Saturday, May 09, 2009


This week, the Type M typists have been discussing novel beginnings and what makes a reader buy a book.  Is it the book title that grabs you?  The first sentence?  The first three pages?  How much time to you give a book before you decide that it’s something you want to read?

Debby talked about titles, and I commented that Tom Wolfe titles are eye catching.  Yes, Debby replied, but would you buy the books?  That pulled me up short.  In truth, Tom Wolfe titles catch my eye, but which of his books have I actually read?  Did I read Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers?   No, I did not.  I read The Right Stuff, Hooking Up, and I Am Charlotte Simmons.  (Okay, I also read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I was young and it was the ‘60s.)  

Now I’m trying to think of books that I actually wanted to read because of the title. The only one that comes immediately to mind was Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child.  

So what criteria does one use to choose a book? A good title may get you to pick it up and look at it.  A good jacket blurb may intrigue you and entice you to read the first paragraph or two. A wonderful first sentence may draw you onward.  

I read an article by an editor who said that she gives a manuscript three pages before she decides whether or not it’s worth her time.   I was asked recently to present a workshop this coming January on just that topic - crafting the first three pages.  Apparently conventional wisdom is that three pages is how long you have to capture a prospective reader.

I think that if you are as popular an author as Steven King, the reader will give you the benefit of the doubt, because he knows that eventually you’re going to deliver.  But if nobody ever heard of you, you’d better be as interesting and exciting as you can as fast as you can.

Readers used to be more patient, I think.  One of my favorite books when I was young was Beau Geste, by Percival Wren, that swashbuckling tale of the French Foreign Legion.  I must have read that book half-a-dozen times.  And yet, I defy any modern to slog through the first 70 pages of set up before the action begins.

The book I’m reading right now, which happens to be Valley of the Lost, by one Vicki Delany, is a masterful example of an effective beginning. Here’s what happens in the first three pages:  As Lucky Smith is getting into her car after a meeting, she hears what she thinks is a cat in the bushes.  As she’s about to drive away, she hears the cry again, and realizes it’s a baby.  She grabs a flashlight and searches the dense brush, and finds an infant, wrapped in a yellow blanket, lying on the ground.  When Lucky picks him up, her dropped flashlight illuminates the body of a dead woman, eyes wide open, further in the woods.

Now, that’s a grabber. Obviously a lot has happened before we, the readers, come in to the story.  A great technique for beginning a novel is to start in the middle of the action, off and running, and the reader will want to rush to catch up.

1 comment:

Vicki Delany said...

Thank you for the kind words, Donis. Glad you liked Valley!