I Can Spot a Favorite in the First Ten Pages

I’m pretty sure I’ve sent a few dozen tweets that start with, “I know I’m only x pages in, but…” followed by some kind of hyperbole about marrying a book. I get a little excited. I’m basically sitting around waiting for a book to sweep me off my feet.

brilliant books

But most of the time, when I make those early predictions, I’m not wrong. It usually only takes me a few pages to tell if a book is going to be a favorite. I’m won over by style and sentence structure and voice, which scream at me from the first page if they’re just right, at often keep pace throughout a novel.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t had books take giant nosedives in the second half or turn me off on a dime. In fact, it happened just recently with C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, which absolutely bowled me over at the start. I was sure it would be one of favorite books this year, but too much fizzled as it went on. (I set out to review it, but Kathryn Schulz’s review in The New Yorker so perfectly captures the novel’s brilliance and flaws that no other writing on it is really necessary.) Those nosedives are pretty few and far between, though, especially when I swoon hard from page one.

So, is this true for most readers? Do you recognize a favorite right away? Could it be a side effect of loving books that are focused on style more than plot (and less likely to change down the road)?

  • Lucky you!!! Now, if you could only sample the first few pages before requesting ARCs, right? The library comes in really handy for this, though!
    And – I usually feel like I can do this really well too, but have had some fails recently that makes me question my abilities (Association of Small Bombs, Sons & Daughters of Ease & Plenty, The Blue Hour). I still really enjoyed Sons & Daughters overall, but the second half was distinctly less amazing than the first.

    • It’s almost a little frustrating because most books I pick up won’t be a favorite, but they may be really good…and I usually know that from the get go. Sometimes it can be hard to motivate myself to keep reading if I’m really itching for something great (especially lately).

  • Like you, I’m a bigger fan of style/writing/mood than plot… but I’m also a sucker for great characters and character development, which take longer to determine if it’s successful or not. I’m not sure if I can spot my favorites right away or not… I’m thinking, actually that I can’t. I also base my lasting opinion on the way I feel when I’ve read that final sentence, as an ending can totally make it or break it for me as well… Hmmm food for thought.

    • Endings are definitely important for me when a novel is more plotty and you’re totally right about the lasting opinion!

  • Writing style is a huge deal for me. I can usually tell if I’ll like the style within a few pages. Books often surprise me, though. A plot twist or character can totally change my opinion of the book in an instant.

    • I don’t often get thrown for a loop with a plot twist in what I read, but when I do it can definitely set a book off course!

  • Jackie Bailey

    The problem is that I need great writing AND a great plot to really love a book. I often find myself raving about a book when I’m a couple of chapters in, but by the end it’s just average. It rarely goes the other way though. I can tell pretty quickly when something isn’t for me!

    • I’m definitely with you on that – I can’t even think of a situation where a book that was so-so had me in love by the end!

  • I kind of think of a book like a meal, when it comes to judging quality at the start — the first few bites may be great or horrible, and that probably bodes well/badly for the whole plate. But sometimes you find a little too much gristle later on — or, worse, it gives you food poisoning. My most recent read that fell into this latter category was ‘Wizard’s First Rule’, which made me feel like I was tricked into reading it because the first part of the book was deceptively fun.

    • Katherine Koba

      Yeah, exactly this! (Though, sometimes a book starts out good and then somehow ends up AMAZING. This also happens!)

    • The meal analogy is a great one!

  • I’m pretty much the same; if a book’s voice, style, and writing grab me early on, I’m likely to continue loving it. This just happened with Sweetbitter!

  • Rebecca Foster

    Interesting! I don’t think I can always peg a favorite within the first few pages. Some novels are slow burners, and others tail off in the latter half. I think this is even more true of nonfiction: I might love the narration and subject to start with, but there’s the risk of it going on for too long and losing my interest, or changing focus partway through.

  • Ah I’m sorry to hear that The Sport of Kings turned on you like that! I am a big believer in endings so while I do totally get carried away for the same reasons early on, it’s the endings that ultimately turn me into a fan. Or not. I get really upset when an ending is weak. I’m bad for raving about books too early on. Like you, I go in wanting every book to sweep me away, I’m ready to fall in love every time. Sometimes I’ve set my bar too low. Some are easy to love hard, fast. Homegoing comes to mind.

    • Ugh, The Sport of Kings is still such a good book because the author has SO MUCH potential, I just want to tear it in half and keep the first part.
      And YES to Homegoing!

  • Ti Reed

    In just a few pages, I can usually tell if the book will be a fave. It’s a style of wiring, I think, that appeals to me. Which means the plot doesn’t have to be perfect but if the tone and style is right, I tend to love it.

    • Yep, exactly! Most books with that style aren’t super dependent on plot anyway, so it tends to work out that the first instinct is right.

  • I’m a bit of a skeptic, so I need to read the entire book before I can say for sure whether it’s truly a favorite or not. Too much can happen in just a few pages. But I know whether I’m on to something really good if I sit down to read after dinner and suddenly it’s midnight and I have no idea how that happened. That’s happened only a few days ago with The Glorious Heresies. I’m ready to love that book all the way to the end, and I hope it delivers.

  • Me toooooo! Very, very rarely does a book that captivates me in the first couple pages turn out to be a dud. I think you’re on to something with your style vs. plot hypothesis…

  • I’m kind of a mixed bag…a promising beginning is usually a good sign, but if the book fails to go anywhere I can change my mind. I’m really into a particular kind of writing but also strong characters, so it can be hard to tell sometimes

    • Characters tend to break books more often than plot for me, too…I don’t need them to be likable necessarily, just interesting (and sometimes they can really fail to be interesting).

  • I actually don’t recognize a favorite right away. I’ll comment about loving a book “so far,” but don’t really add it to the favored shelf until I finish. Even after finishing, I might ponder a bit, depending on the book.

  • Ooh, let’s see, do I recognize a favorite right away. I’m going to say no. I am not good at anything that happens very suddenly, and I nearly always love books more and more the oftener I read them, so I think it takes me some time after I finish the book to realize that it was a big favorite. Sometimes I’ll be all wrapped up in a book as I’m reading it, but then looking back on it, I’ll realize it wasn’t that great; or other times I’ll think I was lukewarm on a book until I start writing about it, and then I’ll realize that no, actually, it blew me away. My brain doesn’t like deciding things quickly!

    • I’m definitely with you in realizing after time goes on (sometimes not for a few months or a year later) that a book wasn’t as great as I thought it was.

  • Heather

    I have this experience all the time, but more often than not the book doesn’t end as well as it started. I think I get too excited in the opening pages, and then hold the rest of the book to a high standard that it doesn’t meet.

  • Sarah Says Read

    I SOMETIMES recognize a favorite right away. Sometimes it’s the language and writing and feel of the book (Americanah) and sometimes it’s the wit and smart-ass characters or action (Lies of Locke Lamora). But in general I’m kind of awful at that and I have to get a good chunk into it before I have strong feels.

    • OH MAN, Americanah was totally one of those books I tweeted about after like 10 pages (which is saying something because that book is LONG).

  • I might not be as good as you, but I think this generally works for me. I can only think of one semi-recent read that started out as a potential fave but kinda tanked for me, Only Love Can Break Your Heart. So, query, do you read the first few pages of a book in a bookstore? I never do. I either know what I’m getting or I pick by cover alone. Sometimes I get a sense just from a cover. I’m not batting with as high an average on cover alone, but I’ve avoided being sent to the minor leagues thus far.

    • You know, I don’t read the first few pages in bookstores (or libraries!). I probably should. What I do way too often, though, if I’m having a hard time choosing from my stacks of books is go through and read the first few pages to see what screams at me.

      • Interesting. I know folks who do so religiously. I never have and I don’t know why. Because if I think I’m so good at knowing from the beginning, doesn’t it follow that I should take a peek at the beginning? Maybe I really don’t judge from the start. Now I’m going to have to pay more attention. :)

  • Ooh, this is such an interesting thing to think about! I know I’ve definitely spotted some winners from the start—the most recent one I can think of is The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff.

    I think, more often than not, a book surprises me by being one I end up loving even if it didn’t start off dazzling me. I think true love often kicks in once a book hits its stride after 50-60 pages.

    • I still need to read Monsters of Templeton!
      Yeah, it’s VERY rare that I love a book if it didn’t wow me right away.

  • I think I can generally pick a book that will resonate. But I’m always willing to be surprised :) I have a horrible penchant to steer clear of books with covers that are “off” to me … and usually that is a great filter right off.

    • Yeah, I’m generally pretty good at picking books I enjoy, too. There’s been a big difference between “good” and “favorite” for me, especially lately, and I’d really like a few more favorites!

  • Yes! This happens to me a lot. But, it’s also true that I can read a book that doesn’t wow me at the time, but then the more it sits with me, the more I realize how good it was.
    Interesting question… :)

    • It’s good to know it happens to other people! And I definitely have that feeling of books settling in and getting better as they sit with me longer, too.

  • Ya know, I’ve never really thought about it. I’m reading a book right now that has me totally impressed by page 10, and I’m fairly certain I’m really, really going to like this one. But, I haven’t paid attention to this before, so I don’t know how good of a track record I have.

  • Not so much for me. I really try to keep my mind open to the possibilities and not just too harshly early on, simply because too often I find that by the midpoint or even the end, I am totally enamored, but within the first 10-20 pages I wasn’t… Interesting to consider.

  • I usually know what star rating I’ll give a book within the first ten pages or so, but like you, that doesn’t mean I never have a book that surprises me. I’ve had books that it takes me awhile to get into completely wow me and also books that I love at the beginning drop a star or two for an ending I hate or for other flaws. I think I’m right more often than not, although I haven’t done the stats and either way, I’d wonder if I was right because I accurately assessed the book or because it’s hard for the book to change my initial judgement!

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  • Nope, Shannon, I’m a romantic! Ten pages in and I’m on my honeymoon, but divorced halfway through. I’m actively trying not to hit social media with book predictions until I’m 50% in because I’ve been wrong too often.

    On the other hand, I am good at knowing a clunker when I see one. I’m much better now about dropping bad books, instead of hoping they’ll get better.

  • I’ve never really thought of this, but now that I do, I realize that there is a feeling I get within a few pages for books I’m really going to like. It’s kind of like I settle in and feel ‘wrapped’ by the story, and I KNOW it will be a 4.5 or 5 star read for me.
    That’s not to say other books don’t grow on me. Sometimes I’m pretty sure within the first few pages that I’m going to struggle getting through it, and when I do, that I’m going to at be give it 3-stars….and then the second half really changes that. But I don’t think those ever turn out to be one of my ‘best of’ books.