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 six on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for December 24, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
I bounded over the gray, dusty terrain toward the huge dome of Conrad Bubble. Its airlock, ringed with red lights, stood distressingly far away.
It’s hard to run with a hundred kilograms of gear on—even in lunar gravity. But you’d be amazed how fast you can hustle when your life is on the line.
Bob ran beside me. His voice came over the radio: “Let me connect my tanks to your suit!”
“That’ll just get you killed too.”
“The leak’s huge,” he huffed. “I can see the gas escaping your tanks.”
“Thanks for the pep talk.”
“I’m the EVA master here,” Bob said. “Stop right now and let me cross-connect!”
“Negative.” I kept running. “There was a pop right before the leak alarm. Metal fatigue. Got to be the valve assembly. If you cross-connect you’ll puncture your line on a jagged edge.”
“I’m willing to take that risk!”
I’m not willing to let you,” I said. “Trust me on this, Bob. I know metal.”
I switched to long, even hops. It felt like slow motion, but it was the best way to move with all that weight. My helmet’s heads-up display said the airlock was fifty-two meters away. I glanced at my arm readouts. My oxygen reserve plummeted while I watched. So I stopped (snip)
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 Artemis by Andy Weir, author of The Martian. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This story received an average of 3.9 stars out of 5 on Amazon. Opening in media res is always a good tactic with this reader, and this one plunges you into intense action and drama. On the storytelling side, something has definitely gone wrong, and the stakes are high: life or death.
Even though we don’t go deeply into character, these two are definitely “good guys,” each willing to take big risks to help the other, and that makes them likeable. I have one little complaint: we have no idea as to the gender of the narrator. I assumed it was male, but it’s not. In reading on, it takes a couple more pages before even a name is given—Jazz. And that’s not a lot of help in identifying her gender, the nickname could apply to male or female. Unless the reader knows going in that the novel’s protagonist is female from a blurb or other information, if the assumption is male there’s going to be a jar when the facts arrive. So Andy left out a key component of setting the scene and establishing a character. Both need to be clear so your imagination can be clear in what you’re seeing happen. Other than that, though, I felt there was plenty to recommend a page-turn. Your thoughts?
You’re invited to a flogging—your own You see the insights fresh eyes bring to the performance of bestseller first pages, so why not do the same with the opening of your WIP? Submit your prologue/first chapter to my blog, Flogging the Quill and I’ll give you my thoughts and even a little line editing if I see a need. And the readers of FtQ are good at offering constructive notes, too. Hope to see you there. To submit, email your first chapter or prologue (or both) as an attachment to me, and let me know if it’s okay to use your first page and to post the complete chapter.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!