Writing Wednesday: Slow Starters
Last month I finally finished Life of Pi by Yann Martel. That was one of those books where when I heard about it back in 2002 or 2003 or so I thought I should read it at some point, but only after everyone had stopped caring about it, much as I did with The Da Vinci Code, A Million Little Pieces, and The Lovely Bones and might do again with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. So basically Life of Pi was in the back of my mind for about eight years. Finally I saw it at Bargain Books for $3.50 and figured that was cheap enough to finally read it.
I started to regret that after plodding through the first 150 pages. Gawd, is it so boring! The book is supposed to be about a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger, but the opening 150 pages are about Pi and his family, who own a small zoo in India. Pi tries different religions (Christian, Hindu, and Islam) like an Indian version of “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret.” That part reads like a poor man’s Salman Rushdie.
I began to wonder, “Where the hell is the fucking tiger?” That’s what we were promised damn it! I mean it’s right there on the cover: a boy in a lifeboat with a tiger! So get to it already, Martel!
Finally his dad decides they should go to Canada and they get on a boat with a bunch of animals. Then the boat sinks. Except the tiger isn’t even there at first! There’s a hyena, zebra, and orangutan in the boat with Pi. So then I began worrying that it was all a trick and really there was no tiger. But after another 75 pages or so the tiger shows up. He’s been hiding beneath a tarp. In a lifeboat with 100 square feet. With three other animals and a human. I’m suspending disbelief big time!
The hyena kills the orangutan and zebra and then the tiger kills the hyena, which finally leaves us with the boy and the tiger. Finally! I mean the book is like half over and we’re finally getting to the point of the thing.
Now the thing is, the same thing just about happens with Martel’s previous novel, “Self.” That was an update of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” where a man spontaneously becomes a woman. In “Self” too you wait and wait for it to happen and then about halfway through the book–after a lot of pointless crap about him going to boarding school and carrots in people’s eyes and whatnot–he becomes a she, though we still have no idea what his/her name is.
You know what makes me furious and jealous? This is exactly what agents tell you NOT to do. Start with an exciting hook! I won’t read on if the first page doesn’t hook me! Blah, blah, blah. I mean Noah Lukeman has fleeced the unsuspecting public with his “The First Five Pages” about all the stuff you have to do in five pages to hook an agent. Does Yann Martel do any of that? NO! So again agents are full of shit.
I mean if we did this the way agents SAY you’re supposed to do it then we’d start with the ship sinking. We’d start with Self turning into a woman. Those are the exciting things and we should start with excitement to pull the reader in, right? Well, apparently not. We wouldn’t blather on for 150-200 pages about other crap first before getting to that.
That was the whole reason why I started “Where You Belong” with the car accident. That was really one of the more exciting parts in terms of action and everyone says you’re supposed to start with exciting parts to hook the reader! If I’d done it Martel’s way I could have gone on for 200 pages without ever getting to the point of the story. Maybe I did to some extent.
Anyway, me being me I don’t always mind a slow start. Well, I do mind it but I’ll put up with it if it leads to something better. Which it does with “Life of Pi.” (But not “Self.” That book was really boring until the rape scene near the end. Start with the rape scene next time!) Also Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” was the same way where the first third to half of the book is all this boring Jane Austen manners crap and then it starts to get to the point of a “rape” and someone being falsely accused and WWII and so forth.
But the thing is, a lot of people won’t. When I read other Amazon reviews for “Atonement” those who gave it 1 star are those who quit in that first 150 pages or so when it was boring Jane Austen manners crap. Those who gave it five stars are people like me who held out until the end.
So even though they don’t practice what they preach, the agents are probably right on this one. You should try to start with something to “hook” the reader, especially if you’re writing genre fiction where the reader might not be as patient as someone who reads literary fiction. (Not to say I’m patient. I’m stubborn. And cheap. Especially if I pay money for a book I want to finish it to try and get my money’s worth.) If it’s someone like my sisters who buy ten books at a time, then they might toss yours aside and go on to the next one if it doesn’t interest them right away.
Did this entry start too slow? Well maybe it at least had a good finish.
Friday: When one part isn’t enough…