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 three on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for August 18, 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strong is the opening page of the prologue—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 chapter.
It was an unmarked car, just some nondescript American sedan a few years old, but the blackwall tires and the three men inside gave it away for what it was. The two in front were wearing blue uniforms. The one in back was wearing a suit, and he was as big as a house. A pair of black boys standing on the sidewalk, one with a foot on a scuffed orange skateboard, the other with a lime-colored board under his arm, watched it turn into the parking lot of the Estelle Barga Recreational Park, then looked at each other.
One said, “That’s Five-O.”
The other said, “No shit.”
They headed off with no further conversation, pumping their boards. The rule was simple: when Five-O shows up, it’s time to go. Black lives matter, their parents had instructed them, but not always to Five-O. At the baseball field, the crowd began to cheer and clap rhythmically as the Flint City Golden Dragons came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, one run down. The boys didn’t look back.
Statement of Mr. Jonathan Ritz [July 10th, 9:30 PM, interviewed by Detective Ralph Anderson]
Detective Anderson: I know you’re upset, Mr. Ritz, it’s understandable, but I need to know exactly what you saw earlier this evening.
This is The Outsider by Stephen King. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This book received an average of 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon. I’m a big fan of Stephen King, so I just had to check it out. Mr. King sometimes steps outside of the standard opening to a novel as he does here, which is fine as long as it works. The first chapter was just 13 manuscript pages long, so I included more from the opening of chapter two to give you 17 lines of narrative.
The first brief chapter basically serves to set the scene in a left-handed kind of way. For this reader, I think it was a waste of narrative—I read through several more chapters in the sample and the black boys didn’t reappear. I’ll wager that they never do, and they sure didn’t have any impact on the story in the part I read. I don’t see a purpose for this bit, but Mr. King did. I wonder what it was. Let me add that I wasn’t happy with the “big as a house” cliché.
The opening of the second chapter, though, does do what I like to see—raise a story question. I can assume the detective is asking about a crime, so “what happened” is a logical story question. Because of the opening paragraph, we might assume the police made an arrest at the ball game—but that could have been done quickly and efficiently elsewhere without using up 13 lines of narrative that don’t otherwise touch the story. Still, the detective’s interview was enough to generate a page-turn from me (although I wonder if it would have if I hadn’t known this was a Stephen King novel). 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.
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