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 September 21, 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 How strong is the opening—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 prologue.
In the beginning, after he labored over the heavens and the earth, the light and the dark, the land and sea and all living things that dwell therein, after he created man and woman and before he rested, I believe God gave us one final gift. Lest we forget the divine source of all that beauty, he gave us stories.
I am a storyteller. I live in a house in the shade of a sycamore tree on the banks of the Gilead River. My great-grandchildren, when they visit me here, call me old.
“Old is a cliché,” I tell them, with mock disappointment. “A terrible trivializing. An insult. I was born along with the sun and earth and moon and planets and all the stars. Every atom of my being was there at the very beginning.”
“You’re a liar.” They scowl, but playfully.
“Not a liar. A storyteller,” I remind them.
“Then tell us a story,” they plead.
I need no goading. Stories are the sweet fruit of my existence and I share them gladly.
The events I’m about to share with you began on the banks of the Gilead. Even if you grew up in the heartland, you may not remember these things. What happened in the summer of 1932 is most important to those who experienced it, and there are not many of us left.
The Gilead is a lovely river, lined with cottonwoods already ancient when I was a boy.
You can turn the page and read more here.
Was the opening page of This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received 4.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon. It offers one of those opening pages for which I sometimes wish the poll included a choice I use on my blog for amateur writers, “Almost, but no.” On my blog, that’s intended as an encouragement, a “close but no cigar” rating that says you’re on the right track, keep working.
But here we’re talking about putting down hard cash—in this case, $21.60 for the hardcover. Still, the question on the table is whether this could provoke a literary agent or a buyer to turn the page.
I suspect the voice and the quality of the writing will invite some of both types of readers to sample more. But, for me, this just didn’t offer enough story to pull me through.
But it could have. If just three lines of this leisurely setup were edited out, there would be room on the first page for these lines from just a little later on:
The tale I’m going to tell is of a summer long ago. Of killing and kidnapping and children pursued by demons of a thousand names. There will be courage in this story and cowardice. There will be love and betrayal.
If those lines had been there—and it would not be a difficult edit to make that happen smoothly—I would have been eager to turn the page, not saying “Almost.” 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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