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How strong is the opening page of this novel—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?

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?

  • Yes, I want more of this character and her story. (79%, 116 Votes)
  • No, didn’t take hold of me. (21%, 30 Votes)

Total Voters: 146

. . . .

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

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

  1. I see the First Page Trash Test as literary exhibitionism inspired by the Princess and the Pea story. I am so brilliant and discerning that I am incapable of getting beyond that first page. I am very special. Same for Oxford commas, adverbs, and prologues.

  2. The sample “first page” they gave in the article was not a large enough sample size. I wonder how many great books were lost using their system.

    Decades ago, MZB had her own magazine. In one of her editorials she mentioned that you could no longer write Fantasy stories about Mars. I disagreed, and I sent her a short story that proved my point. I explained all of that in the cover letter. She never read the cover letter, only the first page, and rejected the Story solely because she thought I was sending SF, when it was anything but.

    Her system had her assistants separate any cover letters from the stories. I got a nice hand written comment from her assistant agreeing with me, but she did not do the buying.

    – Today, the Reader rules, not the “Publisher”.

    As example:

    The first Stephen King book I read was The Shining. I read the first chapter and felt it was too dark, so I read the last chapter. I wanted to know how the Story got there, so I read the next to the last chapter, and wondered how the Story got there, so I kept reading the book backward — chapter by chapter — until I got to the beginning.

    – That’s when I found that Story can be read forward or back and still make sense.

    The point is, I, the Reader, made the decision to track down every Stephen King book based on what I liked to read, where the “Publisher” was trying to decide what book that “they” could make money on.

    The phrase, “Too many cooks spoil the broth”, comes to mind.

    BTW, The short story that I sent to MZB will be part of something larger, showing how the RealVerse got locked down and separated from actual Reality. The Observer was too Rational, and ended up cutting all Wonder and Mystery from the world without realizing that he was capable of doing that.

    • No fantasies on Mars? I’m guessing because then-recent discoveries about Mars overturned enough misconceptions that it no longer seemed plausible for anyone to be there? The same with Venus, you can’t even have an “Enchantress of Venus” anymore. Christopher Pike (YA horror author) made use of the mysterious planet that turned into the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and I think someone else did, too. But now I gather NASA says the belt is too lightweight to have ever been a planet larger than our moon, so …

      But I could picture a Martian fantasy if it’s far enough in the past or future. C.L. Moore imagined the Medusa of Greek mythology having extra-terrestrial origins, in “Shambleau.” The creature is discovered on Mars. Or perhaps one could have a science fantasy, e.g., Thundarr the Barbarian / Dying Earth post-apocalyptic setting. “In the far flung future the inhabitants in the terraformed domes of Mars experience a catastrophe, and their mostly-illiterate descendants are left with “astro-sorcery,” which is what the left-behind technology looks like to them…”

      To the larger point though, it’s rare that I nope out on the first page of a sample. I might if the Kindle formatting is bad enough that I can’t trust the book isn’t riddled with typos. But since in that case the book is a public reprint, there’s always a better edition.

      But otherwise? The policy is foolish. Yes, I get editors are busy. That’s what assistants are for. Reminds me of an observation about show-animal judges, who wind up selecting for features that are detrimental to a given breed because the standard features bores the judges. An editor who wants the hook on the first page or else is selecting for a specific type of story. Not good, not bad, but a specific type, and it honestly seems too narrow to me.

      • 1- No fantasy on Mars? S.M.Stirling acepted the challenge:


        Lin Carter did the same with his Jandar of Callisto.
        John Norman with GOR (counter-earth, no less).

        All fantasy, all post Viking.

        2- Yes, the editors are selecting for a specific type of story. Because that is how tradpub editors mostly work: “The same, but different.”

        • Ooh, Stirling gives all the right shout-outs:

          Thanks to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, Otis Adelbert Kline, Leinster, Heinlein, and to all the other great pulpsters for gracing my childhood with John Carter, Northwest Smith, “Wrong-Way” Carson of Venus, and all the heroes gifted with a better solar system than the one we turned out to inhabit. From the jungles of Venus and the Grand Canal of Marsopolis, I salute you!

          Unfortunately, Tor appears to have screwed him over, as this book does not exist in Kindle at all, and apparently not in any other ebook form either.

          Fortunately, Jandar of Callisto looks to be available.

          As far as point 2, that’s yet another reason the Indie Revolution is good: more actual variety.

          • If you’re not familiar with John Norman’s GOR, a word of caution: the first two or three are fairly decent Burroughs pastiche. After that, he found…a slightly different audience…like, say, Trevor Bauer. 😎

            And yes, Indie freedom allows for a lot of stuff trsdpub would never risk. They can’t veer into directions like slow burns or “character-driven space opera”. 😉

            One of the unappreciated features of KU, GAMEPASS, or Netflix: risk free exploration.

              • Alas, I liked the first few so I bought the whole set I could find. And his TIME SLAVE. 🙁

                I’m open minded but one-note stories don’t work for me.

  3. I don’t read these because it seems petty to me to ask that question of books which have passed the professional vetting of a bunch of editors at traditional publishers, whether they are my kind of book or not, and I KNOW I will not be impartial.

    I’ve asked myself many a time (this is a regular WU feature by one of their regular contributors) whether I should try to master that lack of impartiality in the service of LEARNING something, both from the book itself, and from Ray Rhamey’s commentary.

    Obviously other people can.

    I can’t.

    I think it may date from my earlier writing days and the sense of being trampled by unsolicited advice. It seemed EVERYONE had an opinion about my writing, even when their opinion had not been requested, and that opinion would come even when I had requested something completely different from them.

    In other words, people do what they want to do. NOT a novel concept.

    As my writing developed, I reached a place where I was comfortable with it, the style I’ve created, and the corollary: readers know fairly quickly (maybe not on the first page, but soon) whether they like my writing/storytelling/style – or not.

    Even if what you write and publish is out there for the entire world to say whatever it wants about, and writers still need encouragement, a disappointed reader doesn’t care and/or doesn’t remember there is another human being involved in getting books for them that they get to be so cavalier about.

    But most of them can’t write a book if their life depends on it.

    The most I can take is good writing books which use extracts from successful books to teach a point on how to do something right.

    It is what it is, but I also don’t read those posts.

  4. I hate these “You have to sell me on the first page or I’ll throw your submission in the trash” posts.

    Do normal people really reach a decision point on the first page of a book? This really sounds like sub-optimal learned behavior.

    Only once have I ever stopped reading on the first (actually third) page of a book – one of the Cormoran Strike books disgusted me and it was gone at that point.

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