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 August 14, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 first chapter.
“This is a story that begins with a barbecue,” said Clementine. The microphone amplified and smoothed her voice, making it more authoritative, as if it had been photoshopped. “An ordinary neighborhood barbecue in an ordinary backyard.”
Well, not exactly an ordinary backyard, thought Erika. She crossed her legs, tucked one foot behind her ankle, and sniffed. Nobody would call Vid’s backyard ordinary.
Erika sat in the middle of the back row of the audience in the event room that adjoined this smartly renovated local library in a suburb forty-five minutes out of the city, not thirty minutes, thank you very much, as suggested by the person at the cab company, who you would think would have some sort of expertise in the matter.
There were maybe twenty people in the audience, although there were foldout chairs available for twice that many. Most of the audience were elderly people, with lively, expectant faces. These were intelligent, informed senior citizens who had come along on this rainy (yet again, would it ever end?) morning to collect new and fascinating information at their local Community Matters Meeting. “I saw the most interesting woman speak today,” they wanted to tell their children and grandchildren.
Before she came, Erika had looked up the library’s website to see how it described Clementine’s talk. The blurb was short, and not very informative:
My vote and notes after the fold.
This is Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty. Was this opening page compelling to you?
My vote: no.
The voice and the writing are strong and confident, and that promises a good reading experience ahead. Clearly a skilled writer here. But . . .
But I sure wished a story question had been raised. Oh, there’s the tease in the first paragraph, but no hint of what the story Clementine is going to tell might be—happy, sad, tragic, enlightening, what? After that, we go into Erika’s observations and feelings. Which then led me, due to the writer’s skill, to begin to not like this protagonist.
She seems to be crabby and a little bitchy—the cab story, for example—and a bit condescending in the way she characterizes the audience members. Because of how I felt about this character and the lack of a story question, I had little interest in turning the page.
Turn the page for free by utilizing Amazon’s “Look inside” feature, and I recommend doing that if you have the time and interest. Truly Madly Guilty 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 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!