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 trade paperback fiction bestseller list for December 18, 2016—because of the character’s name, you will likely recognize it. Try to leave that aside and assess whether or not this opening page would, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
Ove is fifty-nine.
He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight. He stands at the counter of a shop where owners of Japanese cars come to purchase white cables. Ove eyes the sales assistant for a long time before shaking a medium-sized white box at him.
“So this is one of those O-Pads, is it?” he demands.
The assistant, a young man with a single-digit body mass index, looks ill at ease. He visibly struggles to control his urge to snatch the box out of Ove’s hands.
“Yes, exactly. An iPad. Do you think you could stop shaking it like that . . . ?”
Ove gives the box a skeptical glance, as if it’s a highly dubious sort of box, a box that rides a scooter and wears tracksuit pants and just called Ove “my friend” before offering to sell him a watch.
“I see. So it’s a computer, yes?”
The sales assistant nods. Then hesitates and quickly shakes his head.
“Yes . . . or, what I mean is, it’s an iPad. Some people call it a ‘tablet’ and others call it a ‘surfing device.’ There are different ways of looking at it. . . .”
“Ove looks at the sales assistant as if he has just spoken backwards, before shaking the (snip)
Was this opening page compelling to you? If it was, you can turn the page here. My vote and notes after the fold.
This is A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Blackman. Was this opening page compelling to you?
My vote: no.
Well, I’ll grant that the writing is engaging, and that there is scene tension in this opening page. I’m sure if you’re in the mood for what appears to be a story about a cranky, ignorant, and rude man, it will be fine with you. It does agree with my personal notion that it is character that creates plot—that is, what happens.
But what happens here? A dialogue and action that demonstrate Ove’s character, as described above. Writing pundits talk about characters needing a goal, a desire, and that a story is about frustrating that desire and the character’s actions to satisfy it. The desire, the goal here? To understand what a tablet computer is. I know that Don Maass talks about using “bridging tension” to move a story along, and I’ve seen it work, but for this reader this was not compelling.
Disclosure: my daughter gave me this book for my birthday and told me how much she liked it. I have stalled out about halfway through, at this time unwilling to continue with this perverse person. I suppose I’ll have to try to finish it, now that I’ve written this post and now that the book is a movie. If the book hadn’t been given to me by my daughter, I would not have turned the page.
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!