How Many Pages?

Oddly enough, in the last week or so, in very different contexts, I’ve found

Jousting Against Time

myself involved in a discussion of the question “How much do you read of a book before deciding you’re not interested?”

The final discussion, the one that made me decide to bring the question to our little living room and see what a broader range of readers might think, was with a group of writers.  The topic came up, not as a matter of craft, but  in the context of awards and award judging.  Many of those present had judged for awards (or read slush, which for the would-be-writer involved can seem very much like a contest).

One person commented something like, “Well, the thing is, no matter how much you have in front of you, the initial culling goes pretty fast.  After all, usually a couple of pages are all you need to know whether it’s worth going on.”

There were lots of nods around the table and the conversation shifted elsewhere.  Afterwards, though, probably because of all those earlier conversations, I found I wasn’t comfortable with that easy “usually a couple of pages are all you need to know whether it’s worth going on.”  Was that really the case?

I decided that while in many cases it was – certainly a few pages would be enough to tell if a piece was poorly written – I wasn’t sure I could join those smiling and nodding around the table.  Within a relatively short time, I thought of a couple of situations where, if I hadn’t read on, I would have missed good reads.

First was Emma Bull’s novel War For the Oaks.  I’d tried this book, but couldn’t get past the opening section.  Then my buddy David Weber asked if I’d read it.  I told him I hadn’t and why.  He boffed me around the ears (figuratively) and said, “So skip the opening.  You’ll love that book and you’re robbing yourself of a great story.”  So I did and I read and he was right.  Not only did I love War For the Oaks, I  recommended it to lots of other people.  Then I went and hunted out everything else Emma Bull had written, too.

My other example is more a body of work than a single novel.  Terry Pratchett often starts his Discworld novels with a page or two of very strange description of a peculiarly existential nature.  If you know the Discworld, this description often provides a foreshadowing of the action to come.  However, until I became familiar with the purpose of this section, I often found it off-putting.  Now that I know to expect it, however, far from being off-putting, I find it tantalizing, not merely for the foreshadowing but because what is being foreshadowed often seems quite impossible.

So here’s my question.  How much do you give a book before you decide it’s not for you?  Do you give it a sentence?  A paragraph?  A couple of pages?  A whole chapter?  What circumstances might prompt you to go on beyond your usual interest?

As a reader, I’d love to hear about books you almost didn’t read, then discovered were gems.  Please tell!

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17 Responses to “How Many Pages?”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    There are a lot of books that meet this criterion; books I felt I should read because of their reputation but which, initially were more than a little off putting. Probably the archtypal example is Catch-22. These days it’s one of my favourites (I even have an autographed copy!) but it took me so long to get into it. Why did I persevere? I’m really not sure. Probably because I felt I should. It had a reputation after all. Persevere! Who knows what you might miss otherwise.

    However these days I’m less tolerant. That’s probably foolish of me; who knows what gems I’m missing? But nevertheless if a book doesn’t grab me within the first few pages I tend to give up on it. I’m more tolerant with writers I know — I’ll buy any Terry Pratchett novel sight unseen even though his last few have disappointed me. But new writers have to grab me quickly or else they’ll lose me. Mind you, I might return to them if friends begin to rave…

    But like everybody else I have my predjudices.

    How long does it take? That’s so hard to say. Sometimes I bounce off the prose style so hard that I have to give up almost straight away (C. J. Cherryh is unreadable as far as I am concerned and that says much more about me than it does about her; I’m sure she deserves all the accolades she gets but nevertheless I cannot read her). Probably the worst (best?) example is Charles Stross; a man I admire hugely, a man whose opinions I share, a man who I really, really wish I could read. But I can’t. His prose style grates; it’s lumpy, ugly and impenetrable. Again, I think that says much more about me than it does about him.

    I other words it’s very subjective. Meat and poison and the other man.

    But sometimes you can tell straight away. I recently wrote a review which said, in part, “The book is 400 pages long. Unfortunately the story is only 200 pages long”

    I’ve done enough writing to know how hard it is. And therefore I’m always biased in favour of the author. I’m willing to give them huge amounts of slack. I try and I try, but sometimes I have to give up. It usually takes at least a couple of chapters to make my mind up.

    Unfortunately Terry Pratchett doesn’t write in chapters…

    Bugger!


    -Alan

  2. Peter Says:

    These days I generally give a book the equivalent of an average-length couple of chapters (not all books are chaptered equally, if at all) before following Dorothy Parker. I used to grimly plough on to the end, but no longer. Part of that is just a question of age, I think; much of it can be attributed to buying a Kindle and suddenly having options for what to read (when the distance to the nearest half-decently-stocked bookstore is measured in hours of flight time one reads what one is lucky enough to find.) One thing I think I’m getting better at is separating “books I never want to read” from “books I may want to read, but not right now” – some books you just need to be in the proper frame of mind to really appreciate, I think.

    A random sampling of books I initially bounced off but later rediscovered:

    – Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson (the combination of the in media res opening and the rapid viewpoint shifts threw me off on first taste, but when I went back to it in a more patient mood it really paid off).

    – Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson (I think I was initially put off because it wasn’t terribly like The Big U, which I was one of the three people who read when it was first released)

    – A Shadow of All Night’s Falling, by Glen Cook, which I’m not sure *why* I didn’t get into on first reading – I suspect I just wasn’t in the mood for intricate fantasy that day.

    – at the risk of opening a can of worms, Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson, which I actually bounced off *before* That Scene for completely unrelated reasons.

  3. heteromeles Says:

    I’m not one of the people who bounced out of Lord of the Rings (since I love hobbits), but how many people whine about that first chapter?

    Or how about the first chapter in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books? I still don’t think it was needed, and it got in the way of the rest of the series.

    There’s a simple solution to this, though: open the book to the middle (or the end) and see if you enjoy that part. If it’s more of the same stuff you didn’t like, that’s a pretty good indication.

    Then there are people like Charlie Stross. I like Charlie’s work a lot, and his “issue” is that he likes information dense sentences, often littered with SF and tech in-jokes. If you’re looking for long, looping, languorous alliteration, with a side of extra styling, he’s pretty much the antithesis of that.

    I’ll admit that the florid stylists annoy me no end. If it takes a long paragraph to engage the enemy in a fight (with a subtext of emotional melodrama), then another three sentences to swing the rapier(!), it goes back on the bookstore shelf. Call me emotionally stunted, I guess. Or call me a former fencer.

  4. Dominique Says:

    Sadly, I have to say that if a book hasn’t at least peaked my interest by the end of the first one or two chapters I usually quit… Although most of the time I usually peak ahead to make sure it doesn’t ever pick up (I suppose this is even worse)….

  5. Tori Says:

    This is a complicated question for me! I recall reading a series all the way through to the final fifth book and regretting that I didn’t quit in the middle of book two, like my instincts told me to. I was willing to forgive the author for the somewhat slow first book because of the awesome ending. Then the second book started out really exciting and fizzled out halfway through. And then the rest of the series continued into dullard tropesville and the last book I read simply because I wanted to know how the author was going to wrap things up. I should mention that this series was one I picked up off the shelf with no recommendations from anyone, and was at a time before amazon.com was widely used. Since then I have become much more cautious in what I take the time to read.

    Now I give it more or less four chapters, depending on how long chapters are. Sometimes a book will start out exciting and then degrade into a slog of establishing setting and characters without moving the plot AT ALL. That’s when I quit. Of course, if a friend says, “Keep going, it gets really good!” then I keep going. But without encouragement it will go back to the library.

  6. Louis Robinson Says:

    Hmmm…

    For me, I find that the answer seems to be either ‘none of it’ or ‘at least 25%’. A lot of books lose me on the cover blurb [and there had better be one – I don’t care _who_ says it’s the greatest book since LotR, I want to know what it’s about before I’ll even open it]. If they don’t, I’ll usually go 1/4- to 1/2-way through before finding that I either gotta finish _now_, or I can’t be bothered. How good other people say it is doesn’t usually seem to matter – I’ve yet to finish anything by Guy Kay or Lois Bujold, for example. Sometimes, I’ll be saying ‘this person is a bilthering idiot’ before the end of the 1st chapter, but read on anyway, since even idiots can be highly amusing on occasion. And that, in a nutshell, is what I read for – amusement. Fiction or nonfiction doesn’t matter, I expect it to be fun, and it will be dropped if it isn’t.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Hi Louis,

      Your reliance on the cover blurb is interesting because, of course, that’s not written by the author… In fact, many an author has been in agony over a cover blurb that represents the book as other than it is.

      I wish I could say I was immune to judging a book by its cover and blurb, but, sadly, I am not!

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        I’d say I rely on it to tell me what the book’s _about_, in the broadest sense. The good ones also give an idea of what it’s like, but that’s not too common. In general, my sympathy is with the author – which is why I let her show me what the book is like, by starting to read it. Still, with care you can usually extract a decent summary of the situation the characters face from the blurb, and that’s what I’m after. Sparkly vamps and cute ‘wolves go straight back on the rack. I’m not real big on dark & dismal, either.

  7. Barbara Joan Says:

    Interestingly enough, I am currently about ready to toss a book. The characters are unappealing and predictable. The women are gorgeous, the men are macho or wimps and I haven’t the foggiest idea at the 6th chapter when the action is going to begin. Yet I fear, I will miss a good read because I usually enjoy this author.

  8. Dennis Herrick Says:

    A book every writer should take fair warning from is “The First Five Pages,” by agent Noah Lukeman. From an agent’s point of view, he says that if the writer hasn’t seized his interest in the first five pages, he stops reading. A weak opening hook is a death knell on an agent’s desk. For a gotta-read-this opening, look at the very first page on Jane’s “Marks of Our Brothers” novel. You’re going to want to keep reading.

  9. Nicholas Wells Says:

    To a point I sort of agree with your group. Hear me out please before you balk at me. 🙂

    If in those first “couple of pages” nothing is making sense and I have no interest in what’s going, I have a hard time moving on. Mind you 90% of the books on the shelves succeed in doing so, but I have come across one or two that gave me absolutely no incentive to keep reading.

    After that, all I want is a limited interest. Keep me interested in what’s going on and/or the future fate of the main characters. Humor scores big with me, since I like to laugh every now and then, even in the middle of a fire-fight. It’s one reason I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer so much.

    A prime example of this is a book I just picked up by John Ringo titled, “Citadel”. It starts out slow and a little disjointed, but that’s be cause he’s setting up the main characters for me, as well as the world. (Oddly enough he seams to do a lot of the things I’m told NOT to do as a writer, but that’s another discussion entirely.) I laughed at a couple of points, and cared enough to endure the mess hoping it would get better.

    Gosh did it ever. Without realizing it I was hip deep in the story when without warning, he thrust me into the meat of the real story line. I was as off guard as the characters, and I loved it! All of a sudden, I can’t put it down. And I’m laughing while these two characters are trying not to get themselves killed. It’s perfect.

    Give me a reason to care or be at all interested, and I’ll endure some mess early on. But don’t take too long to clean it up, or I may give up. I tried to read “Crisis at Doona”, can’t remember the author. It never stopped feeling shaky, jerky, and unclear. I couldn’t connect with the story or the characters. I managed 2 or 3 chapters, but when it showed no signs of improving, I gave up.

  10. Emily Says:

    Interestingly enough, it was actually Wolf’s Head Wolf’s Heart that I almost put down. I was 12 and I had accidentally picked up the second in the series. I started reading it and thought “this is going to be way above my reading level” Then I muddled through to Firekeeper and Blindseer and stuck with it. I’m glad I did since it encouraged me to read so many more books that I had previously dismissed as being too hard. I did go back and reread the opening though and gave King Allister his due attention.

  11. janelindskold Says:

    It’s good to see how many people will give a book a chance — and how important openings are. I enjoyed the varying ways people test books — and I think Tor’s comment about wishing she’d stopped before her initial pleasure was ruined… Well, that’s fascinating.

    As Nicholas said — and others have commented, too — for me a clever idea isn’t enough. I want to connect with the characters.

    I think Emily’s comment is very interesting. I pulled WH/WH from my shelf and looked. Certainly the nighttime worries of a king would not connect for a twelve year-old the way they might for an adult who has had all too many such nights.

    A couple of you mentioned narrative hooks… I’ve got a funny story about that term which I’ll share next week.

  12. Paul Says:

    I’m surprised any of us have the problem, as I’m given to understand that, if the “first reader” at a publishing house isn’t grabbed by the first few pages, he/she moves on to the next manuscript. (I even have evidence, of a sort; a first reader at the late Lancer Books inadvertently left his note to the publisher in a manuscript of mine that was rejected and returned, and his problem was exactly that.) A book I wanted to stop, but couldn’t because I was reviewing it for a newspaper, was Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale.” When I finished it, I found it a wonderful read, a book with a dream-like quality that you had to get well into to enjoy. In other genres, Louis L’Amour and Robert B. Parker are among the best natural story-tellers I’ve read. I find it hard to put one of theirs down, once started. Likewise, Gregory MacDonald, whose first “Fletch” novel actually started its opening chapter on the paperback’s cover and hooked readers with just that much material.

  13. janelindskold Says:

    Louis Robinson makes a strong case for the influence of the cover blurb… I’ll admit. I’m not always even as careful as he is. Sometimes I’ve not made it past the cover.

    Guilty of what I hope my own books won’t suffer…

    I think that this ties interestingly into Paul’s comment about the book beginning in the blurb…

  14. Laura Says:

    I find that character is what drives me to finish a book. I don’t need a hook, or a bunch of excitement, I need a character I can connect with… As I read, I think to myself, would I feel the same or behave similarly. But it doesn’t even have to be that feeling of similarity, it can be fascination with a character that is alien to me, that I would never want to meet in real life, (like Vachss’ character, Burke) but I want to see what they do next. I just need characters that come alive for me, even if the story is slow, or takes time to develop.

    I had to stop reading early Stephen King, simply because my gut was screaming at me that the characters were doing the wrong things… It is a tribute to his skill, to write so convincingly that I had to put down the book saying to myself – ‘No, I would NEVER bury a beloved pet in a cursed cemetary’. Done. It had nothing to do with his skill or hooks. It had to do with my willingness (or lack thereof) to follow characters I had empathized with into folly. I find his later works readable, because he has characters who make better decisions right along with the characters that take the bad turns.

    I really enjoy urban fantasy, but there are a variety of urban fantasy authors that I just can’t get into, cause I don’t like their main characters. I have copies of their books, and hope that will change, but for now, in spite of the accolades, or the hooks and plots that intrigue me, I just can’t make myself keep reading them cause I don’t want to spend my time with those characters.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Interesting comment about Stephen King… I also can’t read him because he does his job _too_ well, not that he’s a bad writer. He’s really good, but I do nightmares well all by myself!

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