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 February 22, 2020. How strong is the opening—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn’t immediately understand that it’s a bullet at all, and it’s only luck that it doesn’t strike him between the eyes. Luca hardly registers the mild noise it makes as it flies past and lodges into the tiled wall behind him. But the wash of bullets that follows is loud, booming, and thudding, clack-clacking with helicopter speed. There is a raft of screams, too, but that noise is short-lived, soon exterminated by the gunfire. Before Luca can zip his pants, lower the lid, climb up to look out, before he has time to verify the source of that terrible clamor, the bathroom door swings open and Mami is there.
“Mijo, ven,” she says, so quietly that Luca doesn’t hear her.
Her hands are not gentle; she propels him toward the shower. He trips on the raised tile step and falls forward onto his hands. Mami lands on top of him and his teeth pierce his lip in the tumble. He tastes blood. One dark droplet makes a tiny circle of red against the bright green shower tile. Mami shoves Luca into the corner. There’s no door on this shower, no curtain. It’s only a corner of his abuela’s bathroom, with a third tiled wall built to suggest a stall. This wall is around five and a half feet high and three feet long—just large enough, with some luck, to shield Luca and his mother from sight. Luca’s back is wedged, his small shoulders touching both walls. His knees are drawn up to his chin, and Mami is clinched around him like a tortoise’s shell. The (snip).
Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This book received 4.4 out of 5 stars on Amazon. I’ll admit that I prefer openings with something happening, and this one surely qualifies. Bullets coming in are pretty much attention-getting, and a strong story question is immediately raised. And the bullets are coming after sympathetic characters, a mother and her little boy.
There is a point of view slip that, as an editor, I would point out—we’re in a fairly deep third-person point of view, and the narrative should only include what the character sees, hears, thinks, feels, etc. The problem here is that we’re told that his mother’s words are so quiet that he doesn’t hear them. Well, if he doesn’t hear them, then they should be be there, IMO. Later in the narrative, the mother has left the bathroom door open and we’re told that he doesn’t know that she left it open on purpose. I suspect that if this continues my irritation will interfere with my interest, but this opening was enough for me to give it a try. Your thoughts?
One more thing: I’ve read that there’s controversy about this book due to the reported non-Hispanic nature of the author, but I’m just concerning myself with story.
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!