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 September 18, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
My vote and notes after the fold.
Armand Gamache sat in the little room and closed the dossier with care, squeezing it shut, trapping the words inside.
It was a thin file. Just a few pages. Like all the rest surrounding him on the old wooden floor of his study. And yet, not like all the rest.
He looked at the slender lives lying at his feet. Waiting for his decision on their fate. He’d been at this for a while now. Reviewing the dossiers. Taking note of the tiny dots on the upper-right corner of the tabs. Red for rejected. Green for accepted.
He had not put those dots there. His predecessor had.
Armand placed the file on the floor and leaned forward in his comfortable armchair, his elbows on his knees. His large hands together, fingers intertwined. He felt like a passenger on a transcontinental flight, staring down at fields below him. Some fertile, some fallow and ripe with potential. And some barren. The topsoil masking the rock beneath.
But which was which?
He’d read, and considered, and tried to drill down past the scant information. He wondered about these lives, and he wondered about the decisions of his predecessor.
For years, decades, as head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, his job had been to dig. To collect evidence. To review facts, and question feelings. To pursue and arrest. To use his (snip)
This is A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny. Was this opening page compelling to you?
My vote: no.
The review average on Amazon for A Great Reckoning was a remarkable 4.9, something I rarely see. I was eager to see the narrative that earned such high ratings. It turns out that this novel is for readers different from me.
I was encouraged by the wonderful voice and the strong writing (except for that little POV slip of “large” hands). Later, the narrative takes its time—really takes its time—to reveal potentially interesting characters. But, sadly for me, not story. I did read on, provoked by a question: what were these people being accepted or rejected for? Turns out this is what I call an “information question,” not a story question. I read on for many pages and, somewhere deep in chapter two I found a hint. Only a hint. I think they were students applying to a school that the character now heads. I think. And there was focus on a particular student. But there was no clue why.
This is reported to be a mystery. And it is part of a series—the writer and protagonist have fans galore, which I suspect accounts for the high ratings. Still, after reading two chapters, I had no idea what the “mystery” is. There was plenty of nicely written exposition about past events, but nothing about the story of a great reckoning. I ran out of patience.
I will grant you that the characters are deep and interesting, and could become people I cared about. But, for me, that needs to happen in the context of a story, and this didn’t deliver much in that department. There were no stakes, no consequences, no goals, no (for me) tension. Which is what I mean by it being for readers different from me. Readers who prefer a more literary, slow-moving, detailed narrative may love floating along, buoyed by its prose. I wish them a happy read, but this book failed to capture my interest, not only with the first page, but with the roughly 20+ pages that followed.
Turn the page for free by utilizing Amazon’s “Look inside” feature, and I recommend doing that if you have the time and interest. A Great Reckoning 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!