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 trade paperback fiction bestseller list for July 22, 2018. How strong is the opening page of the prologue—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 page.
Nicholas Young slumped into the nearest seat in the hotel lobby, drained from the sixteen-hour flight from Singapore, the train ride from Heathrow Airport, and trudging through the rain-soaked streets. His cousin Astrid Leong shivered stoically next to him, all because her mother, Felicity, his dai gu cheh—or “big aunt” in Cantonese—said it was a sin to take a taxi nine blocks and forced everyone to walk all the way from Piccadilly Tube Station.
Anyone else happening upon the scene might have noticed an unusually composed eight-year-old boy and an ethereal wisp of a girl sitting quietly in a corner, but all Reginald Ormsby saw from his desk overlooking the lobby were two little Chinese children staining the damask settee with their sodden coats. And it only got worse from there. Three Chinese women stood nearby, frantically blotting themselves dry with tissues, while a teenager slid wildly across the lobby, his sneakers leaving muddy tracks on the black-and-white checker board marble.
Ormsby rushed downstairs from the mezzanine, knowing he could more efficiently dispatch these foreigners than his front-desk clerks. “Good evening, I am the general manager. Can I help you?” he said slowly, over-enunciating every word.
“Yes, good evening, we have a reservation,” the woman replied in perfect English.
Ormsby peered at her in surprise. “What name is it under?”
“Eleanor Young and family.”
You can turn the page and read more here.
This is Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This book received an average of 4.1 stars out of 5 on Amazon. I had mixed feelings about this one, primarily because the POV in the opening paragraph led me to think that this was Nicholas’s story, but it quickly seemed to divert from that. (I checked the first chapter and, sure enough, it does look like it’s his story.) Still, though, the author does a good job of signaling that trouble is coming by letting the bigotry in the hotel manager seep through—the children are staining the settee, Chinese is constantly used to “other” the women and children, and then he over-enunciates what he says in the way one does when talking down to a perceived inferior. Those hints, plus a strong voice and writing, moved me to another page to see what would happen next (and I wasn’t disappointed). 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!