Flog a Pro: Would You Pay to Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?
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, 2021. How strong are the opening pagse—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?
Because the use of prologues is a constant issue, I’m including the first page of the prologue (all of it) and that of chapter One. There’s a poll for each.
Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when it felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.
I came west in search of a better life, but my American dream was turned into a nightmare by poverty and hardship and greed. These past few years have been a time of things lost: Jobs. Homes. Food.
The land we loved turned on us, broke us all, even the stubborn old men who used to talk about the weather and congratulate each other on the season’s bumper wheat crop. A man’s got to fight out here to make a living, they’d say to each other.
It was always about the men. They seemed to think it meant nothing to cook and clean and bear children and tend gardens. But we women of the Great Plains worked from sunup to sundown, too, toiled on wheat farms until we were as dry and baked as the land we loved.
Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I swear I can still taste the dust …
Take Our Poll
Elsa Wolcott had spent years in enforced solitude, reading fictional adventures and imagining other lives. In her lonely bedroom, surrounded by the novels that had become her friends, she sometimes dared to dream of an adventure of her own, but not often. Her family repeatedly told her that it was the illness she’d survived in childhood that had transformed her life and left it fragile and solitary, and on good days, she believed it.
On bad days, like today, she knew that she had always been an outsider in her own family. They had sensed the lack in her early on, seen that she didn’t fit in.
There was a pain that came with constant disapproval; a sense of having lost something unnamed, unknown. Elsa had survived it by being quiet, by not demanding or seeking attention, by accepting that she was loved, but unliked. The hurt had become so commonplace, she rarely noticed it. She knew it had nothing to do with the illness to which her rejection was usually ascribed.
But now, as she sat in the parlor, in her favorite chair, she closed the book in her lap and thought about it. The Age of Innocence had awakened something in her, reminded her keenly of the passage of time.
Tomorrow was her birthday.
Take Our Poll
You can turn the page and read more here. Were the opening pages of the prologue and first chapter of The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah compelling?
My vote: No and Yes.
This book received 4.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon. While there was plenty of interesting stuff in the prologue, the telling turned me off. It seemed like much of the story ahead was being summed up here, and we’re being told what it means. While the voice and writing were fine, I didn’t want to read a novel’s worth of narrative put this way.
The first chapter almost fails to raise a story question. And it irritatingly refuses to reveal the illness Elsa had suffered—I see no gain for the author in withholding it, and a loss of comprehension for the reader. The tone is solemn and serious, not exactly promising drama ahead. Yet . . .
The narrative gives the reader a feeling that the curtain ahead will part and this young woman’s life will be dramatically changed. And she is a sympathetic character, so we’re ready to root for her. Story question: how will she break out? And then, how will she deal with being free? What problems will come because of what she does to break free ? So, along with the writing and voice, there was enough anticipatory tension in the first page of chapter one to encourage more reading by me. 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.
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About Ray Rhamey
Ray Rhamey 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, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for writers and publishers. Learn more about Ray's books at rayrhamey.com.
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