It’s recently come to my attention that I’m no longer in school. Well, not exactly. I know that I’m done with school, but deep within my brain, I’ve got this ongoing feeling that I need to finish reading a book even if I‘m not particularly fond of it.
Case in point: Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. I’m not going to review the book or Chabon as a writer. Wonder Boys was neither good nor bad, but rather lukewarm. It just didn’t slam me against the wall. I’ve got three other Chabon books on my shelf, and I’m hoping that at least one of them will be baited just right for this fish to take a bite. What got me to put down Wonder Boys was when I realized I was on page 100. I was still waiting for the story to kick in, feeling like I was still in the middle of a big opening act.
You know how they suggest putting a hook into the first couple of pages to grab your reader’s attention? Well, I don’t fully subscribe to that. It puts too much pressure on me as a writer to try and get those first pages going with the energy of the opening scene in a Bond movie. Not every story can do that, nor would you necessarily want them to. If every story started that way, the opening punch takes on a formulaic vibe. The writer might sit down at his desk and think, “Oh, my god! This story is doomed to suck sphincter because there isn’t a thunderous cannon shot in the first paragraph!“
Readers and writers, take heed: your story should be off the ground by the 100th page. Some of you might think that’s a huge margin of error. In the case of Wonder Boys, that’s about a third of the book. Okay, I get that. You don’t want to wait until such a large portion of the story passes before realizing it’s just not your thing. Some stories like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea are simply too short for that hundred-page mark to apply.
Then amend it. Maybe I gave Wonder Boys a hundred pages because I was truly holding on to hope that I would eventually grab hold of me. The hundred-page mark is probably best for those really long books on your nightstand like The Lord of the Rings or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The Count of Monte Cristo. For the smaller and medium-sized books that top off at a few hundred pages, the first ten to twenty percent should give you plenty of time to figure out if it’s a story you’d want to stick with to the end.