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 hardback fiction bestseller list for February 2, 2016. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 17 manuscript lines of Chapter 1.
The trip by jeep from the small village near Luena to Malanje in Angola, in southwest Africa, followed by a train ride to Luanda, the capital, had taken seven hours. The drive from Luena was long and arduous due to unexploded land mines in the area, which required extreme diligence and caution to avoid as they drove. After forty years of conflict and civil war, the country was still ravaged and in desperate need of all the help outside sources could provide, which was why Ginny Carter had been there, sent by SOS Human Rights. SOS/ HR was a private foundation based in New York that sent human rights workers around the globe. Her assignments were usually two or three months long in any given location, occasionally longer. She was sent in as part of a support team, to address whatever human rights issues were being violated or in question, typically to assist women and children, or even to address the most pressing physical needs in a trouble spot somewhere, like lack of food, water, medicine, or shelter. She frequently got involved in legal issues, visiting women in prisons, interfacing with attorneys, and trying to get the women fair trials. SOS took good care of their workers and was a responsible organization, but the work was dangerous at times. She had taken an in-depth training course before they sent her into the field initially, and had been taught about everything from digging ditches and purifying water, to extensive first aid, but nothing had prepared her for what she had seen since. She had learned a great deal about man’s cruelty to man and the plight of people in (snip)
My vote and notes after the fold.
This is Blue by Danielle Steel. Was this opening page compelling to you?
My vote: no.
Well, as you should expect from an author published by a major house, Delacorte Press, Danielle Steel’s writing is clean and professional. For this reader, the list of virtues stops right about there. I was soon wishing for a paragraph break, and right after that wishing for something to happen to this character rather than being submerged in backstory.
She’s leaving what would be a great, tense setting for a story. But she’s leaving that while we’re filled in on the “then” of the story. The next few pages, should you turn this one, deal with arriving at the airport, taking a cab, getting home, all laced with more setup and backstory. I wonder if a literary agent would have ever gotten even that far—my bet is that she would be crying “Where’s the story?” and then stomping the delete key with her index finger and going on to the next submission. As you might guess, I didn’t turn the page.
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. Blue is here.
Stop by my Monday “Flog a BookBubber” feature on 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. Visit on Mondays and take a look.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!