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.
Prologue vs Chapter
Today I want to contrast this novel’s prologue opening page with that of the first chapter. See which, if either, provokes a page-turn for you. I’ve read that many literary agents skip prologues in submissions because “the story begins with chapter one.” As a reader, I tend to do the same thing, though I have found compelling prologues now and then. What are your thoughts on prologues versus chapters opening novels?
This novel was number four on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for January 18, 2020. How strong are the openings—would either of these narratives, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? There are two polls.
Following are what would be the first 17 manuscript lines of the prologue.
I don’t know why I’m writing this.
That’s not true. Maybe I do know and just don’t want to admit it to myself.
I don’t even know what to call it—this thing I’m writing. It feels a little pretentious to call it a diary. It’s not like I have anything to say. Anne Frank kept a diary—not someone like me. Calling it a “journal” sounds too academic, somehow. As if I should write in it every day, and I don’t want to—if it becomes a chore, I’ll never keep it up.
Maybe I’ll call it nothing. An unnamed something that I occasionally write in. I like that better. Once you name something, it stops you seeing the whole of it, or why it matters. You focus on the word, which is just the tiniest part, really, the tip of an iceberg. I’ve never been that comfortable with words—I always think in pictures, express myself with images—so I’d never have started writing this if it weren’t for Gabriel.
I’ve been feeling depressed lately, about a few things. I thought I was doing a good job of hiding it, but he noticed—of course he did, he notices everything. He asked how the painting was going—I said it wasn’t. He got me a glass of wine, and I sat at the kitchen table while he cooked.
I like watching Gabriel move around the kitchen. He’s a graceful cook—elegant, balletic, organized. Unlike me. I just make a mess.
“Talk to me,” he said. “There’s nothing to say. I just get so stuck in my head sometimes. I (snip)
And now for the first 17 lines of chapter one.
Alicia Berenson was thirty-three years old when she killed her husband.
They had been married for seven years. They were both artists—Alicia was a painter, and Gabriel was a well-known fashion photographer. He had a distinctive style, shooting semi-starved, semi-naked women in strange, unflattering angles. Since his death, the price of his photographs has increased astronomically. I find his stuff rather slick and shallow, to be honest. It has none of the visceral quality of Alicia’s best work. I don’t know enough about art to say whether Alicia Berenson will stand the test of time as a painter. Her talent will always be overshadowed by her notoriety, so it’s hard to be objective. And you might well accuse me of being biased. All I can offer is my opinion, for what it’s worth. And to me, Alicia was a kind of genius. Apart from her technical skill, her paintings have an uncanny ability to grab your attention—by the throat, almost—and hold it in a viselike grip.
Gabriel Berenson was murdered six years ago. He was forty-four years old. He was killed on the twenty-fifth of August—it was an unusually hot summer, you may remember, with some of the highest temperatures ever recorded. The day he died was the hottest of the year.
On the last day of his life, Gabriel rose early. A car collected him at 5:15 a.m. from the house he shared with Alicia in northwest London, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, and he was driven to a shoot in Shoreditch. He spent the day photographing models on a rooftop for Vogue .
You can turn the page and read more here.