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 February 24, 2019. How strong is the prologue—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 don’t know why I’m writing this.
That’s not true. Maybe I do know and just don’t want to admit it to myself.
I don’t even know what to call it—this thing I’m writing. It feels a little pretentious to call it a diary. It’s not like I have anything to say. Anne Frank kept a diary—not someone like me. Calling it a “journal” sounds too academic, somehow. As if I should write in it every day, and I don’t want to—if it becomes a chore, I’ll never keep it up.
Maybe I’ll call it nothing. An unnamed something that I occasionally write in. I like that better. Once you name something, it stops you seeing the whole of it, or why it matters. You focus on the word, which is just the tiniest part, really, the tip of an iceberg. I’ve never been that comfortable with words—I always think in pictures, express myself with images—so I’d never have started writing this if it weren’t for Gabriel.
I’ve been feeling depressed lately, about a few things. I thought I was doing a good job of hiding it, but he noticed—of course he did, he notices everything. He asked how the painting was going—I said it wasn’t. He got me a glass of wine, and I sat at the kitchen table while he cooked.
I like watching Gabriel move around the kitchen. He’s a graceful cook—elegant, balletic, organized. Unlike me. I just make a mess.
“Talk to me,” he said.
This is The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received 4.3 out of 5 stars on Amazon. If all I get to make me read on is this prologue, I’ll never see page two, much less the rest of the novel. First reason: it begins with musing. More than that, musing by a self-absorbed, it’s-all-about-me character. My level of interest in that? Sub-zero. I just didn’t care for the woman (the prologue title includes “Alicia Berenson’s Diary”.) doing the musing. Then we slide into something happening . . . watching another person cook. Wow! And then back to “me”—”I just make a mess.” Second reason: I saw no evidence of a story here.
Perhaps this prologue is an example of why I’ve seen so many literary agents say they skip the prologue in submissions because they know the story begins with chapter one. (Don Maass and other agents reading this, how do you feel about prologues?) If this book had started with Chapter 1, I’ve have turned the page. Here’s one reason why, the opening paragraph on the first page of the first chapter:
Alicia Berenson was thirty-three years old when she killed her husband.
That raises a strong story question from the get-go, and I want more of this. If you read on, you’ll see what I mean. 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.
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