I went to the book shop to read first pages of as many random books I could get my hands on. I wanted to know, what’s in a hook? What’s in a first page?
I usually read books based on friend’s recommendations, hype (bestseller lists), awards (another type of hype?), and because I have to (school). But which books would truly have the power to keep me reading past the first page if it weren’t for my knowing about them or their author? So often in writing classes, we’re taught to write sentences that keep the reader going. We’re taught about hooking them. But is the hook that important for novels that people have to interact with in some way before actually reading?
I wanted to find out.
The first thing I found is that it’s very difficult to not judge a book by its cover, or at least to not be affected by its cover. Even though I did my best to not look at the covers before opening to the first page, I’d still inadvertently get a peak. And from a single glance at the colours and design of the cover, I’d build expectations about what I would find inside.
Anyway, after about a dozen lacklustre first pages, including most of the highly marketed books paid by publishers to be displayed in special places like the front tables, I found a gem with a great first page tucked somewhere in the general fiction aisles.
It’s Her Mother’s Daughter by Leslie Crewe. After I Googled it, I felt a bit of pride that she’s actually Canadian and her story is set in Cape Breton. There aren’t enough books set in Canada. I hope to read the rest one day soon.
I took a sneaky picture of the first page. What do you think?
This book isn’t a bestseller as far as I could tell. It’s garnered nearly a couple hundred reviews on Goodreads, but otherwise it’s not that popular.
What I like about the hook and what follows is that only common words are used, and the author isn’t trying very hard to set the details of a scene by using strange descriptions with unusual words. I think this gave me a chance to really ease into the story and out of my mind, and I actually turned to read the second page before stopping to move on with my exercise.
I lucked out by finding my next favourite first page pretty soon after the first.
Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall. This one is told from a nine-year-old’s perspective. That’s a fact that isn’t immediately clear, but you can definitely tell it’s a child whose life is under the control of the adults around her.
What I found just slightly odd or unsettling is that at the end of the first page she makes an observation that I don’t think a child would be perceptive or mature enough to make. But then again people do grow and mature at different rates.
I’d give this one a try based on the first page, and on Goodreads, the book has over 24,000 reviews and a four star average rating.
I couldn’t resist rereading the first page of Bittersweet, either. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book, but Stephanie Danler has a way with words, even though I never truly connected with what she was writing about in this memoir. But it’s easy to slip into this one.
Really, anything written in the first person is easier to get hooked into, in my experience. But of course, it can’t work for every story.
Next I picked up a big book and before I could fold the front of the cover, I noticed Umberto Eco’s name. I couldn’t help the thoughts springing in my mind after that. I was supposed to like this book.
I didn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to read past three sentences of The Name of the Rose. Of course, this is a very, very popular and highly acclaimed novel. I just found the first sentences to be boring and jarring.
Another good first page. This is American War by Omar El Akkad. It turns out it’s also received some critical acclaim.
I recognized Jennifer Eagan’s name and thought I’d give the first page of her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad a try (why not?).
I was surprised that I didn’t like it. Based on the first page, I would never keep reading, but it did win the Pulitzer Prize, so there’s that.
Lucky Boy—another first page winner.
The Almost Moon. Winner… This was was written by Alice Sebold, the author of The Lovely bones.
After the Bloom. A very, very captivating first page by Leslie Shimotakahara.
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. Great.
And I had to make a stop by the Nicholas Sparks shelf. I opened up The Longest Ride, one of his that I haven’t actually read yet. He can really tell a story, and his first pages tend to be as impeccable as the ones that follow.
I had to snap a photo. What do you think?
And finally, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is my all-time favourite book by the most skillful author my eyes and ears have had the fortune of being graced by. That’s a little dramatic, but I had to read a few pages from this, too.
Tragically, I gave my copy away to someone, and it’s one of my life’s little regrets (especially because I had the BEAUTIFUL 1990 illustrated cover edition, which matched the other books I own by her).
Here’s what I learned from reading first pages…
In all, I read about fifty first pages. I was surprised by how few books have good or interesting beginnings. Most of them felt jarring, as if the story was beginning without me, and I had to force myself to enter into a world and adjust to a rhythm and style of writing that was bookish and foreign.
I was able to identify a few things that worked and a few that didn’t work.
Many stories began with overly detailed descriptions. This didn’t work. Imagine describing a chair instead of just calling it a chair, or describing the walls that create a passageway instead of just calling it that. This was jarring! Yes, in my own mind, I might perceive the walls, but I certainly don’t articulate that.
So, simple sentences were preferred. Telling me as simply as possible was a winner.
I also found that the third person POV was a little more difficult to be absorbed by, but what helped was if the beginning focused on a character or person that I could immediately take an interest in, rather than a badly described scene.
Out of the ones I didn’t like, some were really just because I didn’t think the story would interest me. But most were because I felt left behind. The author hadn’t considered a point of entry for me…
Anyway, don’t take my word for it but this exercise was really helpful.