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 one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for January 21, 2018. How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
Her husband’s almost home. He’ll catch her this time.
There isn’t a scrap of curtain, not a blade of blind, in number 212— the rust-red townhome that once housed the newlywed Motts, until recently, until they un-wed. I never met either Mott, but occasionally I check in online: his LinkedIn profile, her Facebook page. Their wedding registry lives on at Macy’s. I could still buy them flatware.
As I was saying: not even a window dressing. So number 212 gazes blankly across the street, ruddy and raw, and I gaze right back, watching the mistress of the manor lead her contractor into the guest bedroom. What is it about that house? It’s where love goes to die.
She’s lovely, a genuine redhead, with grass-green eyes and an archipelago of tiny moles trailing across her back. Much prettier than her husband, a Dr. John Miller, psychotherapist— yes, he offers couples counseling— and one of 436,000 John Millers online. This particular specimen works near Gramercy Park and does not accept insurance. According to the deed of sale, he paid $ 3.6 million for his house. Business must be good.
I know both more and less about the wife. Not much of a homemaker, clearly; the Millers moved in eight weeks ago, yet still those windows are bare, tsk-tsk. She practices yoga three times a week, tripping down the steps with her magic-carpet mat rolled beneath one arm, legs shrink-wrapped in Lululemon. And she must volunteer someplace— she leaves the house a little (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 Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. Was this opening page compelling?
Side note: number two on the list was Origin by Dan Brown. I was tempted to look at that one because of his, er, qualities as a writer, but that felt too much like shooting fish in a barrel.
My vote: Yes.
This book received an average of 4.3 stars out of 5 on Amazon. For me, this story begins with a strong hook in that first paragraph: will she be caught and who is she are good story questions. Yet that wasn’t what earned the page-turn. Through voice and the narrator’s view of what’s going on and her knowledge about the woman across the street, the real mystery in this opening is the narrator. Who is she? Why is she watching? Why does she know so much? Is she just a voyeur? In other words, what’s her story?
For me, this is an example of how voice and writing can do so much to generate compelling energy and tension in an opening page. I ended up wanting to know what happens next to two characters—the redhead across the street and the woman in the window. Yes, nothing has gone wrong for the woman in the window . . . yet. I found I wanted to know what that would be and how she would handle it. Oh, and would the homecoming husband catch the philandering wife?
But I will pick a nit or two. For me, there could have been considerably greater clarity in the scene-setting if a particular descriptive element (shown here in red) was moved to this place earlier in the narrative:
. . . the rust-red townhome across the street that once housed the newlywed Motts . . .
In this position, the description now shows me that the narrator is doing her observing from a position across the street from the townhome, something that isn’t completely clear at first.
Also, the redhead going into a bedroom with a contractor is not necessarily the beginning of an assignation because she could simply be working with him on decoration or remodeling of her new home. This is another clarity issue for me, one I see frequently when an author doesn’t quite get enough on the page because there’s so much in her mind. For example, in this case:
. . . watching the mistress of the manor take her contractor’s hand and lead him
her contractorinto the guest bedroom.
Something like that would have easily made clear what the redhead and her contractor were up to, and this would have increased the consequences of her husband’s imminent arrival, and thus the tension on this first page. Without that clarity, her observations about the house being a place love goes to die could be a non sequitur. Your thoughts?
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. And 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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