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 hardcover fiction bestseller list for September 23, 2018. How strong is the opening page of the prologue—would this narrative, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
I turned my water glass in the slick circle of condensation on the smooth, red lacquer of the table between us and studied the man across from me. I was afraid that if I didn’t pay attention, he might disappear. The Seer was like that; it was as if he simply drifted away, giving him access to places without appearing to be there, making other people’s secrets his own.
“You should take in some of the culture while you are here south of the border—go to the bullfights.” Adjusting his straw porkpie hat to a jauntier angle, the hunchback smiled. “You might enjoy it.”
I said nothing.
He looked in my general direction, the smile slowly fading. “My friend, Miguel Guerra, says you are highly motivated, but that if I can talk you out of this, I should.”
I still said nothing.
He stared at me. “Do you speak Spanish?”
I wiped the sweat from under my eyes with a thumb and forefinger—I had a hard time convincing myself it was coming up on November. “Very little.”
He had taken his cheap sunglasses off and placed them next to his drink. His eyes were opaque, and they wandered past me, toward the knobby hills to the south that rose from the desert like a bony hand, the fingers spreading to make peaks and battlements, as if the mountains (snip)