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?
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.
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.
Last caveat: Don’t let genre/content affect your vote, decide on the basis of storytelling strength.
This novel was number one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for October 16, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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? Reminder: “compelling” is much different than “interesting”—it means that you are irresistibly urged to turn the page by what you’ve read. Following are what would be the first 17 manuscript lines of the Prologue.
WHEN HIS eyes pop open, it is still dark outside, the air cool and crisp through his window. Normally, he wouldn’t be up for another hour yet, but he could hardly sleep last night waiting for today. He’s not sure, in fact, that he slept at all.
He sees the long, narrow trombone case in the corner of his bedroom and his heartbeat ratchets up. All those rehearsals, all those hours of practice until his hands and shoulders ached, until his head throbbed, all of that preparation comes down to today. It’s finally here!
He quickly brushes his teeth and puts on his Halloween costume. He picks up the trombone case and his school backpack and heads downstairs quietly, not wanting to wake his mother.
He rips open the cellophane and drops two Pop-Tarts into the toaster and pours himself a glass of milk. He drinks the milk but doesn’t touch the pastries. His stomach is churning too wildly. He will eat later, after his performance.
It is still dark, a nip in the fresh air, as he leaves his house, backpack over his shoulder, trombone case in his left hand. At the end of his street, he looks to his right, where a half mile away he can see the fog of the Atlantic, dark and endless. His eyes invariably move to the house by the ocean, perched up on the hill, the haunted mansion that, even from a distance, scowls at him.
My vote and notes after the fold.
My vote: no
As with just about all of these published novels, the writing is clean (mostly—there was an extraneous “yet” in the second sentence that I would like to cut), but what is happening here? Remember, what happens on the first page should be raising a story question that I feel compelled to learn the answer to.
Here? A boy gets up and heads for school on Halloween. What’s going to happen next? Looks like he’s going to go to school. Not much of a story question for me.
This author is holding back, waiting to surprise me. But he failed. I didn’t turn the page. If only he had done something like this on the first page:
He sees the long, narrow trombone case in the corner of his bedroom, his rifle tucked inside, and his heartbeat ratchets up.
Now there’s a story question raised, and I would have kept reading. The point is to goad the reader with a strong enough sense of something eventful about to happen that leads them forward. For me, Pop Tarts didn’t do it. Sure, the title and James Patterson’s name on the cover might have gotten me past the first page, but that’s not the point in this exercise. It’s the narrative, those first precious 250 words that are supposed to have the magic.
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. This one is here.
Help beginning novelists with constructive criticism, join me on Wednesdays and Fridays for floggings at my site, Flogging the Quill.
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