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 30, 2015. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Following are what would be the first 16 manuscript lines of the first chapter.
GINNY SCOOT WAS standing on a third-floor ledge, threatening to jump, and it was more or less my fault. My name is Stephanie Plum and I work as a bounty hunter for my bail bondsman cousin Vinnie.
Ginny had failed to show for a court appearance and it was my job to find her and return her to the authorities. If I don’t succeed my cousin is out his bond money, and I don’t get paid. On the other hand, there’s Ginny, who would prefer not to go back to jail.
My colleague Lula and I were on the sidewalk, looking up at Ginny, along with a bunch of other people who were taking video with their smartphones.
“This here’s not a good angle for her,” Lula said to me. “Everybody could look up her skirt and see her hoo-ha. I guess technically you could see her thong, but we all know her lady parts are lurkin’ in there behind that little piece of red material and ass floss.”
Lula was originally a respectable ’ho. A couple years ago she’d decided to relinquish her corner and take a job as file clerk for the bonds office. Since almost all the files are digital these days, Lula mostly works as my wheelman. She’s four inches too short for her weight, her clothes are three sizes too small for her generously proportioned body, her hair color changes weekly, her skin is a robust dark chocolate.
My vote and notes after the fold.
This is Tricky Twenty-two by Janet Evanovich. While the author’s name alone is enough to let you know that a fun read is ahead, what if this was by an unknown author who didn’t have 21 previous bestsellers in this series? Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: no
While the voice is standard Evanovich-charming, consider the storytelling side. The page opens with a good strong situation and story question in the first paragraph. So far, so good. But then the narrative IMMEDIATELY veers off into setup exposition and then into backstory. Instead of staying with a person who is in danger of death, we get a description and history of Stephanie’s sidekick.
Keeping in mind that you’re appraising this as an effort by an unknown author submitting to a swamped literary agent, do you think that’s a good idea? I don’t.
Here’s why: readers buy fiction for one reason: STORY. For my money, a strong first page is about two things: story and engaging me with a character. This certainly has engaging qualities in the voice, but virtually no story. As for character, I felt that Stephanie’s big concern about the woman jumping was her not being paid was a bit calloused to me. There is no reason Janet couldn’t have gotten into creating more story tension and story questions on this first page and then woven in setup stuff as she reeled in a hooked reader.
Bottom line, I think an unknown writer would have a good chance of getting a fast “no” from an agent or reader by opening with mostly setup and backstory like this. With Evanovich’s name on the cover and 21 previous Stephanie Plum novels, that isn’t a problem, of course. But for a new writer?
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. Tricky Twenty-two is here.
Announcing a new “Flog a BookBubber” Monday feature on my blog, Flogging the Quill. If you’re familiar with BookBub, it’s a site that offers free or very low cost ebooks. It is heavily used by self-publishers, though established authors are sometimes there.
We often see the meme on the Internet that self-published authors should have had editing done before they published. So the new Flog a BookBubber posts take a look at opening pages to see if that’s true. You can vote on turning the page and then on whether or not they should have sought an editor. Stop by on Monday and take a look.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!