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.
But first, a follow-up on last month’s flogging of the Kings’ novel, Sleeping Beauties
Last time around we looked at the first page of a bestselling novel by Stephen and Owen King. The vote results were
- No, would not turn the page 77%
- Yes, would turn the page 23%
I got to wondering how that result would compare with reader reactions to the first page of King’s first novel, Carrie, written by a wannabe author who knew he had to hook a reader immediately because he was not an established bestseller who could rely upon the momentum of past performances.
Would there be a difference? Would you vote differently? Following is the first manuscript page of Carrie followed by a poll. After that, we’ll flog this month’s bestselling author. From Carrie:
RAIN OF STONES REPORTED
It was reliably reported by several persons that a rain of stones fell from a clear blue sky on Carlin Street in the town of Chamberlain on August 17th. The stones fell principally on the home of Mrs. Margaret White, damaging the roof extensively and ruining two gutters and a downspout valued at approximately $25. Mrs. White, a widow, lives with her three-year-old daughter, Carietta.
Mrs. White could not be reached for comment.
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again. Some of them might also have claimed surprise, but of course their claim was untrue. Carrie had been going to school with some of them since the first grade, and this had been building since that time, building slowly and immutably, in accordance with all the laws that govern human nature, building with all the steadiness of a chain reaction approaching critical mass.
What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic.
You can read more from Carrie here. My vote was Yes.
Now for today’s bestseller
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 one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for November 19, 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.
The end of the year brought the usual holiday festivities, though around the Frazier house there was little to cheer. Mrs. Frazier went through the motions of decorating a small tree and wrapping a few cheap gifts and baking cookies no one really wanted, and, as always, she kept The Nutcracker running nonstop on the stereo as she gamely hummed along in the kitchen as though the season was merry.
Things were anything but merry. Mr. Frazier had moved out three years earlier, and he wasn’t missed as much as he was despised. In no time, he had moved in with his young secretary, who, as things developed, was already pregnant. Mrs. Frazier, jilted, humiliated, broke, and depressed, was still struggling.
Louie, her younger son, was under house arrest, sort of free on bail, and facing a rough year ahead with the drug charges and all. He made no effort to buy his mom anything in the way of a gift. His excuse was that he couldn’t leave the house because of the court-ordered monitor attached to his ankle. But even without it, no one expected Louie to go to the trouble of buying gifts. The year before and the year before that both of his ankles had been unburdened and he hadn’t bothered to shop.
Mark, the older son, was home from the horrors of law school, and, though even poorer than his brother, had managed to buy his mother some perfume. He was scheduled to graduate in (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 The Rooster Bar by John Grisham. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: no.
This story received an underwhelming review average of 3.6 stars out of 5 on Amazon. Grisham is one of those authors who is capable of capturing me and of turning me off. When he’s on, tension and story questions and good characters keep me reading.
But then there’s this book. The first page is pure info dump, the author telling us—versus showing us, versus involving us in a story, versus taking us into a strong character—what he thinks we need to know in order to understand whatever scenario his story is about. As for story questions, the only thing I can think of on this page is what did the poor woman buy to give her two unappealing sons. Not exactly compelling. If this depressing page is any indication of what the rest of the book reads like, I wouldn’t pay a nickel to read it, much less 30 cents. Your thoughts?
P.S. I may be crazy for trying this again, but I’m Kickstarting FlipIt, a new word game that word-game lovers love. I invite you to check it out here.
You’re invited to a flogging—your own You see the insights fresh eyes bring to the performance of bestseller first pages, so why not do the same with the opening of your WIP? Submit your prologue/first chapter to my blog, Flogging the Quill, and I’ll give you my thoughts and even a little line editing if I see a need. But I need your permission to post the first page. And if you’re willing to let the rest of the chapter be posted so readers can turn the page, let me know. The readers of FtQ are good at offering constructive notes, too. Hope to see you there. To submit, email your first chapter or prologue (or both) as an attachment to me, and let me know if it’s okay to use your first page and to post the complete chapter.
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