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

But first, let’s celebrate an anniversary or two.

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the first post on Writer Unboxed. A thousand congratulations to Therese and the cofounder, Kathleen Bolton (hi, Kath, hope you’re reading this), on such a long-lived and successful blog. WU is a go-to stop in my morning blog reading every day it’s up . I know I’ve gained many valuable insights from its marvelously talented and experienced contributors. And I also learn from the comments folks make. Three cheers for Writer Unboxed!
But wait, there’s more!
This anniversary also marks the 14 1/2 th anniversary of me being a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed. It has been great fun to put thoughts out there and receive enlightened feedback from WU readers, and I hope to do many more. Therese found my first post, dated August 15, 2007. Just for fun, you can read “Toggling from editor to writer and back again” here.

Back to flogging 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 four on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for January 24, 2021. How strong is the opening page—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.

It is the absolute shittiest day for a walk.

Rain has been pouring down all morning, making my drive from Center Point out here to Mountain Brook a nightmare, soaking the hem of my jeans as I get out of the car in the Reeds’ driveway, making my sneakers squelch on the marble floors of the foyer.

But Mrs. Reed is holding her dog Bear’s leash, making a face at me, this frown of exaggerated sympathy that’s supposed to let me know how bad she feels about sending me out in the rain on this Monday morning.

That’s the important thing—that I know that she feels bad.

She still expects me to do it, though.

I’ve been walking dogs in the Thornfield Estates subdivision for almost a month now, and if there’s one thing I’ve definitely figured out, it’s that what matters most is how everything looks.

Mrs. Reed looks sympathetic. She looks like she absolutely hates that I have to walk her collie, Bear, on a cold and stormy day in mid-February.

She looks like she actually gives a fuck about me as a person.

She doesn’t, though, which is fine, really.

It’s not like I give a fuck about her, either.

You can turn the page and read more here. Were the opening pages of the first chapter of The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins compelling?

Take Our Poll

My vote: Yes.

This book received 4.1 out of 5 stars on Amazon. For me, there’s one thing that can override concerns about story questions—a strong, captivating character voice. I think interesting characters are the genesis of interesting stories. This character—I read it thinking it was a woman (it is, you find out in a couple of pages, one little black mark against this narrative as it would have been simple to use her name, Jane, on this page to let us know)—has sass, intelligence, and a clear-eyed view of the person she’s dealing with. She feels real, like people I know. There’s unsaid conflict of a very low level in this brief exchange, tolerated by both parties.

If the first page’s task is to lead you to turn to the next page, for me this page succeeded. I wanted to know more about what would happen with this character. As a reader of many stories, I felt sure that this was not going to be a treatise on dog-walking. It has to lead to what I want from this likeable character—story. I just wish I could afford to actually buy it. 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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