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 young adult fiction bestseller list for July 20, 2019. How strong is the opening—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
It was a good day to be free of prison.
The mechanical whoosh and greasy smell of the opening bus doors greeted Aloysius Archer, as he breathed free air for the first time in a while. He wore a threadbare single-breasted brown Victory suit with peak lapels that he’d bought from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue before heading off to war. The jacket was shorter than normal and there were no pleats or cuffs to the pants because that all took up more material than the war would allow; there was no belt for the same reason. A string tie, a fraying, wrinkled white shirt, and scuffed lace-up size twelve plain Oxford shoes completed the only wardrobe he owned. Small clouds of dust rose off his footwear as he trudged to the bus. His pointed chocolate brown fedora with the dented crown had a loop of faded burgundy silk around it. He’d bought the hat after coming back from the war. One of the few times he’d splurged on anything. But a global victory over evil had seemed to warrant it.
These were the clothes he’d worn to prison. And now he was leaving in them. He comically lamented that in all this time, the good folks of the correctional world had not seen fit to clean or even press them. And his hat held stains that he hadn’t brought with him to incarceration. Yet a man couldn’t go around without a hat.
The pants hung loosely around his waist, a waist grown slimmer and harder while he’d been locked up. He was fully twenty-five pounds heavier than when he’d gone into prison, but (snip)
You can turn the page and read more here.
This is One Good Deed by David Baldacci. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received 3.9 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Oh, my. If this were written by an editing client of mine, I’d be all over that first sentence.
The mechanical whoosh and greasy smell of the opening bus doors greeted Aloysius Archer, as he breathed free air for the first time in a while.
To my ear, there should be no comma before “as.” This coordinating conjunction leads to essential information and should not be set off. As for “in a while,” this is needlessly vague. Far better to be specific:. . . breathe free air for the first time in ten years.
Okay, now that we’ve worked our way past that first sentence, how about that story question? Wait. There is no story question. We might wonder how long he’s been in prison if that first sentence isn’t improved, and we might wonder why he was in prison—but neither of those wonderings point to trouble the character needs to deal with, to no issue that will cause him to take action, to nothing he desires to get or achieve that causes him to so something. He’s just getting off a bus and ruminating about his clothes.
First pages foreshadow what’s to come, and this page predicts a future of clumsy writing with no tension. For example, regarding clumsy writing, the author has small clouds of dust rising from the man’s shoes. Really? The tops of his shoes have coatings of dust thick enough to create small clouds? I can imagine dust rising when a foot/shoe hits dusty ground, but not dust rising from the surfaces of the shoe. Nope, this narrative is not for me.
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!