Novel Beginnings, part III
Maybe I'll write a book about beginnings of books. Anyway, here are two new ones to compare:
1. "I think that everything, or at least the part of everything that happened to me, started with the Roman architecture mix-up. Ancient History was my first class of the day, occurring after morning chapel and roll call, which was not actually roll call but a series of announcements that took place in an enormous room with twenty-foot-high Palladian windows, rows and rows of desks with hinged tops that you lifted to store your books inside, and mahogany panels on the..."
2. "Benjamin Braddock graduated from a small Eastern college on a day in June. Then he flew home. The following evening a party was given for him by his parents. By eight o'clock most of the guests had arrived but Benjamin had not yet come down from his room. His father..."
The first is from the best-seller, Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld; the second from The Graduate by Charles Webb.
The first represents about one third of the first paragraph of Prep, while the second is very taut, with extremely short sentences (it doesn't even say on a HOT day in June!) and rest of the book is almost written entirely in dialogue. (And yes, it preceded the movie and is not an after-the-fact book.)
Many readers would lack patience to read every word of the first paragraph of Prep, and this is another one that, if I was submitting it to publishers, they'd say there's too much description in the beginning, it's too slow, or too dense...then again, Prep was rejected by about 14 publishers, so that's not a chance I can take with my own by writing a page-long first paragraph. If I was Curtis S, would I have stuck to my guns, or hurriedly cut down the first paragraph to a few lines? Or would it have made a difference? It all depends on my/her agent and whether she thought it was perfect the way it was; she's the one who has to pitch the thing. Making the book more concise might have helped it, or hurt it, or made no difference. There's no way of knowing.
But the second one, the Graduate, has a bigger hurdle to get over; it's in third person. If a book is in first, right away you can be more patient with it, because the narrator is talking directly to you.
My editor for my second novel, Starting from Square Two, at one point asked if I would consider changing it to first person, because she found the character to be "distant." I really didn't want to do that; I didn't want to get in Gert's head, because it was more a book about things that happened to her and how they changed her, and I didn't think hearing her speak would add to it. I also want her to be kind of spoiled and clueless in the beginning, then come to the realization that she had it very easy and had an unrealistic view of life until her husband died. If she'd been in first person, she would have spent the first third of the book saying things that were clueless and ignorant, not insightful, and I didn't think that would help. Better to look at her from the outside and let the reader see that, until Gert learns it herself. But I acceded to part of my editor's wishes and put in more description of her actions, like when she's talking, to make it less distant. (I guess you can say that Carrie Pilby is also obnoxious for a lot of Carrie Pilby until she wises up, but that's different because it's more obvious that she has things to learn, and she's hopefully funny in her obnoxiousness, so even if you dislike her, at least you can laugh with/at her until she figures out she has to be a little less judgmental.)
Anyway, the point is, people like reading first person better. It grabs you a lot more easily. In the end, because Webb's writing is more spare (almost all dialogue), the graduate is a quicker read. And maybe he didn't mean for you to sit with your coffee, mulling the description of the town Benjamin lives in, or the social class issues, or anything else. It's a book about an affair, love, etc. Curtis does get into some class issues, but she's also in first person, so you can be in the character's head.
Anyway, two different approaches and styles. All of which make me think about the approaches and styles I take in my own writing.