From Writer Unboxed:
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How strong is the opening page of this novel—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?
Back in 1961, when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbeltless cars without giving it a second thought; back before anyone knew there’d even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun and people were starting to think fresh and believe everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over.
Despite that certainty, she made her way to the lab to pack her daughter’s lunch.
Fuel for learning, Elizabeth Zott wrote on a small slip of paper before tucking it into her daughter’s lunch box. Then she paused, her pencil in midair, as if reconsidering. Play sports at recess but do not automatically let the boys win, she wrote on another slip. Then she paused again, tapping her pencil against the table. It is not your imagination, she wrote on a third. Most people are awful. She placed the last two on top.
Most young children can’t read, and if they can, it’s mostly words like “dog” and “go.” But Madeline had been reading since age three and, now, at age five, was already through most of Dickens.
Madeline was that kind of child—the kind who could hum a Bach concerto but couldn’t (snip)
Were you moved to want more?
. . . .
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.
This novel was number one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for January 22, 2023. Were the opening pages of the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus compelling?
My vote: Yes-ish.
This book received 4.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Once again, an inviting voice lured me into turning the page. This character reads like an interesting person, and she does have a trouble—feeling that her life was over. But she takes good care, as far as we can see, of an exceptional child, her daughter. Much to admire in this character, and plenty of interest for me. I wanted to learn more about how she would handle her emotional distress. And, having been a child who read early much like Madeline does, in finding out more about her, too.
Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed