Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Anatomy of First

By Melissa Fox

First love. First kiss. First steps. First child. First home. First impressions.

They all have something in common: the excitement, anticipation, of being first. Unsullied. New.

In the book world, so much hinges on that first. First book by an author, first book in a series, first time with a particular genre. All of which determines whether or not you'll keep reading, not just that book but -- narrowly -- others by that author or -- broadly -- others in that genre.

What is it, though, that makes a good first? It's obviously different for every individual, but these are some of the elements that make a good first book experience for me.

A good cover: Like a good first impression, a good cover can make or break that first. If you know nothing about the story or about the author, the cover can draw you in or repel you. Think about it: how often have you been drawn to the colorful, interesting, beautiful, catchy cover? It doesn't matter if you liked the book afterward; the cover is what draws you in.

Good jacket flap copy: For me, a consummate jacketflap reader, having a good description on the dustjacket (or the back) is essential. I want something that will whet my appetite without giving too much away. Something that will give me a small sample of the flavor of the book. Something that will let me know what this book is about, and give me a reason to buy it or check it out, and spend time with it.

First sentence: Granted, it's not always important, though I have picked up books on the strength of the first sentence alone. (I Capture the Castle comes to mind.) But the first sentence is something special. It sets the tone of the book, raises (or lowers) expectations, draws you into the world that the author has created. While I don't think the first sentence can make or break a book, it's certainly something that will help (or hinder) your overall impression of the story.

But enough of the first impressions. Reading a book is like meeting a person: you spend valuable time with these characters, this author. What makes a book something that you want to read again -- immediately start over once you've finished it? Or read the rest of the books in the series? Or branch out to other authors who write in a particular genre? Or read everything else that author has written, waiting with baited breath for their newest book?

Again, it's individual for each reader, but these are some of the things I look for:

Engaging plot, characters, story: This, to me, is what really makes or breaks a first book. If I'm taken away into another place or time, if I can escape for a few moments into the author's world, and find interesting or enjoyable or captivating or challenging characters there doing interesting or enjoyable or captivating or challenging things, then I'm hooked. I like it when authors do something different with a familiar genre; it makes me want to go out and read other authors to compare. But I also like it when the comfortable and familiar are well done.

Writing: Yeah, I'll forgive a lot when it comes to writing; I'm not one who will love a book primarily for the beautiful/elegant/picturesque writing. But it does matter, even to me (more to some others). If a book is clunky, then it makes it hard to enjoy the characters, plot and story. Granted, I also think that sometimes exceptionally beautiful/elegant/picturesque writing--with the result that every paragraph just seems carefully fitted into place--also can make it hard to enjoy the rest of the book.

Right time, right frame of mind: More than anything, I think this has everything to do with the success of a first book. The author worked, sweated to create this story and get it into your hands and you're having a bad day so you don't like the book. Or conversely, you are at a point in your life where the book hits you just exactly right, and you're in love. It's not always the case, of course, but there's a reason many readers are so fickle. Why else would we say, "What do I feel like reading today?"

Curiosity factor: Sometimes, especially when you're trying something new, it's because you're curious. You've heard about the author and want to sample some of his or her work. You're interested in the genre or subject matter. How interested you are in what that author is presenting has a lot to do with how you react to the book. If it's something you're longing to know about or be exposed to, you'll forgive a lot more than if it's something you've been assigned. And the curiosity factor has another side: if everything falls into place, and you love the book you've just read, you're propelled to seek out more. Whether it be the other books by that author, other books in the same genre, or simply the next in the series, you've been made curious by what you've just read.

And that's the best first of all.

No comments: