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 online or at the bookstore.
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. In a sense, time is money for a literary agent working her way through a raft of submissions, and she is spending that resource whenever she turns a 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 three on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for October 22, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
Ree asked Jeanette if she ever watched the square of light from the window. Jeanette said she didn’t. Ree was in the top bunk, Jeanette in the bottom. They were both waiting for the cells to unlock for breakfast. It was another morning.
It seemed that Jeanette’s cellmate had made a study of the square. Ree explained that the square started on the wall opposite the window, slid down, down, down, then slopped over the surface of their desk, and finally made it out onto the floor. As Jeanette could now see, it was right there in the middle of the floor, bright as anything.
“Ree,” Jeanette said. “I just can’t be bothered with a square of light.”
“I say you can’t not be bothered by a square of light!” Ree made the honking noise that was how she expressed amusement.
Jeanette said, “Okay. Whatever the fuck that means,” and her cellmate just honked some more.
Ree was okay, but she was like a toddler, how silence made her anxious. Ree was in for credit fraud, forgery, and drug possession with intent to sell. She hadn’t been much good at any of them, which had brought her here.
Jeanette was in for manslaughter; on a winter night in 2005 she had stabbed her husband, Damian, in the groin with a clutchhead screwdriver and because he was high he’d just sat in an (snip)
Was this opening page compelling to you? If it was, you can turn the page here.  My votes and notes after the fold.
This is Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: no.
This story received a less-than-strong review average of 3.8 stars out of 5 on Amazon. Okay, I’m a big fan of Stephen King, so I was pleased to find this on the bestseller list. The writing has that folksy, intimate feel that King Sr. creates that makes the reading easy. The scene is set pretty well. There are good old quirky King characters. But . . . but what about tension?
I just reread the chapter on micro-tension in Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction. But I’ll be darned if I see even that on this page. There was a brief flare when Jeanette and Ree seem to disagree about the square of light, but that is quickly resolved and left behind. Bottom line, this page raises no story questions for me, nor does it create a tension in me to read more. I skimmed ahead, but found more of the same. Your thoughts?
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. Hope to see you there.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!