There’s a blog that sometimes visit where the author takes the first page from NYT best selling books and analyses them to see if his readers would read past the first page. It’s an interesting exercise and he has a list of criteria that he follows to determine if it’s a page turner or not. And sometimes I agree with him on his analysis and sometimes I don’t.
In fact, this morning I read a post and I knew after the first sentence who the author was – because I read his books. Sadly, he didn’t fair well with most of the other commenters and it got me thinking about the whole concept of quick judgment.
The first page test
I don’t know when it happened but today it seems to be a given that if the first page of a book doesn’t slap you upside the head with a car wreck, dead body or exploding kittens that it is deemed bad – or at least not good. And God forbid that the author should tell you anything at all about the character because her wrestling with a twenty-armed octopus while solving world hunger should show you everything you need to know about our hero, right?
And writers seem to believe this because it seems that just about any book you pick up these days opens with some big confusing mess of action that you have to read twenty pages further to finally understand. Because that puts you in the moment. Or at least it’s supposed to. But does it really? In my case, it just puts me into a painful confusion from which I try desperately to escape.
And it’s not just this particular blog that seems to have this philosophy, you see how-to writing articles all the time about how you’ve got to grab readers from the first second. But that’s what they say about resumes too. And websites and movies. And well, just about everything.
So…what happened? Did we all just reduce our attention span down to that of a gnat? Are we all just over-active, hormone-laden 14-year-old boys who can’t land? Is substance a thing of the past?
The first 50 pages
Many years ago I saw an interview with John Irving, author of The World According to Garp, among other best sellers. And he was asked how many pages he thought readers should give a writer before they decided to reject it or not. Irving’s answer was 50 pages. He went on to explain why and I honestly can’t remember his reasons but whatever they were they made sense to me.
And I have to say, that became my benchmark and has remained my benchmark for evaluating a book. Of course there are exceptions to that rule:
- If the book is really badly written
- If the topic or genre doesn’t interest me at all
- If the writing is littered with typos, bad grammar
Things that would make anyone put down a book. But aside from that I try to the give the author a fair shake. I know that she sat in a room in front of a computer or notepad and spent hundreds of hours conceptualizing, plotting, writing, editing, rewriting, and doting over the story. So why shouldn’t I give her a mere 50 pages to make her case? That’s maybe an hour or two of reading – not a big commitment is it?
So what do you think? How many pages will you give an author before deciding to stop or keep reading? Why? What’s your criteria? Do you like books that start with so much action it takes your breath away. Or would you rather ease into the story? Feel free to expound in the comments.