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 five on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestseller list for July 19, 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 How strong is the opening—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, our powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride.
My mother was one of them, a naiad, guardian of fountains and streams. She caught my father’s eye when he came to visit the halls of her own father, Oceanos. Helios and Oceanos were often at each other’s tables in those days. They were cousins, and equal in age, though they did not look it. My father glowed bright as just-forged bronze, while Oceanos had been born with rheumy eyes and a white beard to his lap. Yet they were both Titans, and preferred each other’s company to those new-squeaking gods upon Olympus who had not seen the making of the world.
Oceanos’ palace was a great wonder, set deep in the earth’s rock. Its high-arched halls were gilded, the stone floors smoothed by centuries of divine feet. Through every room ran the faint sound of Oceanos’ river, source of the world’s fresh waters, so dark you could not tell where it ended and the rock-bed began. On its banks grew grass and soft gray flowers, and also the unnumbered children of Oceanos, naiads and nymphs and river-gods. Otter-sleek, laughing, (snip)
You can turn the page and read more here.
You can turn the page and read more here. Was the opening page of Circe by Madeline Miller compelling?
My vote: No and Yes.
This book received 4.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon. One of the pleasures and appeals of reading a novel, for me, is an opportunity to be immersed in a world that takes me away from mine (not that mine is awful, but it’s so always there). More than that, this promises a fresh look at a world we’re vaguely (in my case) familiar with, Greek mythology. Another boon in a good novel is voice and writing that invite me in. This first page has those things.
Yet my bifurcated answer to the question “Is it compelling” begins with “No.” That’s because, for me, it lacks story, and that’s what I’m here for. So, not compelling. No tension in this opening. It’s pretty much all setup. But that leads to my “Yes” answer—it’s intriguing setup in a world that I want to visit that’s told with strong writing. So yes, there’s enough appeal here to get me to turn the page even though I could have just as easily walked away. Will the next page be enough to lead me on to the third, and then the fourth, and then . . . ? I guess the author has done a good-enough job of opening this novel if I am, at least, entertaining reading on. But a hint of story would have been so much better.
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!