Flog a Pro: Would You 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.
How strong is the opening page of this novel—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.
“Is that the mill?” he asked.
“I do not remember it.”
“It was built since you were here. The old mill is farther down; much below the pass.”
He spread the photostated military map out on the forest floor and looked at it carefully. The old man looked over his shoulder. He was a short and solid old man in a black peasant’s smock and gray iron-stiff trousers and he wore rope-soled shoes. He was breathing heavily from the climb and his hand rested on one of the two heavy packs they had been carrying.
“Then you cannot see the bridge from here.”
“No,” the old man said. “This is the easy country of the pass where the stream flows gently. Below, where the road turns out of sight in the trees, it drops suddenly and there is a steep gorge—”
Note: There is a poll embedded within this post, please visit the site to participate in this post's poll.
You can turn the page and read more here. This novel was number one on the New York Times fiction bestseller list for November 11, 1940. Were the opening pages of the first chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway compelling?
My vote: Yes.
This book received 4.75 out of 5 stars on Amazon. I recently watched the movie version of For Whom the Bell Tolls (it was good) and wondered how the actual text holds up in today’s world, thus this post featuring the opening page.
For me, there were just enough story questions raised by two things—a military map and the focus on a bridge—to suggest action ahead focused on the bridge. The voice is strong, and the scene well set, and we see the place and the supporting character, whose manner of dress signals a world that we’re unused to ready to be explored. Maybe knowing this is Hemmingway influenced me, but I still feel that there’s enough here for me to want to taste a little more, though the narrative will have to deliver more in the following pages. 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!
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.