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 paperback trade fiction bestseller list for May 19, 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 How strong is the prologue—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
Who the hell is this timid creature standing in my hallway? I’m completely bemused. Have I seen her before? An image from a forgotten dream develops like a Polaroid in my memory, an angel in blue hovering at my bedside. But that was days ago. Could it have been her? And now she’s here, rooted to the hallway floor, her impish face pale, her eyes downcast. Her knuckles grow whiter as she clasps the broom handle tighter and tighter, as if it’s anchoring her to the Earth. The headscarf conceals her hair, and an oversize, old-fashioned nylon housecoat swamps her small frame. She looks totally out of place.
“Who are you?” I ask again, but in a softer tone, not wanting to alarm her. Wide eyes, the color of a fine espresso and framed by the longest lashes I’ve ever seen, look up at me, then back at the floor.
One peek from her dark, fathomless eyes and I’m…unsettled. She’s at least a head shorter than me, perhaps five feet five to my six feet two. Her features are delicate: high cheekbones, an upturned nose, clear fair skin, and pale lips.
It’s obvious that she’s cleaning. But why her? Why here? Has she replaced my old daily? “Where’s Krystyna?” I ask, growing a little frustrated at her silence. Perhaps she’s Krystyna’s daughter—or granddaughter.
You can turn the page and read more here.
This is The Mister, a romance novel by E. L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received 3.4 out of 5 stars on Amazon. In a way, being male, perhaps I’m not the intended consumer of this purple prose. On the other hand, I have read and enjoyed romance novels. What do we have here for a story question? Who is the woman. What do we have for stakes? Nada. Question: if a dream is forgotten, how can it develop in his mind like a Polaroid? For me, the prose is over the top. Just for fun, here’s a sample from the next page:
Her eyes meet mine, and her tongue darts out, and nervously she licks her upper lip. My whole body tightens in a hot, heavy rush as desire hits me like a demolition ball.
Being male, I can testify that I’ve never had a reaction like that to my first look at a woman. 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!