- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

Flog a Pro: would you pay to turn the first page of this bestseller?

resized [1]

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 April  21, 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 How strong is the prologue—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 KNOW within thirty-three seconds of entering the front door that my home is empty and my husband and daughter are missing.

As a US Army captain, assigned to the Military Intelligence Command, I have years of training and battlefield experience in Iraq and Afghanistan in evaluating patterns, scraps of information, and bits of communication.

This experience comes in handy when I enter our nice little suburban home in Kingstowne, Virginia, about eight miles from my current duty station at Fort Belvoir. Our light-blue Honda CR-V is parked in the driveway, school has been out for hours, and when I take my first two steps into our house, there’s no television on, no smell of dinner cooking—which my husband, Tom, said would be ready when I got home, since I am late once again—and, most puzzling, no ambient noise or presence from our ten-year-old, Denise, who is usually singing, chatting on her phone, or tap-dancing in the front hallway. Hard to explain, but the moment after I open the door, I know the place is empty and my loved ones are in trouble.

I gently put my black leather purse and soft leather briefcase on the floor. I don’t bother calling out. Instead I go to the near wall, where there’s a framed photo of a Maine lighthouse, and I tug the photo free, revealing a small metal safe built into the wall and a combination keypad next to a handle. I punch in 9999 (in an emergency like this, trying to remember a (snip)

You can turn the page and read more here [2].

This is The Cornwalls Are Gone by James Patterson and Brendan Dubois. Was this opening page compelling?

My vote: No.

This book received 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Amazing. This is the clunkiest writing I’ve seen in more than six years of doing the Flog a Pro post. I get submissions on my blog [4] from rank amateurs that are far better than this.

There is a good, strong story question raised at the outset and, if it weren’t for the writing, I’d have been willing to turn the page. But to volunteer to continue to trudge through overwriting and clumsy narrative? Not this reader. Below is my editorial take on this piece of “writing.”

NOTE: I apologize in advance for touches of snark here and there in the following—I would never deal with an editing client or a writer on my blog this way, but this level of expletive irritates me.

I KNOW within thirty-three seconds of entering the front door that my home is empty and my husband and daughter are missing. What’s with “thirty-three” seconds? The shorthand for a brief period of time is “seconds.” We don’t expect the length of time down to the nanosecond. This unlikely and excess detail briefly took me out of the story.

As a US Army captain, assigned to the Military Intelligence Command, I have years of training and battlefield experience in Iraq and Afghanistan in evaluating patterns, scraps of information, and bits of communication. ARGH! Backstory and setup! Don’t do this, I was at least interested in the missing family. Would anyone, upon realizing that their loved ones are missing, be thinking this ham-handed author intrusion?

This experience comes in handy when I enter our nice little suburban home in Kingstowne, Virginia, about eight miles from my current duty station at Fort Belvoir. Our light-blue Honda CR-V is parked in the driveway, school has been out for hours, and when I take my first two steps into our house, there’s no television on, no smell of dinner cooking—which my husband, Tom, said would be ready when I got home, since I am late once again—and, most puzzling, no ambient noise or presence from our ten-year-old, Denise, who is usually singing, chatting on her phone, or tap-dancing in the front hallway. Hard to explain, but the moment after I open the door, I know the place is empty and my loved ones are in trouble. ”comes in handy?” Seriously? You have just determined that your family is missing and you are so blasé about it that, rather than anxiety and fear coming on, you reflect on how “handy” your experience is? Really? And then there’s the overwriting, the excessive detail. It doesn’t matter that the house is eight miles from Fort Belvoir, at least not to dealing with a missing husband and daughter. Does it matter that their car is a light-blue Honda CR-V? Not a whit. She finds the absence of her daughter’s happy noise “most puzzling.” Puzzling? How about scary, or ominous, or something other than that? Then there’s repetition—we’re told that within moments of opening the door that she knows the place is empty and her loved ones are in trouble. The first paragraph already TOLD US THAT! Sorry for shouting, but this is truly aggravating.
I gently put ease my black leather purse and soft leather briefcase I on to the floor. I don’t bother calling out. Instead I go to the near wall, where there’s a framed photo of a Maine lighthouse, and I tug the photo it from the wall free, revealing a small metal safe built into the wall and a combination keypad next to a handle. I punch in 9999 (in an emergency like this, trying to remember a (snip) ”gently put” is weak adverbial description, use a strong, clear verb instead. And thinking of one’s “black leather” purse and “soft leather” briefcase is clearly an amateurish break in POV—no one, especially when dealing with a missing family, is going to have the color and fabric of the items in their thoughts. The description of the action around the safe is complicated and verbose and overwritten.

I feel compelled to share with you that, in keeping with the “style” of this narrative, the next page reveals that she tugs (echo of tug) free from the safe “a loaded stainless-steel Ruger .357 hammerless revolver. Wow, that’s some taut action writing there! The suspense is darn near unbearable here, so thank goodness for this vital and clearly significant detail about the gun to give the tension a rest.

You ask me, James Patterson should be embarrassed to have his name on this. And should hire an editor. 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 [4], 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 [5] 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.

About Ray Rhamey [6]

Ray Rhamey [7] is the author of four novels and one writing craft book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. He's also an editor of book-length fiction and designs book covers and interiors for Indie authors and small presses. His website, crrreative.com [7], offers an a la carte menu of creative services for writers and publishers. Learn more about Ray's books at rayrhamey.com [8].

4