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. 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 one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for March 18, 2018. How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
That spring, rain fell in great sweeping gusts that rattled the rooftops. Water found its way into the smallest cracks and undermined the sturdiest foundations. Chunks of land that had been steady for generations fell like slag heaps on the roads below, taking houses and cars and swimming pools down with them. Trees fell over, crashed into power lines; electricity was lost. Rivers flooded their banks, washed across yards, ruined homes. People who loved each other snapped and fights erupted as the water rose and the rain continued.
Leni felt edgy, too. She was the new girl at school, just a face in the crowd; a girl with long hair, parted in the middle, who had no friends and walked to school alone.
Now she sat on her bed, with her skinny legs drawn up to her flat chest, a dog-eared paperback copy of Watership Down open beside her. Through the thin walls of the rambler, she heard her mother say, Ernt, baby, please don’t. Listen … and her father’s angry leave me the hell alone.
They were at it again. Arguing. Shouting.
Soon there would be crying.
Weather like this brought out the darkness in her father.
Leni glanced at the clock by her bed. If she didn’t leave right now, she was going to be late for school, and the only thing worse than being the new girl in junior high was drawing (snip)
This is The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received a high average of 4.6 stars out of 5 on Amazon. First, I have to set aside the editor and writing coach in me, who is flinching at less-than-effective craft. I’m speaking of breaking close third pov to describe her as having long hair parted in the middle, skinny legs, and a flat chest. In close third, she wouldn’t be thinking those things about herself. Are we in close third? I think so. We’re inside her head, knowing her thoughts. (I would avoid the filter “felt” which tells me about an emotion but doesn’t show me or help me feel it, and the “heard” that distances me from the character’s experience.)
What of tension? Story questions? The narrative saps its own strength, beginning with a weather opening. Then there is fighting going on between her parents, so there’s conflict—in another room. But what about Leni? Here’s where the narrative loses its grip on the tension stirred by the fight; it’s old news. Leni has been through this before. There will be crying. It’s just another day in the life. But, as far as we know, there’s nothing more than that to trouble Leni. She has no emotional reaction to the fighting. Does it even matter to her? No clue.
Her biggest problem is going to a new school, an opening that exists in countless YA novels and feels clichéd to me. I’ve been a shy new kid at a grade school . . . junior high . . . high school (my parents moved a lot), so I have empathy for her situation. But, still, her plight didn’t draw me in because it isn’t much of a plight—she just “feels” edgy. So? Other than fairly normal teen angst, what are the stakes here? For me, bottom line, there wasn’t enough story suggested on this first page to draw me onward. 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.
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