Flog a Pro: Would You Turn the First Pages of these Bestsellers?

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.

Two things make today’s post different. First, it falls on my birthday. It’s good to have another one. Secondly, there’s this . . .

It’s a Twofer Today Today we’re looking at two very different books from the New York Times bestseller lists, one from the trade paperback list and the other from hardcover fiction.

And, as it so happens, both feature protagonists from the WU world, one a writer and the other a literary agent. Two openings, two polls. See what you think.

How strong is the opening page of this novel—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?

Opening page, chapter 1

Cindy Thomas was working at the dining table she’d bought at a tag sale down the block. It was cherrywood, round, with a hinged leaf and the letters SN etched near the hinge. She traced the initials with her finger, imagining that the person who’d left that mark was also a journalist suffering from writer’s block—and Cindy was as blocked as a writer could be.

Her full-time job was as senior crime reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. She’d been covering the violent murders of a killer unknown. And then, at the end of his crime spree, caught by the police, this unrepentant serial monster had asked her to write the story of his life. And that’s what she was doing—trying to do—now. It would be easy for her agent to sell this idea for a true-crime thriller about Evan Burke. He was a savage and highly successful at getting away with his kills. According to him, he was the most prolific killer of the century, and Cindy didn’t doubt him.

She had no shortage of quotable and illustrated research.

Because Burke wanted Cindy’s book to secure his place in criminal history, he had provided her with notebooks, as well as photos of his victims, alive and dead. He’d given her his maps to his victims’ graves, which, when opened by homicide cops, had turned up bones, clothing, and other evidence of Burke’s crimes. He’d been convicted of six murders, which in his mind was insufficient, but the prosecution was plenty happy.

Note: There is a poll embedded within this post, please visit the site to participate in this post's poll.

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?

The opening page of the prologue:

When books are your life—or in my case, your job— you get pretty good at guessing where a story is going. The tropes, the archetypes, the common plot twists all start to organize themselves into a catalogue inside your brain, divided by category and genre.

The husband is the killer.

The nerd gets a makeover, and without her glasses, she’s smoking hot.

The guy gets the girl—or the other girl does.

Someone explains a complicated scientific concept, and someone else says, “Um, in English, please?”

The details may change from book to book, but there’s nothing truly new under the sun.

Take, for example, the small-town love story.

The kind where a cynical hotshot from New York or Los Angeles gets shipped off to Smalltown, USA—to, like, run a family-owned Christmas tree farm out of business to make room for a soulless corporation.

But while said City Person is in town, things don’t go to plan. Because, of course, the Christmas tree farm—or bakery, or whatever the hero’s been sent to destroy—is owned and operated by someone ridiculously attractive and suitably available for wooing.

Back in the city, the lead has a romantic partner. Someone ruthless who encourages him (snip)

Note: There is a poll embedded within this post, please visit the site to participate in this post's poll.

I thought it would be fun to contrast the opening strength of a novel that is meant be a thriller to one that is clearly not a thriller.

22 Seconds was the number one hardback fiction bestseller and Book Lovers was the number one trade paperback fiction bestseller for May 22, 2022. Were their opening pages compelling?

You can turn the page of 22 Seconds and read more here, and check out more of Book Lovers here. Kindle users can request a sample sent to their devices, and I’ve found this to be a great way to evaluate a narrative that is borderline on the first page and see if it’s worth my coin.

My votes: 22 Seconds, NO. Book Lover, YES.

22 Seconds, which received 4.5 stars on Amazon, failed to create any tension in me, and it didn’t raise a story question other than whether or not this person would break her writer’s block, which is not a high-stakes problem, IMO. Leading with the totally irrelevant detail that she was working at a round table signaled more unneeded words ahead. And there was this sentence:

She’d been covering the violent murders of a killer unknown.

Does that make any sense to you? “Murders” is plural and somehow refers to a single killer. And why would she be covering the murder of a killer? Oh, I understand what the author was trying to say, but where was the copyeditor? Or a content editor? None, apparently, had their hands on this story.

On the other hand, Book Lovers, which earned 4.6 stars on Amazon, opens with an enticing voice and a take on cliched fiction tropes that both writers and readers will recognize with a grin. While no story question is raised here, the voice and writing were appealing enough to get me to want to taste more. And a good story question is raised just a paragraph or so later. Had I been the editor, it might have appeared on the first page.

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.