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 two on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for November 25, 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strong is the opening page of the prologue—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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’m fine,” said the woman. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
She didn’t look fine to Yao.
It was his first day as a trainee paramedic. His third call-out. Yao wasn’t nervous, but he was in a hypervigilant state because he couldn’t bear to make even an inconsequential mistake. When he was a child, mistakes had made him wail inconsolably, and they still made his stomach cramp.
A single bead of perspiration rolled down the woman’s face, leaving a snail’s trail through her makeup. Yao wondered why women painted their faces orange, but that was not relevant.
“I’m fine. Maybe just twenty-four-hour virus,” she said, with the hint of an Eastern European accent.
“Observe everything about your patient and their environment,” Yao’s supervisor, Finn, had told him. “Think of yourself as a secret agent looking for diagnostic clues.”
Yao observed a middle-aged, overweight woman with pronounced pink shadows under distinctive sea-green eyes and wispy brown hair pulled into a sad little knot at the back of her neck. She was pale and clammy, her breathing ragged. A heavy smoker, judging by her ashtray scent. She sat in a high-backed leather chair behind a gigantic desk. It seemed like she was (snip)
You can turn the page and read more here.
This is Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received an average of 3.2 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Well, the prose is workmanlike. The voice is solid, but nothing special. We do have an immediate scene, and something could be wrong with the woman—or not. There don’t seem to be any problems for the protagonist, Yao, to deal with at the moment—other than a touch of first-day anxiety.
So what story questions are there to bring me to a page-turn? About the only one I see is “Is there something wrong with the woman that Yao will have to deal with?” Perhaps if I cared about the woman that might be a motivating question. But I don’t. I’m a little more interested in Yao, who at least has some human concerns, and we know a little about him from his past. But the problem isn’t his, is it? If the rest of the narrative is like this, then I understand the 3.2 rating. This reader passes. Your thoughts?
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!