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.