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 January 20, 2019. How strong is the prologue (all of 14 lines long)—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace—as though not built to fly—against the roar of a thousand snow geese.
Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.
On the morning of October 30, 1969, the body of Chase Andrews lay in the swamp, which would have absorbed it silently, routinely. Hiding it for good. A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin. But this morning two boys from the village rode their bikes out to the old fire tower and, from the third switchback, spotted his denim jacket.
You can turn the page and read more here.
This is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This book received an exceptional 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon. The voice is elegant and, to a point, inviting. I say to a point because the narrative (setup) seems to be on the way to becoming a treatise about swamps. While this would be welcome in an examination of the current political situation in D.C., I was beginning to wish something would happen. I grew impatient, despite the smooth flow of words. Then, luckily, an excellent story question bubbled up out of the narrative swamp. So I turned the page—but warily. Something more than description needs to happen, and soon, for this reader. Your thoughts?
You’re invited to a flogging—your own You see here 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!