Monday, March 30, 2009

Judging a book by the beginning

I read the Printz medal-winning book Jellicoe Road a few weeks ago. We don't review books on this blog, but my experience reading this book make me think twice about the way I review manuscripts, so I thought it was worth discussing. First of all, let me say that I absolutely loved the book. I thought it was profound, moving, intricately crafted, and layered. It made me sob, and those of you who know me, know that I'm a sucker for books that make me cry.

BUT, I spent the first 100 pages confused. I found it extremely hard to follow, with too many characters to keep track of. For some reason, I kept thinking it was a dystopian fantasy. It took me a while to realize that it was set in contemporary Australia! And then I spent the next 50-100 pages irritated by the main character. I know, right? Not exactly a glowing review. And yet I loved this book! The writing was beautiful, and I stuck with it, and I'm so glad that I did, because the second half was so fantastic, I forgave the issues I had with the beginning. And, in fact, I understood better the reason why the beginning was set up the way it was.

But I realized that if this had been submitted to me, I would have probably declined it, because when I review novels, I generally make up my mind in the first 30-50 pages. If I'm pretty sure it's a pass, I will skip to the end to see if it ends on a really powerful note, but it's hard to say in this case if skipping to the end would have changed my mind. In my first year or so as an editorial assistant, I actually read through every submission all the way through. Sure, I may have skimmed, but I had the time and interest to get to the end. But I came to realize that I rarely if ever changed my mind about a book after making up my mind in the beginning. I also started getting more novel submissions and was unable to read the entire manuscript and still keep up with the reading pile. (I should say that if I'm liking a book, I'll read the whole thing.)

So, what made me stick with the book in this case? The fact that it was a Printz winner was a reason--I knew that it must end powerfully for it to have won over a committee of librarians. Knowing that the author was well-respected played a role, too. Plus the fact that I was reading it for a book group and started it early enough to have time to finish it, of course!

I was talking about my experience with this book with an agent last week, telling her that because of the nature of the business, I might have a passed on a book that I ultimately loved, and she thought for a moment and said, "Well, I suppose that's where a good agent comes in." The agent can advise the editor to stick with a book, and if the editor trusts the agent, she will. It's true. There are certain agents I trust, and know that they would never send something unworthy. I give the submissions they send me a little more attention and patience than others sent by agents I don't know, don't know well, or know but don't generally trust their taste. Other readers at the book group said they stuck with it because colleagues had told them how amazing the book was, and they trusted their advice.

But I must say, ultimately, I think Jellicoe Road is the exception to the rule. There's a reason why so many conferences have first-page critiques--because it's so crucial to hook your reader from the very beginning. I won't be drastically changing the way I review submissions, but then again, I may be a little more patient with certain novels under very special circumstances.

*****

Just a reminder that tomorrow night I will be on a panel at the New School on getting published, along with Ben Tomek, marketing associate, Reader’s Digest Children’s Publishing; and Anna Olswanger, literary agent, Liza Dawson Associates. It's only $5 (free for students, faculty, and alumni), so if you're in the NY area, come on out! More info here.

*****

And finally, the winning name for my segments on the books I edit is...

Beyond the Book!

I wrote everyone's name who voted on a scrap of paper and drew one winner, and that lucky person is...Lindsey, who was the 5th commenter on this post. Congratulations! Email me at bluerosegirls@gmail.com and let me know which Little, Brown book you would like.

Thanks everyone for voting, and tune in next Monday for...
Beyond the Book: The Curious Garden.

13 comments:

Libby Koponen said...

That's really interesting.

I have an almost opposite reaction to books--when I pick up a novel that begins in a really startling way, I often feel like I can hear the author thinking: "I have to hook them RIGHT AWAY."

The books that draw me in from the first sentence tend to:
* be really well-written
*immediately establish a world QUIETLY
--they do it in an almost mysterious way.

Something about them that I couldn't even analyze or explain draws me in. The beginnings I chose in that long-ago post are all examples of this (except the opening of HATCHET which I rather disliked).

The only really dramatic beginning I can think of that I really liked is THE GOLDEN COMPASS...also THE HOBBIT I guess could be called surprising, since when I started it, at any rate, I had never heard of hobbits or their nice sandy holes.

ANYWAY, fascinating post!

Libby

Meghan said...

Hmm. Interesting. One reason I need an agent, eh? Or the right one.

As a reader, I won't read past the first or second chapter if I don't like something, so the buying public needs to be thought about as well. It's not likely that every book is going to win a big prize!

joemonti said...

Alvina, this is why I loved working with you, you're honest and thoughtful. I too started Jellicoe Road and stopped, and stopped, and after three days and thirty pages, stopped altogether and returned it to the library. I found it a bit disjointed as well, but to me, I had read that emo voice too many times, and felt I could guess the ending and stopped. Like you I'm a big believer in the "twenty - fifty page rule". That said all such rules are ridiculous, but as a guideline, they can be worthwhile, especially this one. The authors I admire the most capture me within a page or two, one of them Jonathan Carroll, frequently does it on the opening line. But as someone who read her first novel years ago, and enjoyed it, and who picked this one on the day she won the Printz, I had all the incentive in the world to finish it, and yet couldn't. I trust you that it may be a good and very worthwhile book, but to me, it may be too flawed to deserve the award.

Anonymous said...

This is such a thoughtful post. I had trouble with Jellicoe Road, too. When I finally finished it, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and still can't stop. But I think it will continue to have mixed reviews...

Ms. Yingling said...

Why should you keep going through 100 confusing pages? The intended audience for the books-- young adults-- certainly aren't. If it's a good book with bad parts, the parts need to be rewritten. Middle school students do not have the patience to read through that much confusing stuff, and they shouldn't have to.

alvina said...

When I was a teen, I finished every book I started. That was the kind of reader I was. It wasn't until I after I worked in publishing that I started not finishing books. So, I'd say that if I read JELLICOE ROAD as a teen, I would have kept with the book and would have been better for it. Sometimes reading a book is like life. The struggle makes the payoff that much sweeter!

But is this a book for the reluctant reader? Probably not.

There are all kind of readers, we need all kinds of books.

Anonymous said...

Alvina, What if the book had been edited to eliminate those aspects that you found slowed you down? Isn't it possible it could have benefited from some rethinking?

Anonymous said...

Yay and thanks! I'm excited about receiving a Little, Brown book.

:) Lindsey

EM said...

I had the exact same reaction to JELLICOE ROAD; also kept going and ended up enjoying it. But TENDER MORSELS -- also an award-winner, also glowingly reviewed -- left me depressed and dreading after 60 pages, and I just couldn't continue. Funny how that works . . .

yamster said...

I, also, was someone who had to finish every book I started, and not until I became an editor did I start to abandon books that I didn't like (and it took me a while not to feel guilty about it!). Sometimes authors and agents only gave me the first 50 pages, and when I asked for the full manuscript I was often disappointed, because the author worked and worked on those first pages at the expense of the rest of the novel. So there's good and bad to the 50-page "rule." You can argue that the author has the ability to revise enough to make the first 50 pages good, so why not sign them up based on that? Well, we don't know how many revisions or how long that took, and being able to hook the reader in 50 pages doesn't always mean you can keep them interested for another 150...

Still, I agree with Alvina's last point — there are all kinds of readers out there, and they read all kinds of books!

alvina said...

To Anonymous who asked about the editing--I'd prefer not to comment, as I wouldn't want another editor commenting this way on a book I edited--which is why I'll never let my book groups read a book I edited (unless I wasn't present for the discussion). But I will say that if you read the book, you'll understand how precisely intertwined each element is, and I don't think it would be an easy task (if possible at all) to rework the beginning significantly. The structure is there for a reason.

Sliding on the Edge said...

I just started JR and I spent the first half hour totally confused, so I'm pleased not to be the only one. I will stick with it, but I was really looking for a story that pulled me in and wouldn't let me go.

Anonymous said...

It also should be said that someone shouldn't try a structure like JELLICOE ROAD's until they're fairly well established. Melina is a bestselling author in Australia--that makes her fan base well-established and more likely to keep with a confusing new release.