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Author Topic: How long do you give a book to grab you?  (Read 4314 times)

Offline gennerik

How long do you give a book to grab you?
« on: February 10, 2017, 01:25:28 PM »
So, not wanting to derail the Slow Starts thread, but wanting to know.

How long do you typically give a book to grab your attention? I understand that there probably isn't a magic formula or anything, because my own opinion depends on a lot of factors, but I know in every book I read (or not) there is a point where I ask "Do I continue reading?"

The Background: So, on AbsoluteWrite, they have a thread to submit your first three sentences to see if people would keep reading. I've submitted a few selections just to see, and it seems that very few people there find my style of starting a book to be engaging, some even saying that all I'm doing is description.

It got me thinking, in conjunction with the Slow Starts thread here, how long does the average reader give a book? I grew up with Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tolkein, etc. and most of those authors paint the scene initially. There's no hook like many of the modern books, and I feel that that's how I write as well. I set the scene, and gradually lead into the characters, and let the story unfold at a slower pace. But, is that too slow now?

My answer: I know that sometimes I can decide with in the first page or two on a number of books. I'll read the back and open to a beginning page to get a sense of the author's writing style. If it's too jarring or plain, then I normally won't go further. I know for David Dalglish, I started his Half-Orc series and was turned off by the dialogue (I basically felt like I was watching a group of people play D&D) around 1/3rd of the way through, though the rest of his prose wasn't bad, which is why I made it that far.

On re-reading The Lord of the Rings, I got about 20% done with the trilogy before I just found it too slow, even though I had read it before.

I think most books I give about the first 5-10 pages. I feel this give the author time to develop the background, introduce characters, and tell us why we want to keep reading. If you haven't given me something by then, chances are you're not going to.

Author of Lamentation's Peak
Part-time Dreamer / Full-time Speaker

Offline Lanko

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Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #1 on: February 10, 2017, 02:16:19 PM »
I think I'm pretty generous. The two books I pretty much DNF'ed last year, I gave one a go until 40% and the other around 70%.
I picked them up later and finished them, but those were the marks.

This year, I put a book down at 51%.
Slow and steady wins the race.

Lanko's Year in Books 2019

Offline S. K. Inkslinger

Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #2 on: February 10, 2017, 02:32:14 PM »
I think I have only DNF'ed a few books (probably because I usually just bought the well-known and famous novels lol) Nevertheless, I was about 100 pages into Le Mort D' Arthur before I gave up, and only 20 pages into The Iron King by Maurice Druon. The style of the story and writing are just just too different from my preference, I guess

Offline Nora

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Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #3 on: February 10, 2017, 02:46:30 PM »
I have zero rules, because I give no chance on a book if it annoys me in any way. Seems boring? Don't care for the character? Slowing down in unexciting ways? Too thick on the cliche? Too one dimentional? DNF.
That happens in the first page, or right into the last few chapters, or right in the middle. For a variety of reasons.

A few people were gushing recently on The Shadow of What Was Lost, and when I opened it, on the first page there was :

Quote
For a moment the waters of Eryth Mmorg were lit, roiling and churning as though a great knife had plunged deep into the pool’s murky heart.
(...)
Quote
Behind him lay the flat, barren rock that was Taag’s Peak.

And my brain immediately froze, and went to this :

Spoiler for Hiden:

Closed the book and put it back on the shelf. Too horrendously cliche like the cheap fantasy I couldn't get my head into when I was fourteen, even less so at 27. If people kept telling me it's awesome, I'd push through, give it a couple of chapters, but see, I don't have time to dally around. There are billions of books out there, so if names on the first page make me snort, no point in forcing it, when others will give it their love and time.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #4 on: February 10, 2017, 03:57:46 PM »
I'm technical, or at least, more technical than some, so I understand what an author is supposed to do at the very start. The first page does not have to grab, but if it doesn't, my confidence in the story plummets. If it does, I will often buy based on the fact that it does. If not, I will skim ahead and read a couple chapters' first pages, and see if the kinds of situations being resolved from the preceding chapter or being introduced in the new one are clichés. I look for poor writing - overly wordy description, ridiculous things that are supposed to grab my sense of wonder (but don't), fizzling drama, etc. In sum, I am checking for negatives and searching for positives - if the totality is unimpressive, I move on.

It takes little for me to lose interest, and I often pause or stop at any point, not from an impatient or energetic sense of revulsion, but from the sagging weight of boredom or interest in something else or some other book.
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline DrNefario

Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #5 on: February 10, 2017, 04:50:31 PM »
It's quite a long time since I abandoned a book, so I'd basically say I give fantasy series a whole book to get going.

There is also the question of what does it take for a book to grab you? I don't necessarily want action and the world about to end or anything like that. I just want to care what happens. Ideally I want to be introduced to a character I can get behind.

Quite a few of LE Modesitt's Recluce books begin with long periods where the main character is just going about their life. Making furniture, or whatever. He writes it in such a way that I care what is happening. I want the guy to make a good cupboard for Mrs Miggins down the road because I've been made to want him to succeed. In fact it often feels a bit disappointing when the story kicks off, I get so invested in the mundane life.

I guess you do need to get me onside quite quickly, but it doesn't need to be with urgency or action.

I've seen some people complaining that Senlin Ascends took a long time to get going. I think they were reading a different story to me. Yes, maybe it takes a while for the action to ramp up, but the story is about Senlin becoming a different kind of person. The "slow" part is half the story.

Offline Justan Henner

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Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #6 on: February 10, 2017, 05:15:03 PM »
I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer this question. I've DNF'd maybe 5 books in my life and it's never been so much a conscious effort to say, "no not anymore", as it was I just stopped picking it up after a certain point. It's usually not a matter of poor quality, just a lack of interest in continuing compared to my other hobbies. I'd say it usually happens well after the 40% mark.

Ha. One book I didn't finish b/c it had to go back to the school library before summer break, and I was too lazy to go pick it up from the "grown up" library. If anyone can tell me which star wars book Han Solo learns that
Spoiler for Hiden:
his home system was designed by ancient aliens
I'm about 2.5 books into that series.

Offline Ryan Mueller

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Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #7 on: February 10, 2017, 06:54:04 PM »
It varies by book and by a book's reputation. I rarely DNF books, and most of the time when I do, I get back to them later when I'm in the right mindset to read them.

But I'm not a very picky reader. If it's written competently and shows signs of being a good story, I'll read it.

Offline gennerik

Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #8 on: February 10, 2017, 10:17:18 PM »
Quite a few of LE Modesitt's Recluce books begin with long periods where the main character is just going about their life. Making furniture, or whatever. He writes it in such a way that I care what is happening. I want the guy to make a good cupboard for Mrs Miggins down the road because I've been made to want him to succeed. In fact it often feels a bit disappointing when the story kicks off, I get so invested in the mundane life.

God, his books get me every time.  How many times can one find themselves saying Yeah, you need to make those chairs perfectly! or Don't forget to Order-strengthen the sides of that boiler, that way it'll hold a higher pressure.  The excitement I feel at reading mundane tasks...

But I do agree that his characters are the things that intrigue me in the stories (pretty much all stories).  The action is good, but the characters are the key, and the background is instrumental in understanding and caring about the characters.
Author of Lamentation's Peak
Part-time Dreamer / Full-time Speaker

Offline Peat

Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #9 on: February 10, 2017, 10:27:53 PM »
Five or so pages.

How much of a grab I'm looking for depends on my mood - it can vary from "well clearly they're not awful" to "make me think this is my new favourite ever or gtfo" - but there has to be something. If someone can't provide a hint of something in five pages that I find interesting then I find it safe to assume they don't have it for me.

Generally by something I mean authorial voice. I put a lot of stock in authorial voice and that is something you either get straight away or you don't.

I'd also add there's a few things that anti-grab me. Being plunged straight into action without knowing why I care about the characters, a lot of location hopping, detailed explanations of magic without knowing why I care about the characters using it, and, crucially, an authorial voice I don't like. Particularly when it comes to humour.

Offline ultamentkiller

Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #10 on: February 11, 2017, 12:50:23 AM »
I have zero rules, because I give no chance on a book if it annoys me in any way. Seems boring? Don't care for the character? Slowing down in unexciting ways? Too thick on the cliche? Too one dimentional? DNF.
That happens in the first page, or right into the last few chapters, or right in the middle. For a variety of reasons.

This.

Usually by the end of the first chapter I have a decent idea of whether I'm going to like it, but things change. It has to hold me all the way through, and there's nothing specific that does that.

Offline Lady Ty

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Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #11 on: February 11, 2017, 04:27:55 AM »
Some books will grab me in the first few pages, although probably only once just by a first line - The Crow Road, of course. ;D. If it starts with dialogue and characters they give immediate impression of whether it will be a good or not.

Just as happy with books beginning by world building, often find they don't do any instant grab, but keep me interested for a few chapters, by which time the world is clear, characters appearing and all coming together.

DNFing works the same for me. Often the first couple of pages will kill it straightaway, but others that seem to have potential I will try a few chapters to be sure.
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Offline Nora

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Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #12 on: February 11, 2017, 06:06:36 PM »
The Background: So, on AbsoluteWrite, they have a thread to submit your first three sentences to see if people would keep reading. I've submitted a few selections just to see, and it seems that very few people there find my style of starting a book to be engaging, some even saying that all I'm doing is description.

So, I guess I read your post too fast originally, because I'd glossed over this.

I find it bothersome. I understand that the community at AbsoluteWrite is pretty focused on selling their work, which is fine, but I want to scoff at the limit of three lines, for several reasons I want to expend on here :

In my own work, I tend to have different styles of voices. So, my first three lines can be this :

Quote
Her name is Yuri. It's a boy's name, but she loves it. It was given to her by the man.

Or this :

Quote
Iain Hund, former supernatural homicide detective, now mere magical vandalism inspector, feels the staleness of his car's air like a strangling hand upon his thoughts. He sends a last baleful glare at the wall he has pointlessly stalked for the past eight hours and starts his car to drive back to the station.
Stuffiness is a feature of long stake-outs, he's used to it; but somehow knowing you're sacrificing so many hours of your ever-shortening-life not to catch a murderer but a vandal whose only offence is to paint fine magical art on the city walls has a way of speeding the apparition of glumness.

See the difference? But if you were willing to read on so much for three sentences, then why not read more in the one with short sentences?
The second story has 108 words in its 3 first sentences. If I select the first 108 words of the first story, you get this instead :

Quote
Her name is Yuri. It's a boy's name, but she loves it.
It was given to her by the man. The first thing she owned that no one could take away, and the first man Yuri had met with more ability than her.
He'd taken her off the streets, cared for her, taught her to rein in her powers, and lots of new skills.

He'd turned her world upside down.

Your imagination is your limit Yuri, he'd say, if you want a necklace of water, make it so, if you want the drops to fall to the sky, make their up into down! And he was right.

Gives you way more food for thought and information, doesn't it?
Which one do you think was more gripping? 

Now, before I go on and quote the first lines of world famous authors whose work I adore, can we agree that maybe these people did not write extra silly first three sentences just to get noticed? If the beginning was edited, it was probably to make it better. But though beginnings have to be catchy, some books don't pick up until much later on, and in such case, the editors going through their slush piles have only two things to base themselves on : The blurb you provided and the quality and catchiness of your prose.
If they think your plot is interesting and your prose is promising, it's likely they'll give you the time of day and read a couple of chapters. At least so the editors say themselves, as far as my reading of their blogs tells me.

Now :

Quote
"Edith!" said Margaret, gently, "Edith!"

But, as Margaret half suspected, Edith had fallen asleep. She lay curled up on the sofa in the back drawing-room in Harley Street, looking very lovely in her white muslin and blue ribbons.

Yaaawn! The catchiness of the opening of North and South by Gaskell is questionable. Edith is not even a secondary character, and is introduced more than anything to establish the character of her friend and cousin, our main girl Margaret. This book is one of my favourite, and still widely read and beloved, 300 years after it was written (aim high!)

Much more punchy is the start of Pride and Prejudice :

Quote
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune,
must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

"My  dear  Mr.  Bennet,"  said  his  lady  to  him  one  day,  "have  you  heard  that  Netherfield
Park is let at last?"

That is bread and butter, writing wise. Look at that prose and content! She starts with a witty remark, tongue in cheek, that sums up the entire plot of the story, which is about a bunch of sisters marrying a bunch of single dudes in possession of good fortunes. But then she goes deeper into the snark, delving into the more mercenary views of the mothers (typically), who are pretty obsessed about marrying their daughters to the best suitors. It also establishes the grounds for what comes immediately after, a lady asking her husband if he's heard that the local empty-castle-property just got a new renter.
So we can immediately guess that the new neighbours are rich bachelors, and so it is!

Austen hints at the entire plot, and establishes subtly the cliches that will be delved into. Gaskell alludes to nothing in her start.

A different approach, with the first line of the long series of overly-descriptive prehistorical novels by Jean M Auel :

Quote
The naked child ran out of the hide-covered lean-to toward the rocky beach at the bend in the small river. It didn’t occur to her to look back. Nothing in her experience ever gave her reason to doubt the shelter and those within it would be there when she returned.

That's quite smart isn't it? You know you're reading prehistorical fiction, but you get immediately worried because the last line is pretty ominous given that we're following a naked child.
What's less funky though, is that if you've picked up the book after getting caught by the blurb, you already know this :
Quote
A natural disaster leaves the young girl wandering alone in an unfamiliar and dangerous land until she is found by a woman of the Clan, people very different from her own kind. To them, blond, blue-eyed Ayla looks peculiar and ugly--she is one of the Others, those who have moved into their ancient homeland; but Iza cannot leave the girl to die and takes her with them. Iza and Creb, the old Mog-ur, grow to love her, and as Ayla learns the ways of the Clan and Iza's way of healing, most come to accept her. But the brutal and proud youth who is destined to become their next leader sees her differences as a threat to his authority. He develops a deep and abiding hatred for the strange girl of the Others who lives in their midst, and is determined to get his revenge.

So yeah, reading the first two/three chapters are just garnishing things that were deeply detailed in the back of the book.

Grass, by Sheri S Tepper, one of my hands down favourite Sci-fi :

Quote
  Grass!

      Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses — some high, some low, some feathered, some straight — making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quiet at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were.

How descriptive is that for you?
But you know the saddest? You're missing these three final sentences to her intro :

Quote
Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.

And that gives a lovely cinch. What aristocrats? These grasses are alien, and yet there are aristocrats? Yep, it's a fascinating book, and Tepper is the mistress of sorcerous descriptions. She has a style and prose that conjures attention and keeps it, yet she does nothing at all beyond painting in a picture in your brain, and make you wonder at the aristocrats' gardens. No characters, no name. Though Grass is the name of the planet, you do not know it.

And now the final blow, Red Dragon, by Harris, the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter, and favourite thriller book of yours truly.

Quote
Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.
Jack  Crawford  looked  at  the  pleasant  old  house,  salt-silvered  wood  in  the  clear  light.  "I  should  have  caught  you  in  Marathon  when  you  got  off  work,"  he  said.

HOW BORING IS THIS.
How many of your forum friends would run right past one of the best crime novel ever written?

How many of them would have decided to jump In Media Res and go with such lines from the second chapter :

Quote
A few neighbors drove by, looking at the house quickly and looking away. A murder house  is  ugly  to  the  neighbors,  like  the  face  of  someone  who  betrayed  them.  Only  outsiders and children stare.

or

Quote
Graham switched on the lights and bloodstains shouted at him from the walls, from the mattress and the floor. The very air had screams smeared on it. He flinched from the noise in this silent room full of dark stains drying.

Those are iconic lines of the style of Harris, at least in Red Dragon, and still some in Silence of the Lambs (book 2, sadly featuring a different MC). He looses it almost completely 20 years later when he writes Hannibal.
But anyway, such punchlines are what your buds intent to start their stories with. Good on them, they'd probably catch the eye of someone, but could they make a story as satisfying, starting so late?

@Lanko, in Slow starts, answered me using Harris too, and said about these first two chapters :

Quote
Beginnings are important to hook readers? Absolutely, but they're also about introducing characters, settings and more importantly, situations and stakes. So if in media res is getting in the way instead of helping this, then it either needs to go or be adjusted.

I can't talk about your specific piece, but let's use Red Dragon as a medium between us.

The first chapter has Will Graham drinking with Crawford at his beach house. They talk a little, then about the case. Will doesn't want to go, but they need him. Then he talks to Molly about it.
Only on chapter 2 he goes to the crime scene and we have those awesome descriptions.

Is chapter 1 really exhilarating, jumping-out-of-chair chapter? I would say no, but what exactly happens at chapter 1?
There are three characters (Will, Crawford and Molly) that we learn about. The setting helps to learn about Will's mental health too. There's a situation (the murders), a dilemma (to go or not) and choices/stakes (go to avoid more innocent deaths with the risk of alienating your family and risk to yourself).
And these doesn't apply to only Will. Molly has to put up with that. Crawford comes to convince his scarred friend to leave his good life.
So it's not in the middle of the action, but there's a lot shown and being implied.

What if Red Dragon opened with chapter 2? With Will in the Leeds' house? Right at the action, investigating and thinking, etc.
What would we know about him (and the other two)? Would it have the same effect if he just got a phone call from Molly a chapter later and thought about she and the kid? If we only learned how Crawford got Will back much later?
Or did chapter 1 also helped the others to flow more smoothly and not interrupt the case with these things and risk meandering in various directions?

About description, right on the first chapter there are some, even a little info dumpey, but well portrayed, like Will saying to Molly that Crawford was his long time boss and partner ("Well, didn't you know..."), or him describing how hard it is to catch a serial killer (when she doesn't care or like his job), and while it's information and description, also serves as Will trying to make her understand how hard the situation is and why they need him.

I could not agree more. I can only add that Harris' work is a masterpiece of a psychological thriller. You can't start in the middle of the action and backfeed us information on Graham. He's a weird guy, and we need to seize his character, Harris needs to hook us into him. And since he's going to make him regret his decisions very badly, we need to be here to see him commit, so that later on in the book we can savour his undoing with all the weight of its cruelty and brutality.
It's a brilliant book on many levels, not least of all the fact that there is so little gore/jump scare type actions, that you're forced to admire the author, because he really makes you crawl out of your skin without using any of the obvious tools–at all.

If you want a better understanding of what Lanko and I allude to, please feel free to get started on the first few chapters of Red Dragon here : http://embracethemadnessfans.weebly.com/uploads/2/7/5/8/27583023/red_dragon.pdf
(at your own risk, it is what ultimately turned me into a morbid "Fannibal", and now I'm writing dark crime fiction instead of fantasy!)

In conclusion : I would not get my head in a pretzel around your beginning. Beginnings are hard, and you can edit and re-write them when you're done, if you feel like you need it to catch an editor's eye.

But instead I would invite you to train at writing better stories.

You can get help from others to polish your first lines. Getting help to write a whole decent novel is harder, and altogether more work. It's ridiculous to learn how to make great one-liners if you don't make great 50.000 liners. Write more short stories. Your first lines will become better because your stories will become better. You'll pinpoint just where to start, just what to hint at. Or you'll learn not to care.
At the end of the day, I'd pity you if you'd spent it all pulling your hair out over three sentences rather than writing a lot of enjoyable plot and character in action, giving yourself the time and freedom of editing and re-writing. You might get hit by a truck tomorrow, go have fun now.


P.S : I'll indulge and give you these for comparison :

Spoiler for Hiden:
I wrote two short stories for the contest that were re-writes of The Little Red Riding Hood. The stories are divided by many months, and ended in interesting circumstances :

Quote
The smell is pungent. Rank.
The darkest side of organic, decay brought on by violence.

This is the first three sentences of the first one, written in April 2015. It was my second attempt at a short story, ever.

Quote
If you are brave, and venture in the world's wilderness, you can cross the Wolf's path and marvel at his tall shoulder, his golden eyes, and the thickness of his pelt. But the Wolf of tales is no simple Canis Lupus.
He is the loss of innocence, the end at the end of all roads, night after day, death after birth, he is the moment of change in the cycles of life.

Different style, this is written in may 2016, a whole year and 13 short stories later! Not the same amount of words...
The first was sharing the third place on the podium, with 7 votes (as a beginner I was dazzled, reality caught back up with me soon enough). We were one vote behind the second place.
The second story also shared the third place, and the second place was also shared by two stories, and they were two votes ahead of us. I only had 5 votes.
Even experience, a whole year of actively writing monthly, did not manage to make me do "better" even though I was reworking a well known story (to me).

I find that all fascinating as well because sometimes people don't vote on stuff I find tremendously better than my other works that were more popular.
Sometimes I disagree with people, I guess I enjoy my own writing more than they do in some stories. It's not that bad, after all I still consider myself as learning. *shrug* gotta have some faith in oneself too, the internet offers you the tiniest of sample of people, and many of them are people who have their heads deep in the jar of technicalities and "rules of writing".
Many famous writers never dipped a finger in that, so don't take it all too much to heart.
« Last Edit: February 14, 2017, 11:27:52 AM by Nora »
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Wishy washy lyricism and maudlin unrequited love are my specialty - so said Lady_Ty

Offline Lu Kudzoza

Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #13 on: February 11, 2017, 07:17:54 PM »
The Background: So, on AbsoluteWrite, they have a thread to submit your first three sentences to see if people would keep reading. I've submitted a few selections just to see, and it seems that very few people there find my style of starting a book to be engaging, some even saying that all I'm doing is description.

It got me thinking, in conjunction with the Slow Starts thread here, how long does the average reader give a book? I grew up with Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tolkein, etc. and most of those authors paint the scene initially. There's no hook like many of the modern books, and I feel that that's how I write as well. I set the scene, and gradually lead into the characters, and let the story unfold at a slower pace. But, is that too slow now?

I'm reading the book for a story. So I prefer books that start with the story. My favorite books start in a personal moment with a character that is followed by the scene, setting, and eventually the world unfolding around him/her as the story progresses. If the book starts with a description of the setting I'll skim (because I'm a generous fellow) looking for where the story starts.

I suspect most people couldn't care less about the setting or what the character looks like (yet), so starting there  will be boring to them. My guess is that the reaction you're getting from your first three lines is because it isn't personal.




Offline cupiscent

Re: How long do you give a book to grab you?
« Reply #14 on: February 13, 2017, 02:53:53 AM »
As an exercise in situ... I have just started a new book. At barely fourteen pages in, I'm considering not going further, primarily for reasons of style. The author's prose is wordy, nearly florid, which isn't a problem so much as the fact that it's also opaque--I'm getting confused about what's going on. And since it's a thrown-in-at-the-deep-end worldbuilding-ahoy sort of opening, additional confusion is really not good. I'm going to persevere, because I haven't even made it out of the opening story point really, but I'm not really enthusiastic about it, so the book's going to have to get much better, and fast, to convince me to stick around. (I might be more enthusiastic about things were the plot and characters so far unveiled more to my general liking, but I'm finding them a little same-old.)