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 October 21, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 Center squatted on the corner of Juniper and Montfort behind a wrought-iron gate, like an old bulldog used to guarding its territory. At one point, there had been many like it in Mississippi—nondescript, unassuming buildings where services were provided and needs were met. Then came the restrictions that were designed to make these places go away: The halls had to be wide enough to accommodate two passing gurneys; any clinic where that wasn’t the case had to shut down or spend thousands on reconstruction. The doctors had to have admitting privileges at local hospitals—even though most were from out of state and couldn’t secure them—or the clinics where they practiced risked closing, too. One by one the clinics shuttered their windows and boarded up their doors. Now, the Center was a unicorn—a small rectangle of a structure painted a fluorescent, flagrant orange, like a flag to those who had traveled hundreds of miles to find it. It was the color of safety; the color of warning. It said: I’m here if you need me. It said, Do what you want to me; I’m not going.
The Center had suffered scars from the cuts of politicians and the barbs of protesters. It had licked its wounds and healed. At one point it had been called the Center for Women and Reproductive Health. But there were those who believed if you do not name a thing, it ceases to exist, and so its title was amputated, like a war injury. But still, it survived. First it became the Center for Women. And then, just: the Center.
You can turn the page and read more here.
This is A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This book received an average of 3.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon—I suspect that the average was brought down by folks who disagreed on the issues at hand, not the story. In terms of judging this as an agent might, I hope Don Maass will chime in. I’m guessing that a query letter that told of the topic, abortion, would generate a deeper look than the first page. The blurb on Amazon finally gets to the key issue, but it takes a while.
I wonder why the “what this book is about” isn’t included in the first-page narrative; it would have been easy to do. For someone who follows such things as I do, informed by news reports of anti-abortion efforts around the nation, it was clear from the context what the subject was. But I wonder if that would work for less-informed people. I think this is a key issue with this opening page. It seems to me that it would utterly lack tension for people who don’t get what the topic is, and that knowing what it is imbues tension in what is otherwise nothing more than a colorful description of a building,
Because I’m committed to women’s rights, both on principle as a human being and because I have three daughters, two granddaughters, one great-granddaughter, and a wife, I bought that interest to this opening. As a result, I did turn the page. I didn’t turn it because of emotion generated by the narrative, though, but because of emotion that comes with my prior knowledge, understanding, and convictions.
I do wonder, however, what the result would have been had the novel opened with an immediate scene involving a character. Do you think that could have been a stronger way to go? I would like to have seen that opening.
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!