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 May 23, 2020. How strong is the opening—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
Leo spun to life in late July in the restless waters of the far eastern Atlantic, about two hundred miles west of Cape Verde. He was soon spotted from space, properly named, and classified as a mere tropical depression. Within hours he had been upgraded to a tropical storm.
For a month, strong dry winds had swept across the Sahara and collided with the moist fronts along the equator, creating swirling masses that moved westward as if searching for land. When Leo began his journey, there were three named storms ahead of him, all in a menacing row that threatened the Caribbean. All three would eventually follow their expected routes and bring heavy rains to the islands but nothing more.
From the beginning, though, it was apparent that Leo would go where no one predicted. He was far more erratic, and deadly. When he finally petered out from exhaustion over the Midwest, he was blamed for five billion in property damages and thirty-five deaths.
But before that he wasted no time with his classifications, advancing swiftly from tropical depression to tropical storm to a full-blown hurricane. At Category 3, with winds of 120 miles per hour, he hit the Turks and Caicos head-on and blew away several hundred homes, killing ten. He skirted low beneath Crooked Island, took a slight left, and aimed for Cuba before stalling south of Andros. His eye weakened as he lost steam and limped across Cuba, once again as a lowly depression with plenty of rain but unimpressive winds. He turned south in time to flood (snip)
You can turn the page and read more here.
Was the opening page of Camino Winds by John Grisham compelling?
My vote: No.
This book received 4 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Allow me to open this critique with a quote from literary agent Janet Reid. In February of this year, on her blog she said,
Sales isn’t about how good the book is; sales is about how many people buy the book.
There’s nothing like a nicely written history of a storm to compel a reader to eagerly turn the page for MORE!, right? And here we have this storm treated as though it (he) is a character, perhaps even the antagonist, running wild and killing and destroying. That would be a good reason for a novel to start this way, amirite?
Perhaps it could have been in the hands of another storyteller, but in this novel Leo blows hard and then peters out without committing a crime. Turns out Leo is here just for background and, perhaps, atmosphere (pun intended). I skimmed ahead and didn’t find any interesting goings-on until the fourth chapter. After a quick tease, the narrative goes quickly back to more exposition and backstory. According to the Amazon blurb, there is a murder somewhere along the line. Something is being murdered here, all right—tension.
I’m a fan of a number of Mr. Grisham’s novels, and not so much of others. It seems to me that sometimes he just indulges himself. Since he’s no doubt wealthy enough for several lifetimes, he should do whatever he wants. But I sure wish his publisher would bring in an editor for his work now and then.
What are 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.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!