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 five on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for September 23, 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strong is the opening page of the prologue—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
I turned my water glass in the slick circle of condensation on the smooth, red lacquer of the table between us and studied the man across from me. I was afraid that if I didn’t pay attention, he might disappear. The Seer was like that; it was as if he simply drifted away, giving him access to places without appearing to be there, making other people’s secrets his own.
“You should take in some of the culture while you are here south of the border—go to the bullfights.” Adjusting his straw porkpie hat to a jauntier angle, the hunchback smiled. “You might enjoy it.”
I said nothing.
He looked in my general direction, the smile slowly fading. “My friend, Miguel Guerra, says you are highly motivated, but that if I can talk you out of this, I should.”
I still said nothing.
He stared at me. “Do you speak Spanish?”
I wiped the sweat from under my eyes with a thumb and forefinger—I had a hard time convincing myself it was coming up on November. “Very little.”
He had taken his cheap sunglasses off and placed them next to his drink. His eyes were opaque, and they wandered past me, toward the knobby hills to the south that rose from the desert like a bony hand, the fingers spreading to make peaks and battlements, as if the mountains (snip)
This is Depth of Winter: A Longmire Mystery by Craig Johnson. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received an average of 3.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon. That lower-scale rating made me wonder how this could be a bestseller. In looking through the reviews, though, I saw a couple of one-star reviews in which fans of the series were very disappointed that familiar characters weren’t included and that the story is more suspense than mystery. Perhaps Craig is trying something new, and three cheers for that. But what about this opening?
For me, zero tension. No story question raised. Still, in my role as a critic, I read on a little. And immediately discovered issues that say to me that this work needed a good edit. One glaring error is that the narrative has the Seer looking and staring at the narrator—“look” means to “ascertain by the use of the eyes” and “to exercise the power of vision upon,” and “stare” means “to look fixedly often with wide-open eyes.” The problem is that the Seer is blind. He can neither look nor stare. In this sense, the opening misleads the reader about what is actually happening.
But wait, there’s more—the amateur use of “eyes” doing things that eyes cannot do.
He had taken his cheap sunglasses off and placed them next to his drink.He took off his cheap sunglasses. His eyes were opaque, and theyhis focus wandered past me, toward the knobby hills to the south that rose from the desert like a bony hand, the fingers spreading to make peaks and battlements, as if the mountains (snip) The first bit of description about taking off the sunglasses should not be retroactive. Keep it in the moment. And his eyes cannot leave their sockets and wander anywhere.
I know, it is frequently understood that this usage of “eyes” means “gaze,” but it bugs me every time I see it ‘cause it just ain’t so. And, in this case, does a blind man even have a gaze? Now that I think of it, I don’t think so.
There was one other indicator of something I don’t want to read: overwriting. The deleted phrase below is totally not necessary:
I wiped the sweat from under my eyes
with a thumb and forefinger
It does not matter with which digits he wipes away sweat. Finally, for me, there wasn’t enough mystery in this opening to compel a page-turn. 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!