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 two on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for February 18, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
It was the mustache that reminded me I was no longer in England: a solid, gray millipede firmly obscuring the man’s upper lip; a Village People mustache, a cowboy mustache, the miniature head of a broom that meant business. You just didn’t get that kind of mustache at home. I couldn’t tear my eyes from it.
The only person I had ever seen with a mustache like that at home was Mr. Naylor, our maths teacher, and he collected Digestive crumbs in his—we used to count them during algebra.
The man in the uniform motioned me forward with a flick of his stubby finger. He did not look up from his screen. I waited at the booth, long-haul sweat drying gently into my dress. He held up his hand, waggling four fat fingers. This, I grasped after several seconds, was a demand for my passport.
“It’s there,” I said.
“Your name, ma’am.”
“Louisa Elizabeth Clark.” I peered over the counter. “Though I never use the Elizabeth (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 Still Me by Jojo Moyes. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received a high average of 4.7 stars out of 5 on Amazon—it is the third in a series. Well, for this reader (and editor), this first page was a waste of time and electrons—I’m glad I didn’t print it out. To summarize the action, a woman—we don’t know where she is—is asked for her passport and name. We can conclude that she is arriving somewhere that is not England, but are clueless otherwise. The only thing that goes wrong for her that she has to deal with is that she doesn’t understand his request for her name.
If you had turned the page, you would have seen this writing gem:
My voice bounced nervously off the Plexiglas screen.
Really? I’ll agree that the sound waves that constitute a voice can bounce off of things, but nervously? Based on the tension-free first page, I’ll save my 30 cents for a more deserving narrative. 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.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!