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 20, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
The satellite radio was playing soft jazz, a compromise. Lacy, the owner of the Prius and thus the radio, loathed rap almost as much as Hugo, her passenger, loathed contemporary country. They had failed to agree on sports talk, public radio, golden oldies, adult comedy, and the BBC, without getting near bluegrass, CNN, opera, or a hundred other stations. Out of frustration on her part and fatigue on his, they both threw in the towel early and settled on soft jazz. Soft, so Hugo’s deep and lengthy nap would not be disturbed. Soft, because Lacy didn’t care much for jazz either. It was another give-and-take of sorts, one of many that had sustained their teamwork over the years. He slept and she drove and both were content.
Before the Great Recession, the Board on Judicial Conduct had access to a small pool of state-owned Hondas, all with four doors and white paint and low mileage. With budget cuts, though, those disappeared. Lacy, Hugo, and countless other public employees in Florida were now expected to use their own vehicles for the state’s work, reimbursed at fifty cents a mile. Hugo, with four kids and a hefty mortgage, drove an ancient Bronco that could barely make it to the office, let alone a road trip. And so he slept.
Lacy enjoyed the quiet. She handled most of her cases alone, as did her colleagues. Deeper cuts had decimated the office, and the BJC was down to its last six investigators. Seven, in a state of twenty million people, with a thousand judges sitting in six hundred courtrooms and (snip)
Was this opening page compelling to you? If it was, you can turn the page here. My vote and notes after the fold.
My vote: no.
What a gripper—someone drives a car and listens to the radio while the passenger sleeps. Why doesn’t it occur to me to craft openings this riveting in my novels? Oh, the conflict!—they had failed to agree on so many listening possibilities on the radio. Not that we witness this struggle, but at least we’re told about it.
Then the narrative gets to the heart of things—state employees have to use their own vehicles for their work. Thank goodness that the tension then lets up a bit with rumination about the driver’s work so my heart palpitations can ease. I needed that breather before going on to the next gripping story question.
Oh, wait. Story questions. Actual tension. I did read on in search of those things in this less-than-tepid opening, but solely for the purposes of this post. Much later in the book, in chapter two, after I’d learned about her partner’s married life and his new baby, yada yada, they meet with a man and he delivers this:
And the story I can tell you involves more dirty cash than all the others combined. It also involves bribery, extortion, intimidation, rigged trials, at least two murders, and one wrongful conviction. There’s a man rotting away on death row an hour from here who was framed.
Now that’s a page-turning amalgam of story questions. Alas, I would never have gotten there. I have enjoyed several of Mr. Grisham’s stories (and not several others). But I don’t think I want to read a story weighed down with as much humdrum as this opening promises. (Ahem–this is supposed to be a thriller.)
By the way: at $15 for the cheapest edition and 42 chapters, the first-page price for this underwhelming gathering of words works out to about 36 cents. I don’t think so. No page turn for this reader. And no $15 for the Kindle edition, the cheapest version.
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!