"But you haven't given it a fair chance."
"But it's a bestseller."
"But so-and-so loved it."
"But this author poured his (or her) heart and soul into this book. You should keep going . . . even if it takes you FOREVER to finish."
Okay, that last one is probably more about my little voice than yours. More and more, it's the author and heart and soul part that gets me when I don't like a book. (Click to tweet)
I have, however, for the most part, overcome too much empathy for hard-working authors when it comes to my personal reading time and told my little voice I don't want to hear its objections. What pushed me over the edge was downloading books that are free or cheap, making it possible to sample multiple new authors without much cost. Many books available at a discount are certainly worth even full price; many are not. My challenge, beyond a book's general worthiness, is deciding before I download whether or not a book is for me so I don't clutter my reader unnecessarily.
The keys to a reading decision lie in the first few pages of a novel. (Click to tweet) At least it most often is for this reader. And if I can see those pages online in a "see inside" feature or by reading a chapter on the author's or publisher's website (not unlike standing in the aisle of a bookstore thumbing through a novel before I decide to buy it), all the better.
Here are three elements I look for in the first few pages—or the first chapter or maybe couple of chapters—to help make my decision about a novel. I am not talking about genre, writing techniques, or fiction musts you'll learn if you study the craft, but about what readily tells me if a novel is for me—or not. Maybe you look for something else, but these might make a difference for you too.
Who, what, when, and where along with the drama. As simple as it sounds for me to want to know this journalistic-sounding information, apparently it's not important for some authors who tend to sacrifice it for the sake of drama. Why and how can—and probably in most cases should—come later as the story unfolds. But too much cryptic-ism at the beginning of a story in an effort to create drama hardly ever works for me. I want to know who is talking or thinking, even if the answer is that it is the as-yet-identified murderer. And what era and general time of year and day are we in? Where are we? If I don’t get this information sooner than later, I have realized, I become disinterested fast because I am wondering instead of enjoying, guessing instead of being drawn in. So, no. Now I look for that information rather than wonder why a book is not working for me.
Dialogue that tells me how characters speak. The characters’ speaking style makes a difference to me as well, which, of course, requires some dialogue, or at least clear internal thoughts. Do they speak in a dialect I find hard to wade through? Does a leading character use bad grammar or bad language to the extent I just cannot hack it? Are the main characters' internal or verbal thoughts so cryptic or childish or whatever else bothers me that I cannot relate to them? If I would have a hard time listening to a character in a film, I won't enjoy reading what that character has to say. Pass.
Editorial excellence that will let the story be told without distraction. My inner editor, banished to the backseat of my brain when I read for pleasure, is sometimes unable to help herself: “Did you see that? Sheesh!” Misspellings, especially of proper names that anyone can look up; glaring grammatical errors, unless they are in limited dialogue that enhances characterization; consistently missing or incorrect or overused punctuation; words and phrases used repetitively . . . seeing those types of error right up front is like being served cold food that should be hot. Only I can’t send editorially poor content back to the restaurant kitchen. Sorry.
That little voice will still sometimes say, "But you have to give the book a real chance. It's a little (fill in the blank) in the beginning, but then I'm sure it will get (fill in the blank)."
Uh, no, I don't have to, little voice! Sure, I might miss out on a good book, but have you not heard, "So many books, so little time"? Yeah, that.
What do you look for in the beginning pages of a novel?