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 March 21, 2020. How strong are the openings—would either of these narratives, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? There are two polls.
Following are what would be the first 17 manuscript lines of the first chapter.
There was a wolf at the gallery door.
Which meant it must be Thursday, which meant Bryce had to be really gods-damned tired if she relied on Danika’s comings and goings to figure out what day it was.
The heavy metal door to Griffin Antiquities thudded with the impact of the wolf’s fist—a fist that Bryce knew ended in metallic-purple painted nails in dire need of a manicure. A heartbeat later, a female voice barked, half-muffled through the steel, “Open the Hel up, B. It’s hot as shit out here!”
Seated at the desk in the modest gallery showroom, Bryce smirked and pulled up the front door’s video feed. Tucking a strand of her wine-red hair behind a pointed ear, she asked into the intercom, “Why are you covered in dirt? You look like you’ve been rootling through the garbage.”
“What the fuck does rootling mean?” Danika hopped from foot to foot, sweat gleaming on her brow. She wiped at it with a filthy hand, smearing the black liquid splattered there.
“You’d know if you ever picked up a book, Danika.” Glad for the break in what had been a morning of tedious research, Bryce smiled as she rose from the desk. With no exterior windows, the gallery’s extensive surveillance equipment served as her only warning of who stood beyond its thick walls. Even with her sharp half-Fae hearing, she couldn’t make out much (snip)
You can turn the page and read more here.
Was the opening page of House of Dirt and Blood by Sarah J. Maas compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon. To begin with, I’m a fan and reader of fantasy, all kinds of fantasy. Magical elements, strange beings, the “fae” all appeal to me. But this book . . .
I have writing craft issues with the narrative. Specifically, a point of view issue. My take on executing deep third person POV is that the narrative contains nothing that the character cannot directly see, hear, taste, feel, think, do, or know. More than that, it should not include what a character would not, in the normal operation of their consciousness, think about. And that includes the color of their hair, the shape of their ears, the nature of their hearing. Including those details are, for me, an intrusion by the author, NOT the experience of the character.
I can tell you that, in the ordinary process of being myself, I do not think of the color of my hair, or the nature of my ears, or how well I can hear unless those things are germane to what’s going on in my life. Do you?
A closer look: let’s say you have long blond hair, and that the wind blows it across your face so you can’t see where you’re driving. If you were to tell a friend about this, would you say:
I brushed my long blond hair out of my eyes.
Or would you say:
I brushed my hair out of my eyes.
But what if your long blond hair is necessary for the story. For example:
When I got to the office door, I checked my reflection in the glass window on the top: a nice blouse, slacks, and the long blond hair the ad specified. I brushed it out of my eyes and entered the office.
To me, this author’s intrusions are amateurish. And they continue in this story—a few words later, we learn that she has freckled golden skin and amber eyes—neither detail has anything to do with what’s happening, the author just wants us to know.
A part of my thinking about such descriptive elements is that they can be included if a) artfully done and b) have an impact on the story, if they affect what’s happening. In this case, those details matter not a whit to the story. I suspect that there may be disagreement on this, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. What do you say? Are these POV breaks? Should those details be there? Are they an intrusion by the author? Does it matter to you?
Oh, and regarding storytelling issues, there are, for me, no compelling story questions raised here. The character answers a knock on the door and we get exposition. The author is depending on the quirky details of this world to draw us in, not a narrative that has the character dealing with some kind of problem that matters.
Oh, and regarding the writing, we learn that the character at the door is “covered in dirt” but then that she has “black liquid splattered there.” Since when is dirt a liquid? I think this could have used an editor.
Whew. I think I’m done now.
Actually, I’m not. One more thing: I suggest you take a look at the reviews on Amazon. One reader said,
I had to return this, it was that annoying.
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!