Hook Me in the First Fifteen Pages or Else...

The movie based on The Book Thief was released today. I knew it was coming, and that lit a fire under me, because I am one of the last remaining people I know who hasn't read the blockbuster bestseller.  I knew I better read it before the movie hit the theaters, because I don't know about you, but I refuse to see a movie before I've read the book. When we read, we get to be the casting agent, the set designer, the costumer, the cinematographer  the person who picks the score and the director. Reading is a very creative act. The second we sit down to see someone else's vision of the book in a film, our own vision will be changed. That's a risk I don't want to take.

Both my children read The Book Thief when it came out a few years ago, and both of them fell under its spell. I had to wait my turn for the fat paperback — but I'm used to that. I had to wait for all the Harry Potter books, and for all the Hunger Game books, too. Finally my turn came, and I eagerly started in on the story. A tale narrated by death? About a girl who loved books enough to risk her life? In Nazi Germany? What could be more interesting than that! Except that, for me, it wasn't. After about 15 pages, I put the book down and never picked it up again. I don't know why, exactly. Other books screamed louder from my bedside table, and that was that.

With the moving looming, I gave The Book Thiefanother chance. I figured that I must have been in a bad place the first time. I figured that 2,945 raving customers on amazon couldn't be wrong. And 48 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list is pretty solid evidence of a book with something powerful to offer. I started in again...and after about 15 pages put it down, knowing I wasn't going to pick it up again. Friends will cajole me, challenge me, possibly even bribe me to give it 30 pages or 60 or 120, but the truth is that this book just doesn't speak to me.

This also recently happened to me with The Brief Wondrous LIfe of Oscar Wao. I think  every word Junot Diaz utters about writing** is brilliant, but I can't get through that book. I just can't. 

I think it's important for writers to be very clear that this is what readers in the real world do. We make snap judgments. Something either speaks to us or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, we can't be bothered to keep reading. There are other books, a yoga class at 4, root vegetables to roast for dinner... So who are you speaking to? That's something you better know, whether you're writing a how-to book or a YA novel, a memoir or an epic war story. Your answer can't be vague and mushy, like, "I'm speaking to mothers," or "I'm speaking to teenagers." It has to be specific, clear and well-defined, because otherwise, you'll end up speaking to no one.  

I think it's helpful to try to picture an actual person to be the stand-in for your ideal reader. What other books does this reader love? What is her deepest desire? What cracks her up? What fears keeps her up at night?

Try to write 15 pages that would make it impossible for her to put your book down. 

** Here's a sample of some of my favorite Junot Diaz quotes:

  • “In order to write the book you want to write, in the end you have to become the person you need to become to write that book.
  • “You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”
  • "Any art worth its name requires you to be fundamentally lost for a very long time."