May. 25th, 2015

lenora_rose: (Roman Gossips)
As stated a few posts ago, I did in fact start sifting through my to-read books by reading the first chapters. It did help, but not as much as I had hoped. (I'm nowhere near done, either, though, so we'll see. But I'm somewhat on hold while I read the finalists for the Hugo awards instead.*)

I found the process more interesting than the individual reviews, though I kept notes for myself on the latter.


1: Almost none of the opening chapters were objectively bad. Opening chapters tend to be one of the parts of a book any writer will have practiced endlessly, far more than endings, so the likelihood of reading a chapter and throwing it aside as Badly Written is very low - even though I covered a genuinely broad range of styles.

I also, in examining this aspect, realized that the last book that I read to the end and basically hated - Shifra Horn's The Fairest Among Women*** - would have been kept based on the first chapter test. Not necessarily with enthusiasm, but not set aside. So a good hint why this is an imperfect tool.



2: Most of them also do set up, very well, the idea what sort of story this will be. Which is much more of a giveaway. Two examples:

- The first book to make my "definitely Not going to keep this one" pile was one where I caught myself starting in on the second chapter, because the breezy quick style was easy to read. The reasons I was not going to continue had to do with the sort of story it promised to be - one where the most sweeping generalizations about male or female behaviour are truisms, the war of the sexes permeates the supposedly loving central relationship, with both man and woman trying to out-alpha one another and use underhanded tricks to get their way, instead of talking. These were irritating me even as the word choices flowed.

- Two fat epic fantasies that promised relatively typical settings and probably overly straight white and male casts. One I'm keeping and will read, one I won't. The difference is:

- the first chapter of one was about the kid about to go off adventuring. Gave an idea of his personality, of his work ethic, and of what and why he's not happy at home (oh, and his parents were neither unloving nor murdered.) And some idea about this world's magic system and its rather elaborate concept, but only as integral to his dilemma and his parents' worldviews.

- The other offered a high stakes event - an assassination attempt from the assassin's pov - that, while it dropped a handful of character details, was mostly there to showcase "here's my cool concept for a magic system and here's how a clever magic-user would manipulate it." And some of the fight description seemed to coin phrases that I could tell I'd be seeing as shorthand in many future fights.

A LOT less happens in the first book's opening chapter, and the political consequences of the second are clearly going to matter hugely in the upcoming plot. But I cared, a little, about the kid in the first book, even though he was just a bored teenager. The weeping assassin and the king were just sorta there.


3: Short books get passes more easily than long books. Which is kind of depressing considering my own tendency to run long. (I also grant that this is countered somewhat in a bookstore by the price-point issue - a short book with the same price tag as a longer book looks like a worse deal). This only applies to books in the middle ground, of course. At least one short book went poof, at least one long one stayed.

Most of the shorter books are kids' books, which tend to a quicker simpler style where more happens fast. I'm wondering if it would be as true with all adult genres. But I know John D. MacDonald's almost-all-dialogue opening is the kind of writing style I'd feel highly daunted to be forced to follow at Jordanesque length.


4: Familiar authors don't necessarily get as much leeway as I'd expected. For the most part, if they're familiar enough that they would get a pass just for who they are, they were already set aside from this project. The ones getting looked at are ones I've enjoyed but not loved before.

The exception was a Charles de Lint, who had failed to get into the auto-read pile because I've been put off some of his growing flaws. But the flaws in the opening chapter (an excess reliance on the cliches of how High School works) are not his traditional flaws. In his case, his style felt so familiar I ended up taking the book off the heap and finishing it when I needed a comfort read and didn't want to reread something. Turned out okay, too - some of the high school cliches got less painful, and while a couple of his other flaws cropped up - inevitable cameos by his beloved characters from other stories - they weren't the ones that had put me off him.


5: UNfamiliar genres get more leeway. Because I know I don't know their bad book warning signs nearly as well as I do fantasy's warning signs. So a less awesome lit-fic or thriller opening might still get a yea. This follows: I AM more picky about certain kinds of fantasy these days even in the bookstore. Some other genres I'm reading to expand my horizons, and that leaves some obligation to try books that don't hit my buttons right away (or at all). I still reserve the right to throw aside anything actually awful, of course.


6: It's rare that I decided yea or nay right after finishing the first chapter. Because at that point I am mentally in the book's style. Unequivocal 10/10 yesses are the only ones to happen immediately, and they're a lot more rare than they feel like they should be (the first one was Doris Egan's The Gate of Ivory). It feels a lot like the way the top 5% of the slush pile has been described: all the actually bad work is filtered out, you're reading "good" and "great" and "we should maybe buy this" -- but the ones that make the editor leap and say "we must buy this!" are still to be treasured.

__________________________

* About which, you can safely skip all the short story nominees and know you didn't miss anything you'll regret. even the ones that are passable stories are not even close to the best of the year. Damn the puppies.**

** If you don't know what this means? It means DRAMA. OH SO MUCH DRAMA. Some people decided the Hugos were getting too Liberal and Feminist and decided to try and Fix that. Google some string like "Sad Puppies Hugo Awards" and you'll no doubt find a few cogent explanations and a lot of drama. Just don't risk looking up Rabid Puppies" until you have the gist of the story.

*** Interesting literary style, and at first I liked having a fat AND beautiful lead. But ultimately it fell into grotesque. And not for the weight.

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