Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Applying the Page 99 Test

I recently came across a book promotion website, which rather than posting samples from the beginning of books, posted the 99th page. The logic being that this puts the reader straight into the middle of the action and provides them with a truer representation of what to expect from a story than they would get from reading the first few lines. Having been let down by several books with strong openings, I was intrigued.

When it comes to the books that I have written, I was a little nervous about putting them to the page 99 test. My biggest fear was that using a random sample could bring up a passage that is incomprehensible when rendered out of context. Worse still, what if it brought up a major spoiler? Whilst page 99 is unlikely to give away too much about the plot as a whole, reading it could reveal details that affect the opening section.

I loaded my novel, Stealing Asia, onto my Kindle and used the navigation menu to take me straight to page 99. Suffice to say, I need not have worried. Apart from the first line, which was a run on from a sentence on the preceding page, I was presented with a very neat and clear little scene that alluded to, without actually spoiling, a much grander and more exciting part of the story.

Here is the passage with the first line removed.

      ‘Thank you,’ I said, placing my arm around her shoulders.
      ‘For what?’ she replied.
      ‘For saving my life.’
      ‘I suppose this makes us even now.’
      ‘Hardly; I’d gladly take a hundred muggers over one tiger shark any day.’
      ‘They were both sharks. The only difference was that one had a gun and the other had teeth.’
     She was right. I held her tightly and we said no more for the rest of the journey. Everybody was tired when we got back to shore and no one felt in the mood for socialising. The only exception was Esteban, who persuaded Manu to stay and have a beer with him. I guess he knew that I wanted to spend time with Asia as he did not invite me to join them. The other couples stayed in their beach huts and Asia and I did the same. When we got inside, we lay down on the bed and just held each other. For once, sex was not at the forefront of my mind.

Alternatively, here is page 1:

Travelling is supposed to be easy. People join the trail all the time. It is simply a matter of bumping into them in the right place and at the right moment.
      A hostel dorm room, a crowded bar; anyplace can provide the backdrop to an unexpected bringing together of kindred spirits. You could find a drinking buddy for the night or make a lifelong friend. Who knows? The whole world is waiting for you and all you have to do in return is simply show up. At least that is how it should be. You see, sometimes the timing is just not quite there.
      It was the third time I had been to that particular bar. On both prior occasions I had been left to drink alone. This was not by my choosing. I tried to start conversations with people who I presumed to be of a similar age and in a similar situation, but without success. The biggest problem seemed to be the language barrier. It felt like I was the only English speaker in that part of town. Every person I spoke to possessed a different native tongue and we would never progress past the most basic of pleasantries.

Taken purely on a page against page basis, 99 is the clear winner. It both introduces the stories central protagonists and establishes that they are in a relationship as well as hinting at the level of peril they will face. From this excerpt we can see that the story contains elements of both action and romance. Page 1, on the other hand, simply gives us the voice of the narrator and establishes the unfamiliar exotic setting he has found himself within. Taken on its own, this could be the beginning to anything from a travel journal to an action thriller. The reader would need to carry on with the chapter to get as much information as they did from the single 99th page. If they did so, they would be introduced to the heroine as the narrator rescues her from the mugger referenced on page 99.

Overall, both samples would ultimately convey the same information, but it is page 99 that does it most effectively as it does on a single page what the beginning takes a whole chapter to do. Maybe this is just my style, but when reading I always prefer to be given a proper introduction to characters rather than being thrown directly into an action sequence. There is a fine line separating intrigue and confusion, but the outcomes of each differ wildly and only one of them is good. Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more common for books to have confusing openings as publishers try to dazzle with a frenetic first few paragraphs instead of actually providing a credible beginning that serves as an introduction to the story. Therefore, substituting page 99 for the beginning seems like the ideal compromise.

StealingAsia is currently available for Kindle or in paperback at most online book retailers.