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.
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 November 9, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
My name is Sebastian Rudd, and though I am a well-known street lawyer, you will not see my name on billboards, on bus benches, or screaming at you from the yellow pages. I don’t pay to be seen on television, though I am often there. My name is not listed in any phone book. I do not maintain a traditional office. I carry a gun, legally, because my name and face tend to attract attention from the type of people who also carry guns and don’t mind using them. I live alone, usually sleep alone, and do not possess the patience and understanding necessary to maintain friendships. The law is my life, always consuming and occasionally fulfilling. I wouldn’t call it a “jealous mistress” as some forgotten person once so famously did. It’s more like an overbearing wife who controls the checkbook. There’s no way out.
These nights I find myself sleeping in cheap motel rooms that change each week. I’m not trying to save money; rather, I’m just trying to stay alive. There are plenty of people who’d like to kill me right now, and a few of them have been quite vocal. They don’t tell you in law school that one day you may find yourself defending a person charged with a crime so heinous that otherwise peaceful citizens feel driven to take up arms and threaten to kill the accused, his lawyer, and even the judge.
But I’ve been threatened before. It’s part of being a rogue lawyer, a subspecialty of the profession that I more or less fell into ten years ago. When I finished law school, jobs were (snip)
My vote and notes after the fold.
Bonus: a contrasting opening page from another published lawyer mystery.
My vote: no
On my blog, Flogging the Quill, I include an “almost” choice—I don’t do that here because these are published bestsellers and the standard is higher. With “almost,” new writers get encouraging close-but-no-cigar information. I don’t think these authors should get that.
But the “almost” choice is still a no, and that would be my response here for one simple reason: I was rolling along with the narrative and the part about defending a heinous person raised good story questions . . . but then the narrative turned off into a side road of backstory, and that turned me off.
I have little patience with backstory because I want to know what’s happening in the now of the story, not its then. Yes, if the backstory is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for understanding what’s going on, then it’s okay with me. But here? His history of what happened when he finished law school just isn’t relevant to being in a position of being killed because he’s defending someone. I read on, and it has no impact on the chapter.
I’m sure some of you will feel, well, I’d give it another page, but that’s not the test. The test is the first page, a hurdle that new writers knocking on agents’ doors have to clear. So why not the big guys? They can do it. John didn’t have to include the backstory here, he could have kept going.
But he didn’t. I guess he’s plagued with that common writer affliction, the-reader-needs-to-know-this syndrome. I’ve fallen victim to it, but I’ve learned not to. John would have been better served if he could have resisted, IMO.
For contrast, consider the opening page of Mortal Sin by Paul Levine.
On a sweltering August day, the Coast Guard plucked seven Haitians from a sinking raft, the grand jury indicted three judges for extorting kickbacks, and the county commission inadvertently named a street after a convicted drug smuggler.
And Peter Tupton froze to death.
Tupton was wearing Speedos and a terry cloth beach jacket. His body was found in the wine cellar of a Gables Estates mansion. Two empty bottles of Roederer Cristal Champagne lay at his feet.
His very blue feet.
Two thousand other bottles — reds and whites, ports and sauternes, Champagnes and Chardonnays — were stacked neatly in their little wooden bins. A high-tech air-conditioning system kept the wine cellar at an even 56 degrees. Hardly life-threatening, unless you wandered in from the pool deck sopping wet, guzzled two liters of bubbly, and passed out.
Cause of death: exposure due to hypothermia. Which didn’t keep the Miami Herald from seizing on a sexier headline:
ON YEAR’S HOTTEST DAY,
FREEZES TO DEATH
For me, a mystery that opens with a mystery instead of a resume did a much better job of getting me to turn the page.
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