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 online or at the bookstore.
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 nine on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestseller list for August 20, 2017. How strong is the opening page—would this narrative, all on its own, have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Following are what would be the first 17 manuscript lines of the first chapter.
Anne can feel the acid churning in her stomach and creeping up her throat; her head is swimming. She’s had too much to drink. Cynthia has been topping her up all night. Anne had meant to keep herself to a limit, but she’d let things slide—she didn’t know how else she was supposed to get through the evening. Now she has no idea how much wine she’s drunk over the course of this interminable dinner party. She’ll have to pump and dump her breast milk in the morning.
Anne wilts in the heat of the summer night and watches her hostess with narrowed eyes. Cynthia is flirting openly with Anne’s husband, Marco. Why does Anne put up with it? Why does Cynthia’s husband, Graham, allow it? Anne is angry but powerless; she doesn’t know how to put a stop to it without looking pathetic and ridiculous. They are all a little tanked. So she ignores it, quietly seething, and sips at the chilled wine. Anne wasn’t brought up to create a scene, isn’t one to draw attention to herself.
Cynthia, on the other hand . . .
All three of them—Anne, Marco, and Cynthia’s mild-mannered husband, Graham—are watching her, as if fascinated. Marco in particular can’t seem to take his eyes off Cynthia. She leans in a little too close to Marco as she bends over and fills his glass, her clingy top cut so low that Marco’s practically rubbing his nose in her cleavage.
This is The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena. Was this opening page compelling?
My vote: no.
This story received an review rating of 4.1 stars out of 5 on Amazon. While I think there is tension in this scene and that there are story questions raised, the writing failed to engage me with the character. Anne is certainly sympathetic—pregnant, tipsy, watching sexual tension happen between her husband and the sexy neighbor.
But the narrative feels arms-length to me. A couple of examples: the first sentence distances me with the old reliable “feel” filter. The narrative as it is:
Anne can feel the acid churning in her stomach and creeping up her throat; her head is swimming.
If you want to engage me in what’s happening to the character, immerse me in it rather than stand back and watch. To remove that filter:
Acid churns in Anne’s stomach and creeps up her throat; her head swims.
Here’s another one that seems to leap out of a close third pov to omniscient:
Why does Anne put up with it?
Who’s asking that question? The author? For this reader, overuse of “telling” plus dipping in and out of a consistent point of view promises more of the same in what’s to come, and I’m not prepared to pay good money for that ride. I should add that the actual story is about her six-month-old baby being taken, who she and her husband have stupidly left in their house next door without a babysitter. No hint of that kind of compelling tension in this page. I passed.
Flogging the Indie side: you’re invited to walk a little on the Indie side most every Monday, when I flog an author who has offered their novel free on BookBub. Just visit Flogging the Quill. You get to vote on turning the page and whether or not the author should have hired an editor. I occasionally find a gem that’s free, so it might be worth your time. Hope to see you there.
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.
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