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.
The challenge: would you pay good money for the rest of the chapter?
I’m trying a new poll approach. It occurred to me that asking if a narrative is “compelling” is a bit abstract. A sterner test is to ask if you would pay good money for to turn the page and read the rest of the chapter. With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.
So that’s the question: would you pay that much to read the rest of the chapter? After you read the excerpt, take 30 cents from your pocket or purse and decide if you’ll give those three dimes or the quarter and a nickel away for the rest of the chapter. I know it’s not much, but let’s give this a try. And I’d appreciate your comments on this alternative to the “was it compelling” question.
Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—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 September 13, 2015. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think it’s compelling enough to pay for? Following are what would be the first 17 manuscript lines of the Prologue.
My vote and notes after the fold.
Teddy Xanakis would have to steal the painting. What other choice did she have? She believed it was a Turner— a possibility she couldn’t confirm unless she shipped it to the Tate in London, where the Turner scholars, Evelyn Joll and Martin Butlin in particular, could make a judgment about its authenticity. Unfortunately, the painting was currently in the basement of the house that was now solely in Ari’s name, where it had sat for years, unrecognized and unappreciated. She might have blamed herself for the oversight, but why on earth would anyone expect to find a priceless painting in such homely company?
She and Ari had bought the house when they moved from Chicago to Santa Teresa, California. The estate had been owned by the Carpenters, who passed it down from generation to generation until the last surviving family member died in 1981, having neglected to write a will. The estate attorney had locked the doors and put the house up for sale. Teddy and Ari had bought it fully equipped and fully furnished, right down to the rolls of toilet paper in the linen closet and three sets of sterling flatware in the silver vault. The antiques, including several exquisite Persian carpets, were appraised as part of the purchase price, but in the process a small group of paintings had been overlooked. The attorney had paid the taxes owed, handing the IRS and the State of California the hefty sums to which they were entitled.
Teddy and Ari had made use of a number of the antiques in furnishing the mansion’s first (snip)
My vote: no
I liked the voice and the writing is clean, and I was fine with the first paragraph—it immediately raised strong story questions. But then . . .
Then we delved into backstory. Lots of detail about the narrator’s failed marriage, a house, painting, yada yada. All backstory, nicely written. The only piece of what followed that would have kept me turning the page was the last paragraph in the prologue:
She’d have to act and she’d have to do it soon. The task she faced was not entirely unfamiliar. She’d stolen a painting once before, but nothing even close to one of this magnitude.
Another strong story question. But the intervening material was pretty much tension-free for me. I was glad that I still had my 30 cents. Sure, I know that Sue Grafton writes entertaining mysteries and that my 30 cents would probably not be wasted–but that’s not the challenge here. The hurdle is an opening page gripping enough to keep me going. While the opening paragraph came close, the sure side trip into backstory promised reading that I didn’t want to pay to do.
Tip: You can actually turn the page for free by utilizing Amazon’s “Look inside” feature, and I recommend doing that if you have the time and interest.
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