Survey Says….what…about hooking readers?

In preparation for a couple of workshops I will be teaching in 2010 on how to strengthen the opening of a novel (Better Beginnings), I am conducting an informal survey here at blog de Ramona. Here is the question:

– How much time are you, the reader, willing to give an author to capture your attention? – 

A.   ONE LINE. If the first line doesn’t grab me, it’s going right back on the shelf.

B.   ONE PARAGRAPH. I’ll read a half page or so before giving up or going forward.

C.   ONE CHAPTER. Come on, every book deserves at least one chapter from a reader.

D.   THREE CHAPTERS. If the premise/set up seems promising, I’ll give it a sporting chance to really grab me.

E.   HALF THE BOOK. If I’m hooked at the start, but find myself yawning in the great wasteland of Act II, I’ve fought the good fight for the author.

F.   THE WHOLE THING. If I am drawn in at the beginning, I read to the end, whether it is brilliant or bitter.

G.   OTHER.  (You’ll have to provide your own clarifiying sentence, because I think I covered all the viable possibilities in A-F, but you never know.)

To “vote,” please post A, B, C, D, E, F or G in a comment, and add whatever thoughts, ideas, or suggestions you’d like. If there’s a book that has a really great hook that you’d care to mention, please do so.

If you prefer to remain anonymous, email your comment to me at ramonadef@yahoo.com and I will add your thoughts to the final count.

I’ll tally up responses and report on it later. Vote once and…that’s all.

Thanks for playing!

Ramona

36 thoughts on “Survey Says….what…about hooking readers?

  1. I vote for B but I won’t read that far if I see the first sentence is not grammatical, if the page has more than one !, a word in all caps or jumps back and forth between italics and regular font.

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  2. I’m somewhere between D and E, unless the author totally jumps the shark in the beginning. For me that would be if the mythology is not established within the novel’s ‘world’, or the rules of that mythology are quickly and conveniently broken.

    Another pet peeve – if mid-way in everyone just sits around and talks and the author has forgotten to actually have the characters doing something.

    in the latter, a good example of having one’s cake and eating it too, would be Sex & The City, (TV series), where the action is interspersed with the girls meeting at the coffee shop for a recap.

    Just my 2 cents.

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  3. I vote for E although occasionally I’ll go through the whole book even if I’m not too into it. Once in awhile, I’ll quit after 3 chapters or less if I really don’t like the characters.

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  4. G
    I always try to give 50 pages. However style has become ALL important. Bad style, then after a few pages I’m done.
    On the other hand, let me catch you in bad information (as a travel agent I am not forgiving about incorrect information regarding airport procedures, airline procedures, travel documents or ticketing information) so I’ll quit the minute I see an author faking it.
    Patg

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  5. Somewhere between D and E. If it’s totally horrible, I give up after 3 chapters. If it has some redeeming value and I really WANT to like it, I keep going. But if I reach the middle and I start thinking “life is too short and I have too many other books too read,” I give up.

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  6. Great idea for a survey!

    My answer is B. Life’s too short. Unless, as Warren says, the first sentence is in italics, in which case, I give up immediately.

    Furthermore, if someone sends me a book to blurb, and the first sentence needs to:

    A. Make sense.
    B. Be grammatically correct.
    C. Have a little magic.

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  7. I am probably in the 50 page range. However, will stop reading or start skimming to verify that the story is falling apart and does not live up to its beginning. I also think it depends on the genre as to how far I will read.

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  8. B, the first paragraph, unless I know the author then I’ll give them more leeway. But if the author is unknown to me, I’m less likely to give them much slack.Thought I’ve been known to toss an author I like if they don’t grab me by three chapters.

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  9. G. If I go to a bookstore or another place that sells books, then I won’t usually have enough time to read more than a chapter, unless the chapters are short.I’m usually a quick reader.But I don’t stay very long due to other obligations, even though I would like to stay longer. It doesn’t take very long to get hooked on a book. Usually, its either the title, the cover, or the length of the book (the thicker, the better) that attracts me. Many books attract me, fiction or non-fiction. Heck, I even find dicitonaries and blank journals appealing. I don’t have time to pick up everything that appeals to me and read every item, one by one. I’d be there for days, maybe a week. Most books I pick up, I love it after the first line or two. When it comes to being a very avid reader, there is a downside however. For the past year, I have bumped into some books I didn’t enjoy very much. It had all started with “The Red Leather Diary” by Lily Koppel. The storyline sounded interesting, until I read the first 8-10 pages. As soon as you know it, you could of caught me reenacting nazi traditions. You know, since Nazis used to burn books they didn’t like, which were books that expressed beliefs different than theirs. But if I dislike certain books, then its not because of beliefs or anything related to the joke I just made. It’s usually because of the way its written. However, for me, disliking a book, a story, or other things related to literature is rare. That’s why my English grades are so high, thank goodness. 🙂

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  10. If you’re talking about your average 10-books-a-year reader, then I’d say three chapters is good enough for most of us.

    Of course there are those who never read in their spare time. For those you need to get them on the first syllable.

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  11. If I’m looking at books in a bookstore, the answer is B. Once I get the book home and begin reading, it’s somewhere between D and E. Once in awhile I’ll keep reading even if I hate the book, just to analyze what went wrong.

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    • Joyce, that’s a very interesting comment, about analyzing what went wrong in a story gone bad. I do this, too–and then I start thinking of ways to “fix” it.

      My pet peeve is when a character does something completely out of character, or absurdly dangerous, to drive the plot forward. Grrr.

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  12. Of the choices, C – but really it’s more like 2-3 pages. But WHAT it is that grabs me varies by book. It could be great writing, a compelling voice or character, or something surprising and intriguing is happening.

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  13. Between B and C. Like some other commenters, if it’s an author I know and like, it’s an E or F.

    If it’s a brand new author, between B and C.

    EXCEPT – if I can tell from the book jacket or the first couple of paragraphs that it’s going to be gory or involve KidJep, I won’t read it even if my best friend writes it.

    Interesting survey – I’ll be interested to see the results.

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  14. Another by email:

    “I’ve heard it’s the first 5 pages, but I’ll give it a whole chapter.

    If the first paragraph grabs me, I’ll give it a whole lot more time.

    Have you read Harlan Coben’s No Second Chance? That man knows how to begin a book.”

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  15. Another by email:

    “As a reader, I will give a book 75-100 pages before I give up on it, and even then I’ll riffle ahead to see if it improves. I’m not polite with books. I break their spines, dog-ear their pages, skip parts that bore me and sometimes go to the end to see if it’s worth my time getting there. But I do respect writers, and I don’t give up on one easily.”

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  16. D is about right for me.
    However (G), If I’m unsure after a few chapters about whether to continue or not, I will often jump to the end. Based on the conclusion/wrapup, I’ll decide whether to continue or give it up.

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  17. First off, I want to like the books I select to read. I take time in the selection process, because I don’t want to bring home a book and then discover that it is not one I want to read. Therefore, where ever I am — library, book shop, used book shop. jumble sale — I will read the jacket copy, the first page or two, a few random pages and the author bio. Really, if I’m interested in the subject matter, then the only thing that will drive me off is clumsy, poor or boring writing. Well two: I do not tolerate gratuitous violence to animals. So after saying all that, after I bring the book home:

    E. HALF THE BOOK. At the very least.

    but most likely

    F. THE WHOLE THING. If I am drawn in at the beginning, I read to the end, whether it is brilliant or bitter.

    G. OTHER. There are some books that are a challenge — not because of bad writing, poor fact checking, or botched plots. The writing many times is brilliant, the research perfection and the story and plot intriguing, but the book is still a challenge because the author has taken a risk and tried something exquisitely ambitious and perhaps impossible to achieve, but the author has pushed himself/herself to the limits of his/her abilities and often beyond in the attempt. “Hawkesmoor” by Peter Ackroyd is a good example of such a book. I read it three times in order to understand it fully and I will read it again.

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  18. Another email:

    “The three things most likely to turn me off at the beginning of a book
    are:

    First–a first chapter written from the POV of a victim who dies at the end of it;
    Second–too many characters introduced too soon so I can’t keep them straight;
    Third–an unlikeable protagonist.

    Bad writing is also a deterrent, but I’ll sometimes read several chapters before I decide I can’t stand it any longer.”

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  19. E for me. I’ll give it a good try but once I start skipping paragraphs I know I’m done. After that it’s a quick scan to see if anything good turns out but it’s on to the next one. I used to read every book but that changed a few years back and I’m comfortable with moving on.

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  20. B. I read several books a week (including library books) and buy perhaps 20 a year. I look at the first page…if I have doubts I’ll flip thru and look at a paragraph here and there later on. But the voice or setting has to grab me.

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  21. B to C

    I will definitely read more than one paragraph before giving up on a book but one chapter is a bit much unless the chapters are very short. Call me a “B” if you really feel the need to use your categories.
    By the way, I am less tolerant when it comes to non-fiction. I skip any intro/preface etc and look at the first paragraph. If I’m not hooked, the book goes back on the shelf.
    I expect a fiction prolog to be very “hooky” and not an info dump. I’m more patient if the fiction book begins with a standard chapter.

    SherryT

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  22. Between C and D. Flipping through in the store, I only give it the first page, but if I’ve bought it, or if it’s written by someone I know, or if it’s recommended somewhere, I’ll give it at least the first chapter.

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  23. B, D, or E, depending on how awful the book is, and my mood. I prefer books that don’t necessarily slam you into things from page one, so I like to give at least a chapter or two. But if the first page is just horrid, I won’t read on.

    There are books I’ve plugged through several chapters of because someone ensured me it would get better and been pleasantly surprised that I ended up LOVING the book, so I will often read pretty far. But I’ve also abandoned many books after reading half-way through–I will not finish something all the way if it hasn’t grabbed me by the middle no matter what.

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  24. D – I don’t pick up many books these days that I don’t already know something about. Maybe I’ve already read the author, or the book was recommended to me. Therefore, I’m willing to give the author several chapters to wow me with something – characterization, plot, story, writing style, or just an idea. Recommendations might be from friends, online lists, Amazon or B&N rec’s or Paperbackswap rec’s. When I browse for a new book, I expect the back cover to hook me first, then I will look at the first page. If that passes the test, I’ll open to a random page and see if the author is consistent and the voice hasn’t changed. After that the book usually gets read, but definitely gets three chapters. If I liked it, the author goes into my pool of author’s to read and I’ll likely read more. That’s a one-time deal, though. If your first book is just fair, I won’t try again unless the next book comes highly recommended, and I’ll be reluctant to try even then.

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  25. I just had another thought. One surefire way to get me to drop a book is to have the author proverbially drop a wrench in the works, adding in something so out-of-the-blue that it changes the flavor of the book. For example, I finally got around to reading the highly recommended fantasy trilogy by Guy Gavriel Kay which begins with The Summer Tree. In book two, the author introduces the Arthurian Legend into the series and I put down a well-written book, with decent characters and a decent plot.

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