I’m easily romanced by the cover art of a book. Yes, I judge a book by the cover. If I’m in the library and they have two copies of the same book, I always chose the one with the prettier cover. Next, I’m influenced by dust jacket copy—you know, the blurbs on the inside front cover of the book. Assuming both are good and I don’t know anything bad about the author, I am tempted.
My daughter on the other hand is much more prosaic. (It must be the math major in her.) She has an uncanny ability to pick up a book and open to the worse page/scene in the entire novel. Imagine: I’m drooling over cover art that looks like it belongs in a museum, and I’ve pointed out to Ariel the lifting melody of the words on the dust cover.
Ariel takes the book, opens it, and says, “Are you sure you want to read this book?”
I nod, eagerly.
She says, “In this chapter a character named Todd strangles the family dogs in his neighborhood.”
“What?!” I grab the book. “But he seemed like a nice boy.”
Sure enough, Todd is a dog strangler. Okay, this didn’t really happen—usually the scenes she finds are worse. When I flip through a book, I never find the weird/perverse scenes. Ariel says they are almost always 2/3s of the way through the book. Hmm, this must be some odd literary rule that no one ever told me. I wondered if there were more such rules.
This morning I read a friend’s blog. She talked about the “Page 99 litmus test” (Thanks, Rowena. Here’s a link if you’d like to read her original post: http://hyalineprosaic.blogspot.com/ ). She quoted Ford Maddox Ford who said, “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."
As a writer, I got a little nervous. What was on page 99 of the novel I was currently querying? I opened my document and scrolled to page 99. On that page, the main character Henry finds out that his grandfather tried to kill him when he was a little boy. Whew, that works—totally non-boring scene. Now all I have to do is find an agent, a publisher, and great cover art. Yep, should be easy...not.
Note: I really wanted to title this post "Literary Litmi," but "litmus" is Scandinavian in original not Latin. bummer.