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 four on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for June 3, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
My mother stood at the kitchen sink, scrubbing the ancient cast-iron pot as though it was encrusted with the residue of mortal sins, sins somehow fused into the metal. In fact, it was coated with scorched beef stew, tonight’s dinner gone forgotten. She looked out the window and sighed so hard, I would’ve sworn it was her frustration with herself and not the late-afternoon breeze that moved the Spanish moss in the trees all across the yard. Eighty was creeping up on her, snatching bits of her memory and stamina, and it infuriated her. No woman really wanted to be eighty and still working full-time unless she was ninety and still working full-time. As for me, well, I was too old for leggings. Let’s leave it at that.
The window over the kitchen sink was propped up by a wooden spoon, held in a slightly lopsided position. As the heat of the day had broken, every window in the old house was raised, held open with a book or a Coke bottle or another household object. When the cool air of the afternoon wafted in, the house itself sighed in relief, or so it seemed. In any case, opening the windows was a ritual we performed at the same time every day all summer long, year after year. You’d think someone would go to the hardware store and buy those little swinging hooks used for this very purpose, but no. Just like you’d think someone would’ve checked the stew before it burned.
Still, even with all the open windows, you could have cut the humidity and the silence (snip)
You can turn the page and read more here.
This is by invitation only by Dorothea Benton Frank. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This book received an average of 4.3 stars out of 5 on Amazon. Those who follow Flog a Pro know I have a penchant for demanding compelling story questions before voting to turn the page. But there is one other thing that can generate a page-turn from me: voice.
I found the narrator’s voice to be seductive and enticing. The imagery of spoons and books and Coke bottles propping windows open brought up in me the feeling of a hot summer day where and when I grew up in Texas. The writing is fluid and easy, but more than that it’s thoroughly professional. Not a beat is missed in bringing depth and character to the page for both of these women. In short, the quality and voice—and these people–urged me to want to know what more there was to hear about them. 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!