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 one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for June 24, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
The House Select Committee will come to order…”
The sharks are circling, their nostrils twitching at the scent of blood. Thirteen of them, to be exact, eight from the opposition party and five from mine, sharks against whom I’ve been preparing defenses with lawyers and advisers. I’ve learned the hard way that no matter how prepared you are, there are few defenses that work against predators. At some point, there’s nothing you can do but jump in and fight back.
Don’t do it, my chief of staff, Carolyn Brock, pleaded again last night, as she has so many times.
You can’t go anywhere near that committee hearing, sir. You have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
You can’t answer their questions, sir.
It will be the end of your presidency.
I scan the thirteen faces opposite me, seated in a long row, a modern-day Spanish Inquisition. The silver-haired man in the center, behind the nameplate MR. RHODES, clears his throat.
Lester Rhodes, the Speaker of the House, normally doesn’t participate in committee hearings, but he has made an exception for this select committee, which he has stacked with (snip)
You can turn the page and read more here.
This is The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This book received an average of 4.3 stars out of 5 on Amazon. If you follow publishing, I’m guessing that you knew what the book was and who the authors were after reading it. And, with politics running a fever these days, how can a political conflict such as the one that is promised here fail? There are plenty of story questions raised, and the tension is strong. I’m a political junkie, so this would be nearly irresistible for me, but I think the opening is strong enough, especially these days, to get that page turned. Interestingly, a review in the June 18 issue of The New Yorker panned the writing but still ended up saying that it rises above its faults and is a “go-to read.” 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!