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 October 19, 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 How strong is the opening—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
Half an hour after Tim Jamieson’s Delta flight was scheduled to leave Tampa for the bright lights and tall buildings of New York, it was still parked at the gate. When a Delta agent and a blond woman with a security badge hanging around her neck entered the cabin, there were unhappy, premonitory murmurings from the packed residents of economy class.
“May I have your attention, please!” the Delta guy called.
“How long’s the delay gonna be?” someone asked. “Don’t sugarcoat it.”
“The delay should be short, and the captain wants to assure you all that your flight will arrive approximately on time. We have a federal officer who needs to board, however, so we’ll need someone to give up his or her seat.”
A collective groan went up, and Tim saw several people unlimber their cell phones in case of trouble. There had been trouble in these situations before.
“Delta Air Lines is authorized to offer a free ticket to New York on the next outbound flight, which will be tomorrow morning at 6:45 AM—”
Another groan went up. Someone said, “Just shoot me.”
The functionary continued, undeterred. “You’ll be given a hotel voucher for tonight, plus four hundred dollars. It’s a good deal, folks. Who wants it?”
He had no takers. The security blond said nothing, only surveyed the crowded economy-(snip)
You can turn the page and read more here.
Was the opening page of The Institute by Stephen King compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon. I am a huge fan of Stephen King and have been snared by the power of his narrative many times. However, if you’re looking for powerful, engaging narrative, this opening page is utterly useless. No tension, no story questions of any consequence—the two that occur to me is why the federal office wants a seat (we never learn) and if the protagonist will take the offer (he does). Perhaps there’s a question of what will happen if he gets off the plane, but that’s not much of a question since there has not been a hint of story at this point, IMO.
Hoping for the kind of story I know King is capable of, I read on, all the way through chapter seven. Still no story. The device of the offer on the plane turns out to be to fund the character in hitchhiking. Which leads him, through chapter seven, to a bunch of exposition and backstory and then to applying for a job as a night knocker in a small South Carolina town, which gives him a chance to info-dump more backstory, none of which is scintillating. Also, as far as I noticed in a quick reading of these chapters, the meaning of “night knocker” isn’t given. I looked it up. The job is to wake sleeping people so they can get to work on time. Not a lot of jeopardy there.
None of the seven chapters give a hint of the story promised by the first sentence of the blurb on Amazon:
In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV.
Now that sounds like a story I want to read. Compared to that, the opening chapters, including the seventh, where I got more backstory while the protagonist gets his job as a night knocker, were about as riveting as moss watching paint dry. There may be a story later, but I’ll be darned if I’ll fork over 15 bucks for the Kindle version. No sale here. I was very disappointed, Mr. King. Please get back to the storytelling we all know you’re capable of.
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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