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Flog a Pro: Would You Pay to Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?

Flog a Pro

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 September 20, 2020. How strong is the opening page—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.

“Hell is empty, Armand,” said Stephen Horowitz.

“You’ve mentioned that. And all the devils are here?” asked Armand Gamache.

“Well, maybe not here, here”—Stephen spread his expressive hands—“exactly.”

“Here, here” was the garden of the Musée Rodin, in Paris, where Armand and his godfather were enjoying a quiet few minutes. Outside the walls they could hear the traffic, the hustle and the tussle of the great city.

But here, here, there was peace. The deep peace that comes not just with quiet, but with familiarity.

With knowing they were safe. In the garden. In each other’s company.

Armand passed his companion a tartelette au citron and glanced casually around. It was a warm and pleasant late-September afternoon. Shadows were distancing themselves from the trees, the statues, the people. Elongating. Straining away.

The light was winning.

Children ran free, laughing and racing down the long lawn in front of the château. Young parents watched from wooden benches, their planks turned gray over the years. As would they, eventually. But for now they relaxed, grateful for their children, and very grateful for the few minutes away from them in this safe place.

You can turn the page and read more here [2]. Were the opening pages of the prologue or first chapter of All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny compelling?

My vote: No.

This book received 4.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon. It is book number 16 in a series by an author that I’m unfamiliar with, so I was interested in how much tension would be in the opening. Certainly the author has a flotilla of fans who will be comfortable with whatever is served up, but this new reader has different needs than long-time followers.

A thought recently seen on literary agent Janet Reid’s website:

Struggle is tension.

Tension drives plot.

So how does this opening fare in terms of tension? Let’s count up the incidents of struggle on this opening page . . . er, none. It could be argued that, because of a certain sophistication of readers. especially those here at Writer Unboxed, that this line foreshadows trouble ahead:

But here, here, there was peace.

And then there was this one:

With knowing they were safe. In the garden. In each other’s company.

But what if the reader is not all that sophisticated, or is not inclined to read unsaid qualities into lines of narrative? In that case, this opening is tension free. All is at peace. Children play, laughing. So, this reader thinks, if this is the level of tension and lack of story that I will find in subsequent pages, is there any reason I should read on? Has a compelling story question been raised? You’ve seen my answer, what’s yours?

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 [3], 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 [4] 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.

About Ray Rhamey [5]

Ray Rhamey [6] is the author of four novels and one writing craft book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. He's also an editor of book-length fiction and designs book covers and interiors for Indie authors and small presses. His website, crrreative.com [6], offers an a la carte menu of creative services for writers and publishers. Learn more about Ray's books at rayrhamey.com [7].