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 April 24, 2016. How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Following are what would be the first 17 manuscript lines of the prologue.
My vote and notes after the fold.
The first wail of the infant was so penetrating that the two couples outside the birthing room of midwife Cora Banks gasped in unison. James and Jennifer Wright’s eyes lit up with joy. Relief and resignation formed the expression on the faces of Rose and Martin Ryan, whose seventeen-year-old daughter had just given birth.
The couples only knew each other as the Smiths and the Joneses. Neither one had any desire to know the true identity of the other. A full fifteen minutes later they were still waiting anxiously to see the newborn child.
It was a sleepy seven-pound girl with strands of curling black ringlets that contrasted with her fair complexion. When her eyes blinked open they were large and deep brown. As Jennifer Wright reached out to take her, the midwife smiled. “I think we have a little business to complete,” she suggested.
James Wright opened the small valise he was carrying. “Sixty thousand dollars,” he said. “Count it.”
The mother of the baby who had just been born had been described to them as a seventeen-year-old high school senior who had gotten pregnant the night of the senior prom. That fact had been hidden from everyone. Her parents told family and friends that she was too young to go away to college and would be working for her aunt in her dress shop in Milwaukee.
This is As Time Goes By by Mary Higgins Clark. Was this opening page compelling to you?
My vote: no.
The writing is just fine, as professional as you would expect it to be. But, for me, this prologue exhibits what prologues do—lather setup on the reader—in an uninteresting fashion. The only story question that occurs to me is to wonder what happens to the baby. But it wasn’t compelling for this reader—there are no stakes or jeopardy attached to the baby’s birth or future. And adoptive parents paying for a baby is hardly a new story.
Later, in the first chapter, we meet the grown-up version of the baby when we learn that she is adopted and desperately wants to know who her birth mother is. So I have to wonder why we used all that prologue space to set up the fact that she was adopted when we get that information soon. On the Amazon page for this book, Ms. Clark is billed as the “Queen of Suspense,” but I read both the prologue and several pages of the first chapter and found no suspense, just setup. I kept my 30 cents.
Turn the page for free by utilizing Amazon’s “Look inside” feature, and I recommend doing that if you have the time and interest. As Time Goes By is here.
Stop by my Monday “Flog a BookBubber” feature Flogging the Quill. BookBub is a website 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 my 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!