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 April 15, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
Wylie Frye was used to smelling of smoke and that was long before he became a criminal of sorts.
Wood smoke permeated his clothing, his hair, and his full black beard to the point that he didn’t notice it anymore. He was only reminded of his particular odor when drinkers on the next barstool or patrons standing in line at the Kum-N-Go convenience store leaned away from him and turned their heads to breathe untainted air.
But he didn’t mind. He’d smelled worse at times in his life, and wood smoke wasn’t so bad.
On cold nights like this, after he’d used the front-end loader to deliver bucket after bucket of sawdust to the burner from a small mountain of it near the mill, he could relax in the burner shack and let the warmth of the fire and the sweet blanket of smoke engulf him.
Wylie sat at a metal desk under a light fixture mounted in the wall behind him and stared at the dark screen of his cell phone. It was two-forty-five in the morning and his visitor was fifteen minutes late. Wylie was starting to fidget.
He watched the screen because he knew he wouldn’t hear the phone chime with an incoming text over the roar from the fire outside. In the rusting shack where Wylie sat, fifty feet from the base of the burner, it sounded like he was inside a jet engine. The west wall—which (snip)
You can turn the page and read more here.
This is The Disappeared (A Joe Pickett Novel) by C.J. Box. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received a strong average of 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon. I’m guessing the author and the editor thought the opening line referring to “a criminal of sorts” would be a strong hook. Well, for this reader, it was just enough to get me to read the second paragraph.
The hook quickly dulled, though, suffocated by details about the smoky smell the character emanates. As the page develops, the character becomes anxious—but we have no idea why. I’ve seen this before—a writer thinking that tension in the character equates with tension in the reader. That has never worked for me. What works for me are story questions about what’s happening or the character. Other than wondering what a criminal of sorts is and what is he waiting for, there are none. And, with no stakes or other information, for me those do not add up to wondering what will happen next. I’ll bet you that Wylie’s smoky smell, so carefully described here for a full paragraph, does not figure into the story. So why use up my valuable time with that instead of getting into the story?
The blurb on the New York Times listing told me that in this book a Wyoming game warden teams up with his daughter to find a missing British businesswoman. That sounds like an interesting story—too bad there’s no hint of it on the first page. 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!