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 April 18, 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 How strong is the opening—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
Sunday morning begins out here in the oil patch, a few minutes before dawn, with a young roughneck stretched out and sleeping hard in his pickup truck. Shoulders pressed against the driver’s side door, boots propped up on the dashboard, he wears his cowboy hat pulled down far enough that the girl sitting outside on the dusty ground can see only his pale jaw. Freckled and nearly hairless, it is a face that will never need a daily shave, no matter how old he gets, but she is hoping he dies young.
Gloria Ramírez holds herself perfectly still, she is a downed mesquite branch, a half-buried stone, and she imagines him facedown in the dust, lips and cheeks scoured by sand, his thirst relieved only by the blood in his mouth. When he startles and shifts roughly against the truck door, she holds her breath and watches his jaw clench, the muscle working bone against bone. The sight of him is a torment and she wishes again that his death will come soon, that it will be vicious and lonely, with nobody to grieve for him.
The sky turns purple in the east, then blue-black, then old-bucket slate. In a few minutes it will be stained orange and red, and if she looks, Gloria will see the land stretched tight beneath the sky, brown stitched to blue, same as always. It is a sky without end, and the best thing about West Texas, when you can remember to look at it. She will miss it when she goes. Because she can’t stay here, not after this.