Monday, March 30, 2009

Judging a book by its beginning

(cross-posted belatedly from Blue Rose Girls. Read original post and comments here.)

I read the Printz medal-winning book Jellicoe Road a few weeks ago. We don't review books on this blog, but my experience reading this book make me think twice about the way I review manuscripts, so I thought it was worth discussing. First of all, let me say that I absolutely loved the book. I thought it was profound, moving, intricately crafted, and layered. It made me sob, and those of you who know me, know that I'm a sucker for books that make me cry.

BUT, I spent the first 100 pages confused. I found it extremely hard to follow, with too many characters to keep track of. For some reason, I kept thinking it was a dystopian fantasy. It took me a while to realize that it was set in contemporary Australia! And then I spent the next 50-100 pages irritated by the main character. I know, right? Not exactly a glowing review. And yet I loved this book! The writing was beautiful, and I stuck with it, and I'm so glad that I did, because the second half was so fantastic, I forgave the issues I had with the beginning. And, in fact, I understood better the reason why the beginning was set up the way it was.

But I realized that if this had been submitted to me, I would have probably declined it, because when I review novels, I generally make up my mind in the first 30-50 pages. If I'm pretty sure it's a pass, I will skip to the end to see if it ends on a really powerful note, but it's hard to say in this case if skipping to the end would have changed my mind. In my first year or so as an editorial assistant, I actually read through every submission all the way through. Sure, I may have skimmed, but I had the time and interest to get to the end. But I came to realize that I rarely if ever changed my mind about a book after making up my mind in the beginning. I also started getting more novel submissions and was unable to read the entire manuscript and still keep up with the reading pile. (I should say that if I'm liking a book, I'll read the whole thing.)

So, what made me stick with the book in this case? The fact that it was a Printz winner was a reason--I knew that it must end powerfully for it to have won over a committee of librarians. Knowing that the author was well-respected played a role, too. Plus the fact that I was reading it for a book group and started it early enough to have time to finish it, of course!

I was talking about my experience with this book with an agent last week, telling her that because of the nature of the business, I might have a passed on a book that I ultimately loved, and she thought for a moment and said, "Well, I suppose that's where a good agent comes in." The agent can advise the editor to stick with a book, and if the editor trusts the agent, she will. It's true. There are certain agents I trust, and know that they would never send something unworthy. I give the submissions they send me a little more attention and patience than others sent by agents I don't know, don't know well, or know but don't generally trust their taste. Other readers at the book group said they stuck with it because colleagues had told them how amazing the book was, and they trusted their advice.

But I must say, ultimately, I think Jellicoe Road is the exception to the rule. There's a reason why so many conferences have first-page critiques--because it's so crucial to hook your reader from the very beginning. I won't be drastically changing the way I review submissions, but then again, I may be a little more patient with certain novels under very special circumstances.


Just a reminder that tomorrow night I will be on a panel at the New School on getting published, along with Ben Tomek, marketing associate, Reader’s Digest Children’s Publishing; and Anna Olswanger, literary agent, Liza Dawson Associates. It's only $5 (free for students, faculty, and alumni), so if you're in the NY area, come on out! More info here.


And finally, the winning name for my segments on the books I edit is...

Beyond the Book!

I wrote everyone's name who voted on a scrap of paper and drew one winner, and that lucky person is...Lindsey, who was the 5th commenter on this post. Congratulations! Email me at and let me know which Little, Brown book you would like.

Thanks everyone for voting, and tune in next Monday for...
Beyond the Book: The Curious Garden.

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