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Writing Wednesday: Slow Starters

September 28, 2011

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…

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10 Comments
  1. Ugh. I started Life of Pi a few years ago and never got past the first chapter. So boring. I’ve said I want to pick it up again, but never have. I don’t know why I feel obligated. I should give it away.

    • Just fast forward to page 150 or so when the boat sinks. You’re not missing a lot before that.

  2. I’m reading a really boring book from a self-pubbed author. After 200-pages it still is not going anywhere and it’s a thousand pages long. I’ve decided to speed read the rest of it basically burning through 100-pages in 15 minutes by skimming. I did that last night and all that I gathered from the 100-pages is two dudes played cards and talked about stuff and then they went to a city and were concerned at how people seemed to suffer and then there was this woman who wanted to use her powers but she had all kinds of moral choices about that and when she finally did use her powers they didn’t work anyway. Yep…100 pages.

  3. I’m still undecided about how I feel about this whole issue in books and writing. I’m okay with a slow start as long as what’s going on pertains to what is going to go on, if you catch my drift. Many, many of my favorite books have a slow start.
    I think the real issue is agents. Agents have to read a lot of crap, so they want to be hooked on the first page. But that’s agents, that’s not people. Except that because it is agents, it’s becoming people, too. But it’s a falsity.
    And, really, I usually hate books that are wrapped around that first page hook, because it distorts that story.

    I chose a slow start for my book even knowing that it would be difficult for me to get an agent with a slow opening. That was, of course, back when I still thought I wanted an agent. However, the thing that really convinced me that my opening was right for the book is that the kids I’ve been reading it to love the opening. Not that it’s a book -for- kids, but I wanted it to approachable by kids and adults, and the kids love it.

    What it really comes down to is that it needs to be well written. It doesn’t matter how it opens if it’s well written. Let your “voice” be your hook, not opening with some fabricated action scene to get an agent to look at your work.

  4. I think slow starts are only a problem if the reader loses interest. But it is all subjective. If I tried to describe the plot to Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon it might sound as boring as anything ever written – especially considering that it’s 1000 pages of digressions, all piled on top of each other. But I finished the book convinced that it was a work of genius. And plowed through it pretty quickly at that.

    I think the real issue is figuring out when an opening is necessary. Figuring out when the story really begins (dammit, I wanted to italicize the word ‘really’ there. Can I do that?) is one of the bigger struggles even well established authors make. I’ve heard more than one story about a book that, after it was purchased by a house, that they immediately threw out the opening chapters.

  5. Interesting, as always. I have a novel I wrote that a publisher requested and then they read it and sent it back with a lot of blather about interesting this and that, but the thing they said is “nothing really happens until the third chapter,” and they suggested that was a problem. I’ve been editing that, off and on, for about two years, and since it’s told in not-quite-chronological order, I solved that problem by reversing chapters 1 and 3.

    But slow starts are a problem only if the writing doesn’t hook you. I tried reading “Dragon Tattoo” and couldn’t get into it and gave up. I read “Foucault’s Pendulum,” which I think has NOTHING happening, for a long time, but I was hooked even though that was way more difficult to read, because the writing was good. (Eco, though, started it off pretty well.)

    I think part of your problem with “Pi” is that the book was mis-sold; I, too, thought it was about a kid in a liferaft with a tiger and would have read it based on that. That was probably marketing, though: the book was called “The Life Of Pi,” wasn’t it? So the author can’t really be blamed for telling Pi’s life. “Self” sounds like far more of a misleading storyline, if that doesn’t happen until 1/2-way through. But again, it might be marketing more than anything.

    I think of slow starts, like I said, in terms of “Dragon Tattoo.” I know what the book is about, roughly; but the first 75 pages or so are some introduction about a guy getting sent a picture of a flower or something, then the main character getting sentenced to jail — good enough, so far, I was hooked — and then it goes into what feels like 100 years of backstory about how the main character got thrown into jail. I assume that eventually played into the storyline, but I knew it WASN’T the main storyline and so I got annoyed. It was as if Tolkien had dropped “The Silmarillion” halfway through “Fellowship of the Ring.”

    With Michael’s comment, I think the bigger problem is the feeling that the writing isn’t going anywhere, and isn’t worth reading on its own at all. The 100 pages of card game might have been condensed up, if not important to the plot, or it should have been more imaginatively told.

    • I think it would have been better if Pi’s life had been more interesting. Like I said though I felt I’d already seen it before. Whereas a tiger on a lifeboat I hadn’t really seen before so that was far more interesting.

      The thing with “Self” though is you can’t have that transformation at the start of the book. Woolf also did it in “Orlando” about halfway through because first you have to establish the character as a man or else the transformation won’t mean much. I gave it six chapters in my recent story, which I think was enough to establish him as a manly-man before we have him becoming a girl. It’s like with Lord of the Rings you couldn’t just start out with the quest or it wouldn’t make much sense; you have to establish what it is they’re questing for.

  6. Excellent post, RM. I rarely give up on a book. I’ll give it fifty pages at least (I think your 150 is generous). I think it depends on the audience. Literary always seems like it takes a bit to get started, but I don’t think you could get away with it in YA, which I read a lot. Most teens aren’t going to stick with anything that doesn’t pull them in by page five.

  7. @Lisa — I disagree. Most people discover The Lord of the Rings as teenagers, and there’s certainly nothing that would be classified as a hook within the first 5 pages. Or the first 50. Well, maybe 50. I read tons and tons of books when I was a teen that have slow starts.

  8. @ Andrew – I admit I was exaggerating with the five page comment. I think my daughter might give it ten ; )

    I’ve never been a fantasy reader and that’s probably why I couldn’t finish Lord Of The Rings (although I do recall the opening being agonizingly slow). My son has read it twice though, so maybe it’s a difference between male and female readers. And I realize that’s not exclusive as I know many female fantasy fans. I also know this generation of teens has an awful lot of things distracting them. They can’t seem to focus on one thing at a time.They text while they’re on Facebook and read while watching TV. Sometimes I wonder if anything is sinking in. It takes a lot to keep them interested.

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