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. 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 four on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for May 20, 2018. How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Following are what would be the first 17 manuscript lines of the first chapter.
Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays. Once a week the defining moment for sixty women takes place. For some of the sixty, that defining moment happens over and over. For them it is routine. For me it happened only once. I was woken at two a.m. and shackled and counted, Romy Leslie Hall, inmate W314159, and lined up with the others for an all-night ride up the valley.
As our bus exited the jail perimeter, I glued myself to the mesh-reinforced window to try to see the world. There wasn’t much to look at. Underpasses and on-ramps, dark, deserted boulevards. No one was on the street. We were passing through a moment in the night so remote that traffic lights had ceased to go from green to red and merely blinked a constant yellow. Another car came alongside. It had no lights. It surged past the bus, a dark thing with demonic energy. There was a girl on my unit in county who got life for nothing but driving. She wasn’t the shooter, she would tell anyone who’d listen. She wasn’t the shooter. All she did was drive the car. That was it. They’d used license plate reader technology. They had it on video surveillance. What they had was an image of the car, at night, moving along a street, first with lights on, then with lights off. If the driver cuts the lights, that is premeditation. If the driver cuts the lights, it’s murder.
They were moving us at that hour for a reason, for many reasons. If they could have shot (snip)
You can turn the page to read more here.
This is The Mars Room by Rachel Kusner. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received an average of 4.4 stars out of 5 on Amazon. For me, this is one of those in-between first pages. Not immediately rejectable, not immediately compelling. I respond to the writing and the voice . . . but the narrative? It seems to be rambling and, since opening pages tend to foreshadow what is to come, the promise is for a narrative that rambles. Perhaps if I knew something about the story, but I don’t. Perhaps if I knew/felt more about the protagonist, but I don’t—much of the first page is taken up with the plight of a different woman, a plight that doesn’t impact the narrator.
I like that this introduces me to a world I don’t know, that of being a woman in prison. That’s a positive. There is a vague “what will happen to her” story question, but I don’t particularly care at this point. I’m reminded of a critique group partner who said of the lead character in one of my novels who I had written as cold and uncaring, “Maybe I will care about her. But I don’t. And I need that to want to keep reading about her.” I know that, from a technical point of view, that to actually “care” about a character isn’t absolutely necessary to engage a reader, but it is necessary to feel some sort of connection. Today I didn’t.
I did read on, of course, I’m a reader, and later there were things that did begin to form that connection. But that’s not the challenge here, is it? The task is to engage me, compellingly, on the first page. This writer clearly has the skills to do that—but she failed in my case. I suspect this one will be fairly split between yeses and noes. What did you think?
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!