . .” No, he shifted his gaze, his eyes hadn’t gone anywhere. Seeing things such as that, I ended up feeling that not turning the page was a good decision for me.
Flogging the Indie side: you’re invited to walk a little on the Indie side most every Monday and on other days when there’s no submission to critique, 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!