My to-be-read fiction pile is fifteen books high. I read every day, and usually have no problem deciding what’s next, but lately it’s been like pulling teeth.
After a day of see-sawing, I decided to crack open the covers and see which one hooked me within the first chapter. A quick litmus test. Agents and editors do it all the time, so why couldn’t I? The results were surprising. Only four out of fifteen immediately compelled me enough to keep reading—four!
Why? What made them stand out? All followed the basic rules—no major info-dumping, good first lines, and the stories began where they should, with the “inciting incident.” So why didn’t I want to keep reading?
1) The WHO wasn’t clear. Within a few paragraphs, I want to be able to clearly identify with one main character. Is he/she flighty? Wry? Sneaky? It doesn’t really matter, I just need to connect with someone immediately. The worst offenders, in my opinion, are third-person over-the-shoulder stories where the viewpoint switches within the chapter. One sentence I’m in HER shoes, the next I’m in HIS, but what I’m left with as a reader is a muddled view of both. I’m looking at you, paranormal romance.
2) Generic settings. No need to info-dump, but give me something sharp right out of the gate. Just telling me your character is a waitress in a diner isn’t enough; it only takes a few words to evoke a late-night backwoods bar with three customers, mold on the ceiling tiles, and the lingering stink of stale cigarette smoke.
3) Bad writing. Overwrought “poetic” sentences end up sounding obnoxious if you aren’t smart enough to pull them off. Sure, it’s all about the verbs, but when your prose reads like you took a thesaurus and replaced every verb with something meatier, I’m turned off. Using two (or three) adjectives when one would suffice? I’m turned off. It takes you ten words to explain something that could’ve been said in five? Now I’m not only turned off, I’m probably not going to read much further. Keep it simple, avoid passive voice, and for the love of Pete, don’t fiddle with punctuation unless you know what you’re doing; if you’re not sure what a semi-colon does, either teach yourself or don’t use it.
That being said, I’m certainly not planning a backyard bonfire with the eleven books that didn’t pass my First-Chapter test. I’ve trudged through plenty of less-than-compelling openings to be rewarded by a late-blooming page-turner; I’ve also adored plenty of beginnings in books that petered out and died halfway through.
And hey, obviously someone—a lot of someones—felt differently about those eleven books or they wouldn’t be published. You can’t please everyone, right?