The [X]-page test

There’s a discussion going on right now in various corners of the internet about how to begin a story: sartorias talks about it here, and then you can follow links to this and this and some other pages I seem to have misplaced.

It’s timely for me because right now I’m going through another of my periodic bookshelf surveys. See, these days I go to a variety of conferences and conventions where I’m given free books, and because I still have the Starving Grad Student instinct of “free stuff is always good,” I take them home. Then they sit on my shelves for months or years without being read, until I get into one of these moods. Then I go through, grab those random books, and read their beginnings to see if I will a) keep going, b) keep it on the shelf for possible later reading, or c) cull it.

In my head, it’s the twenty-page test, though in truth that number fluctuates wildly. If I’m feeling determinedly fair — or uncertain — I’ll give a book fifty pages to convince me I should keep going. If I’m feeling cynical, it’s only ten pages, or five. On occasion I don’t make it off the first page, though that’s rare. (I have very little truck with the notion that you need a really killer opening sentence; for something the length of a novel, killer writing often requires larger units of measurement.)

What makes me keep reading, and what makes me stop? On sartorias‘ LJ, I said this:

I’m coming around to the thought that what I need most in the opening paragraph isn’t action or conflict or even character (which is what I need to keep going after a page or two), but very simply a sense of confidence. Some writers can string together words in a fashion that makes me believe they know what they’re doing; some cannot. And I think that difference is also the difference between writers who pull me in, and those with whom I remain stubbornly aware that I’m reading black marks on a page.

I don’t think I can put it any more concretely than that, except to add an addendum from elsewhere in that comment thread, which is that this only partly depends on the confidence of the author. I’m sure there are many writers out there who sleep well in the certainty that their work is brilliant, but to me it still looks shaky and weak. What I really need is for me to feel confidence in the author — however that may be done.

Some of what I’m looking for is prose — not necessarily Amazing Artful Prose; just prose that knows it’s aiming for and hits the target — but it’s also a feeling of solidity to the setting, or a character whose personality leaps off the page. Or all of the above. (Less often conflict, because for that to be compelling, I need a sense of who and what is at stake. So that takes longer to build.) The unhelpful thing about this is that it can’t be boiled down to useful instructions for the would-be writer, beyond “practice.” Practice will make you certain you want this word and not another, a semicolon instead of two separate sentences, this interesting detail about the setting, a wry bit of self-deprecation from the narrator. Practice will get you to the point where those things happen semi-automatically, without you having to consciously put each one in place, and when that happens I’ll stop seeing the seams between all the bits and just see the whole.

Sad to say, a lot of the books I’m surveying right now are failing that test. With some, to be fair, they’re hampered by genre; the further a given book is from the center of my affections, the more aware I am of the basic machinery at work. They may be perfectly good novels, for some other reader. And, of course, the ones that pass that opening test may not turn out splendidly on the whole; last week I read one that started strong and ended up disappointing. But when I find one that has a confident opening, it truly is a pleasure.

0 Responses to “The [X]-page test”

  1. mrissa

    I’m interested to see that being close to the center of your affections is a protective mechanism rather than a highly critical one. For me it’s somewhat the opposite: a book that’s exactly my sort of thing is likely to be a book whose near cousins I have read or possibly even one whose near cousins I have written or would like to write, and I’m more aware of the mechanisms by which its aims are accomplished. So while I’m not as steeped in mystery reading protocols, I’m also not as immersed in the ways mystery writers do their thing, and I can be a bit more open. (Both are changing as I read more mysteries.)

    This means, incidentally, that books like Midnight Never Come are more of an accomplishment, because they clear higher hurdles when I actually do like them.

    • Marie Brennan

      I suppose it’s actually a curve that’s high on both ends: if I’m reading, say, a historical fantasy set in London, then yeah, I’m going to be picking it apart, and you’ll have to be damn good to survive it. But if the book is a mystery or a romance, I find myself being very aware of the sentences as such, and looking skeptically at the main character, and constantly asking “I should care about this why?”

  2. desperance

    what I need most in the opening paragraph isn’t action or conflict or even character (which is what I need to keep going after a page or two), but very simply a sense of confidence.

    Yes, this. And I was on the very verge of saying “that is to say, writing that breeds a sense of confidence in me” when you carried on and said exactly that. So I march in step, and in your train. With perhaps a little dip of the banner towards the Mris, because the further I am from my generic comfort-zone, the less aware I tend to be of the machinery. I know how this works; I am less certain about that, and probably more easily fooled.

  3. mq_musings

    I’ve been contemplating this a lot lately. I completely agree with the “confidence” standard. As a reader, that determination is pretty easy to make.

    As a writer, I’m having more difficulty. There’s always the issue of evaluating your own work, but openings are even harder. I just finished my first novel and am now facing the prospect of query letters and cold submissions, and it’s daunting.

    Most of the responses I’ve received to the first few chapters have been positive, but there is no ACTION in the opening scene. There’s conflict, but I wanted to give the reader a sense of the main character and his normal world before someone shoots him (which happens in chapter 2) and before the supernatural elements kick in (which happens in chapter 3). But one of my readers told me no publisher would wait until chapter 2 to see the ACTION, and that readers picking up a genre book would feel cheated if there wasn’t something sparkly in the first five pages.

    So I went back to my bookshelf and looked at all my favorites, so see if my own collection implies that level of ADD, and I don’t think it does.

    Still this ACTION mandate makes me nervous. I’ve considered doing something as simple as combining the first and second chapters so the main character gets shot in chapter one, even though it will still not happen until pretty much the same number of pages have been turned. But I divided the chapters like that for a reason…

    ::waffles around, goes to find coffee::

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, look at it another way: What happens in chapter 1?

      Giving the reader “a sense of the main character and his normal world” isn’t a bad thing . . . but if that’s the only purpose being served in that first chapter, then you may want to look for ways to strengthen it. I could write a chapter about how I wake up and check e-mail and putter around and almost forget to eat breakfast and do some ironing and so on, and that would give a sense of my world, but it wouldn’t make my life look very interesting. Now, in my case my life isn’t very interesting — not in the way that would make a good novel (and thank god for that!) — but yes, something like me getting shot would be required to give the reader a reason to go on. If, on the other hand, your opening chapter includes things like hints as to why he’s going to get shot (e.g. he owes the mob money) or an intriguing job that will be relevant to the later plot or something else in that vein, you’re probably fine.

      It doesn’t have to be ACTION in the all-caps sense. Just something the reader ought to pay attention to, because it will be important later.

      • mq_musings

        It doesn’t have to be ACTION in the all-caps sense. Just something the reader ought to pay attention to, because it will be important later.

        I would say that’s definitely true. The conflict established drives the plot explicitly through the first third of the book and echoes through the end.

        Nice icon, btw. 🙂

    • green_knight

      I don’t believe in ‘no publisher will buy’ or ‘all readers want’ because I’m a reader, and most of those prescriptions rub me up the wrong way. I don’t want action until I care about the characters; and I don’t want the kind of action that manipulates me into taking sides by presenting one side as evil-who-must-be-stopped.

      If the book contains a lot of guns and violence, the first chapter needs to give a hint of that. You do that in part by showing that guns and violence are a part of the character’s world: choice of language, choice of details they notice, bringing in guns and violence through glances at TV and newspaper headlines even if your character isn’t threatened yet.

      I think an opening should have mysteries: things that make me ask, not necessarily ‘what happens next’ (I don’t know these people yet. I’m very rarely interested) but ‘what’s going on? How did this happen? How does the world/magic/technology work? I like openings with seemingly contradictory details, and resolving those small things keeps me occupied until I get to the bigger plot.

  4. Marie Brennan

    Oh, it definitely varies. Delany has a great anecdote about reading protocols, and what happens when you give a science-fiction short story to non-SF readers; half of them got hung up on the first sentence, because its sfnal content bewildered them in a way the more genre-experienced reader would cruise right past. What might be a catchy opening to a romance reader sounds trite and overblown to me. Etc. I hadn’t thought about it with nonfiction, but I’m not surprised in the least to hear that this sort of “vivid” opening has become common in popular nonfiction; I also don’t think it’s a bad thing as a general rule, though of course it can be done badly in the specific.

  5. green_knight

    I’m looking at openings right now, and I’m surprising myself how much I can tell about a book from its opening. I want to be intrigued – I want to be left wondering how a certain situation could have come about, how a seemingly contradictory description could be true (with magic/future technology, anything is possible. ‘What kind of world has brass clockwork and angels’ was enough to draw me in.).

    I need a sense that the writer knows what they’re doing – I’m willing to follow them almost anywhere, but I need to trust them. A passage that’s quiet and unassuming and that flows well is much more of a draw for me than one with interesting details and conflict! and danger! which breaks viewpoint or tells me how cold the cold is and how bleak the well-fed character’s life was.

    I’m resigned that the overlap between books I want to read and books in local bookstores isn’t very great; and I refuse to accept it as a failure on my part; people *do* write books I love, and there’s nothing wrong with my taste. If people tell me that books like that won’t sell, I’ll wince, but that doesn’t make another kind of book superior.

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