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 March 31, 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 How strong is the prologue—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
FOR WYOMING GAME WARDEN Katelyn Hamm, April really was the cruelest month. And this year was turning out to be the worst one of all.
And that was even before she got her pickup stuck eight miles from the highway.
It was the last week of the month and she was in the middle of what was known as shed war season. Bull elk and big mule deer shed their antlers throughout the winter, and now the war was heating up due to the low snowpack and the antlers’ high price.
Shed war season was why she’d been grinding her green four-wheel-drive Ford F-150 through sagebrush, snowdrifts, and rock formations in the high foothills of the western slope of the Bighorn Mountains. Gnarled ancient cedars stood as sentinels among the granite formations towering on both sides, and she’d tried to keep her front tires in a set of untracked but snowpacked ruts meandering up and through the rough country toward the mountains.
Her destination had been a set of high, vast meadows just below the tree line of the mountains. Those meadows were designated as critical elk and deer winter range, and her aerial surveys two months earlier had revealed thousands of both. The elk liked to descend by the hundreds from the shadowed low timber to feed in the open on the meadows at night where the wind swept the benches clean of snow. Hundreds of mule deer moved up from draws and arroyos to do the same thing. Now the meadows were littered with forty-pound elk antlers and (snip)
This is Wolf Pack by C.J Box. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received 4.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Well, I learned something about elk and mule deer, and what the scenery is like in the Bighorn Mountains. And that her pickup is green. And there was this woman who was driving and got stuck. I guess that’s her problem. The stakes? Unknown. The trouble she faces and has to deal with. Getting unstuck, I guess, but there’s no indication that she won’t or can’t. If you’ve read Flog a Pro before, you probably know what’s coming next. There are no story questions of any consequence to make me want to turn the page. So I didn’t. 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!