Would You Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?

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How strong is the opening page of this novel—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?

Henry’s eyes are burning into me from across the living room. “Your summer is going to suck.”

There’s an echo of snorts from my teammates, the loudest coming from Mattie, Bobby, and Kris, who all told me something similar when I said no to joining them in Miami this summer.

“Inspiring words, Turner,” I shoot back at my unimpressed roommate. “You should become a motivational speaker.”

“You’ll be sorry you didn’t listen to me when you’re stuck doing manual labor and team-building activities at staff training next week.” Henry continues to flick through the Honey Acres brochure, his forehead creasing with a frown the further he gets into it. “What’s night duty?”

“I have to sleep in a room attached to the campers’ cabin twice a week in case they need anything,” I say casually, watching Henry’s eyes widen in horror. “The rest of the time I sleep in my own cabin.”

“It’s a no from me,” he says, throwing the brochure back onto the coffee table. “Good luck, though.”

“Could be worse,” Robbie muses from across the living room. “You could have to move to Canada this summer.”

Were you moved to want more?

This novel was number one on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestseller list for October 22, 2023. Were the opening pages of the first chapter of Wildfire by Hannah Grace compelling?

My vote: No.

This book received 4.2 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Considering the “merits” of this opening page, I’m guessing it’s the author’s fans who propelled this to the number one spot. But would it have passed an agent’s muster if by an unknown writer?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG was about to opine, but was brought up short by the fact that he knows nothing about the romance publishing world after Romeo and Juliet, which he read when he was in college. William Shakespeare was a surprise guest lecturer and was terrific once you got past his heavy accent.

7 thoughts on “Would You Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?”

  1. Betting the farm on the opening alone didn’t work out too well in the olden days.
    As in: Three chapter wonders.
    Good openings, lousy follow up.
    (“Standard” submission format.)

    They still pop up but less often than in the days of jobbers and spinner slots…

    • Some examples from the world of music help illustrate the problem. For every Fifth Symphony by Beethoven, with its famous leitmotif presented immediately, there’s a Ninth Symphony by Beerhoven, with everything slowly building into the fourth movement (the only one that non-afficionados know at all). Indeed, Beethoven’s piano sonatas were very much against the contemporaneous practice in that they often did not allow any leitmotif to show up for, well, a while; consider Der Sturm (“The Tempest”), op. 31, Mondschein (“Moonlight”), op. 27 # 2, and the magnificent (and magnificently difficult to play) final, untitled op. 111.

      Or, rather sarcastically, consider from a literary viewpoint the multiply-reflexive structure of (ok, it’s a play/film) Amadeus; the OP’s author probably wouldn’t stick around a novel that begins with with two servants knocking on a door with sugary treats for an old man. It’s also a clever inversion of the imprecation in media res (which, too often, turns out to be in Medea res, but that’s for another time†).

      † After waaaaaay too much time studying literature in theory-oriented environments, I implore you: Stop me. Stop me before I theorize again. Instead, do it to the OP…

  2. This shark objects that the OP’s description of “standard manuscript format” is both outdated and incorrect even in-date. (But then acknowledges that a full 25- or 28-line page, minus chapter division, isn’t much better.)

    (1) For book-length works, the first page is ordinarily a cover page; the first full page of text is ordinarily a mere chapter heading of two blank lines, the chapter number, and (if present, and this is increasingly uncommon in contemporary and especially category fiction, chapter title followed by) another blank line. So we’re actually talking about more than twenty lines of text.
       Some really, really old author manuals from the 1980s suggested the “space down a third of a page” system, but that advice was gone not later than 1993 — except in WD, which took a little longer. (This shark has had Litigation-Related Reason to become familiar with some of these things.)

    (2) Fiction, and especially category fiction, is usually read in electronic single-spaced (and typically unpaginated!) form these days, and has been for the last decade and a half.

    The OP’s main point remains valid — that editorial staffs overemphasize “openings” in determining whether they’ll bother to read farther. The quantization errors, however, detract from the rest of the OP, lingering like an obviously-inaccurate footnote in the back of one’s mind. At least for those of us whose writing background includes actually reading the footnotes in source works.

    One might well also wonder how editorial staffs trained on these memes — memes subconsciously imposed by C-suite “efficiency” imperatives and incessant meeting schedules — influence the ability, or even the intent, to follow the “argument.” Which explains a great deal about the publishing success of some writers, and not in a good way! (You get to choose which ones I’m referring to — it’s a general problem, apolitical and nonideological and non-category-specific.)

  3. The first thing I think people like OP forget, and I’ve always felt like this as a reader even when I was a whopping seven years old reading my first copy of Writer’s Digest, is that the primary decision maker on whether to try a book is NOT the opening lines.


    Because you can’t discover books that way.

    We look at the genre, the cover, whether we know or have heard of the author and what kinds of books they write, the cover copy, and sometimes reviews, and the opening lines are usually one of the last things that teeter you one way or another, and even then, let’s face it. That depends also on genre and your personal expectations as a reader. I tend to flip forward a bit because my genres are science fiction and fantasy where the world HAS to be introduced early on and I want to see how the narrative flows and the tone of the writer (some things you will or won’t like can be determined just from the tone and style in a scene or two, like whether this is a YA-aimed, whiny protag novel where the amount of grace they get for stupidity breaks suspension of disbelief or actually trying for a more epic tone and sweep, etc.) but the inciting incident is usually not on page one.

    So all that is to say, I’ve never found any correlation between my favorite books and their opening lines. Rather, it’s the opening scene, chapter, first character to make an impression that decides a book for me, and that only after I’ve vetted it on several other fronts before giving the prose a go.

    ETA: Though if we’re talking slush, I’m still gonna skim the opening a bit until I get further in, but presumably there’s an attached letter that gives you the stuff normally found on the cover of a published book or in an online story’s metadata.

    • Agreed; I don’t care about the opening lines, either. Or not as much. Not necessarily even the first page. This is a strange metric, and I don’t think even agents are following this: agents have a genre they read in, and they would have a summary. I, too, have to know the “back of the book” summary and genre. Only after those first two factors would the first page even get a look.

      In a comment on the “Fourth Wing” post I noted the author isn’t a fantasy writer; she’s a romance writer whose fans like the romance parts. Fantasy fans weren’t impressed, but romance fans like the romance. I look at the summary to determine if a book is the type I stay away from, and FW is exactly that type. I don’t care what the first page says, because I’m not interested in shoddy worldbuilding, deus ex machina magic systems, or Mary Sues, especially not dumb Mary Sues. I’m not interested in love triangles, especially if the author writing them has warped ideas about relationships on top of that: let me make this person so awful so you have to like the other guy! Except … why would a heroine fall in love with the awful guy, then? What does that say about her judgment, standards, and intellect?

      Have a good cover and a compelling description and I’ll give the book enough of a chance to read the sample. Lack those things, and I’ll never know about the first page because I’m not picking up the book at all.

      For the record, the “first page” sample in the OP was not compelling at all, and on its own doesn’t tempt me to turn the page. If the sample were accompanied by a summary of what’s supposed to happen, and I liked that premise, I would turn the page and at least look at the rest of the chapter.

      • Agree on all counts.
        To which I’ll add: the genre a books presents itself as determines the standards it is measured by. The genre comes with expectations.
        (Not news around here, of course, but apparently a lot of these “crossover” authors don’t bother to do homework. And neither do their agents or publishers. All they care is milking the fans for all the name will bring.)

        As SF the book is flagged as derivative, loaded with tired tropes, bad characterization, and irrationality. As paranormal romance the triangle would be expected and nobody would care about the photocopy world building. As YA? Nothing to object to.

        Trouble is, sooner or later, her fans will come across real SF&F (in video if not books) and…recalibrate. Not a good way to…crossover.

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