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 two on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for November 15, 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 How strong is the opening page—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 prologue.
The unhappy little home was out in the country, some six miles south of Clanton on an old county road that went nowhere in particular. The house could not be seen from the road and was accessed by a winding gravel drive that dipped and curved and at night caused approaching headlights to sweep through the front windows and doors as if to warn those waiting inside. The seclusion of the house added to the imminent horror.
It was long after midnight on an early Sunday when the headlights finally appeared. They washed through the house and cast ominous, silent shadows on the walls, then went away as the car dipped before its final approach. Those inside should have been asleep for hours, but sleep was not possible during these awful nights. On the sofa in the den, Josie took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and eased to the window to watch the car. Was it weaving and lurching as usual, or was it under control? Was he drunk as always on these nights or could he have throttled back on the drinking? She wore a racy negligee to catch his attention and perhaps alter his mood from violence to romance. She had worn it before and he had once liked it.
The car stopped beside the house and she watched him get out. He staggered and stumbled, and she braced herself for what was to come. She went to the kitchen where the light was on and waited. Beside the door and partially hidden in a corner was an aluminum baseball bat that belonged to her son. She had placed it there an hour earlier for protection, just in case he (snip)
You can turn the page and read more here. Were the opening pages of A Time for Mercy by John Grisham compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This book received 4.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Okay, we need to address two issues with this submission. The first is the one I focus on first, the storytelling. Does the narrative raise a potentially compelling story question? I was glad, for a change, to see Mr. Grisham open with story, not droning background. Knowing that writing can be improved with editing, if I were an agent looking for story, I would turn this page because I want to know what happens to this sympathetic character who is in danger. What will happen to her?
Then there’s the issue of the writing, something that many WUers base their judgements on. This writing is, well, kinda clunky. It’s a bit over the top with things such as an “unhappy” home, and what the heck is meant by “The seclusion of the house added to the imminent horror.”? That kind of description could be legitimate if coming through a point-of-view character, but that’s not the case here. But, as a reader, I can skim over clunky writing (as I frequently do) if the action and narrative keep me interested. 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!