Monday

Alchemy

Instant judgment often drives the publishing industry. Studies have shown that readers evaluate books in the bookstore primarily by three actions: they look at the cover, they read the back cover copy, and finally they turn to the first page. If the first few pages don't interest them, most readers will put the book down.

That's not the way I evaluate books. My first two actions are the same. I look at the cover and the back jacket. But then I turn to the middle.

Why? Because I know that every author under the sun reworks his first chapter a gazillion times. Often, the first chapter is not representative of the author's real writing ability or plotting ability. If I turn to the middle and find that the middle of the novel interests me (which usually requires three-dimensional characterization and some originality), I know I can "trust" the author.

The fact remains that most readers judge a book by its cover and its opening chapter. This is a harsh reality of today's publishing world.

Here's another reality: opening chapters won't keep readers coming back for more of an author's novels. What makes readers love a novel so much that they recommend it to anyone who will listen?

A novel's power does not come from its opening chapters. A novel's power comes from its author's ability to develop a story that resonates emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually with its readers. Resonance cannot occur in the first chapters. It's a product of the passage of time in the narrative, the way certain plot events intersect with others, and contrasts between characters. In the end, great resonance also comes from the characters' choices, as well as the consequences of those choices.

A well-crafted, resonant novel with good characterization can keep almost any avid reader's attention, no matter what the genre of the novel. Too often, though, I find that published novels I read don't resonate. The novelist doesn't make scenes "speak" to one another throughout the story to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

The musical analogy for a resonant novel is a chord. A note played by itself is thin. When played in the right relationship to other notes, it forms a chord. Similarly, the "notes" of a novel combine to create something wonderful.

Or, for the more scientifically-minded, novel-writing is alchemy, not chemistry.

I'm not saying that opening chapters don't need a hook. They do. That's reality.

But if I were an editor, I would be looking for novels that have resonance. Those are the novels that build long careers. The true power of a novel can only emerge over time, over the course of the complete narrative.