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 paperback trade fiction bestseller list for May 14, 2017. How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.
There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.
We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an afterthought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been (snip)
Was this opening page compelling to you? If it was, you can turn the page here (the Kindle version is free to Amazon Prime members). My votes and notes after the fold.
I suspect some of you will have recognized The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Recently, in comments to Flog a Pro, readers suggested looking outside the tight confines of a NYT bestseller list that is dominated by thrillers to look at other genres. Another thing to note: frequently WU readers speak of or cite stories from other eras as examples of the way it ought to be done. Well, The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1986. So how did its thirty-year-old opening hold up to the first-page test? Was it compelling to you?
My vote: yes.
This classic received an average review rating of 4.2 stars out of 5 on Amazon. I said yes, though it was a little shaky. The opening paragraph does a fascinating job of letting us know that this story takes place in the future by starting with a past that is gone. The later narrative increases tension by raising a story question—what is going on here? But the narrative didn’t engage me with a character. For me, the focus on a sense of nostalgia distanced me from the “now” of this person’s life. But, still, the writing, the voice, and a sense of things to come was enough.
But . . . but I think it could have been stronger. Please indulge me and my quest for strong opening pages. While this one has many things going for it, and it will appeal to readers with a more literary bent, I suspect that it fails for many like me who want to see something happening. As it turns out, this story has that, but just not on the first page.
I submit that if perhaps some of that long, moody opening paragraph were shifted to a little later, or if there were other trims, Ms. Atwood would have been better served in crafting a compelling opening page if these lines had been included:
The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.
Now that I think about it, those lines could have made a terrific opening-line hook that led to the more literary setup. Would an addition of this somewhere in the narrative have significantly elevated the tension of the first page for you? It would have for me. It adds a sense of jeopardy, of trouble ahead, that not only piques my interest but brings me closer to connecting with the protagonist.
Flogging the Indie side: you’re invited to walk a little on the Indie side most every Monday, when I flog an author who has offered their novel free on BookBub. Just visit Flogging the Quill. You get to vote on turning the page and whether or not the author should have hired an editor. I occasionally find a gem that’s free, so it might be worth your time.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!