By Joe Moore
Over the last week we’ve had a noticeable increase in traffic and comments. This was due to the discussion of a few controversial topics including the use of the F-bomb and the C-bomb in novels. Some of the reactions were interesting, some downright shocking. John G. and I have a phone chat about it and our end conclusion: it’s a big world out there. You can never predict an individual’s reaction, especially when it comes to the use of profanity in the pages of novels.
I must admit I’ve never stopped reading a book because of the use of a single word. Most of the time, when I do stop it’s because the writing sucks. Either the plot was cliché or the characters were two-dimensional or the writing was weak and lazy, or all the other countless reasons people jump ship before the end. But for all the visitors that have visited our cozy little blog lately to comment on these subjects, thank you. Your patronage is appreciated.
So what is the page 69-bomb? Actually, it should say, the page 69 test. I used the word “bomb”as a cheap way to keep your attention. Sorry. The page 69 test is the real topic of my blog today. What is it? A trick to help everyone in choosing a book to read.
Picture yourself standing at the new release table in your local bookstore. You see a bunch of new arrivals. Some authors you’ve heard of, some names are new. How do you choose? According to John Sutherland, author of How to read a novel, you don’t judge a book by its cover.
Dust jackets, blurbs, shoutlines, critics' commendations ("quote whores", as they are called in the video/DVD business) all jostle for the browser's attention. But I recommend ignoring the hucksters' shouts and applying instead the McLuhan test.
Marshall McLuhan, the guru of The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), recommends that the browser turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works. Rule One, then: browse powerfully and read page 69.
I tried it with a few books on my shelf to see if I was attracted to a book by what I found on page 69. Of course, these were books I’d already read. I was highly skeptical. It sounded more like a gimmick or parlor trick that a true test of a book’s worth. What I wanted to see is if page 69 reflected the story or style or voice of the book. Was it a good sample of things to come? In theory, page 69 should be far enough into a story that it exemplifies the heart of the tale. What I found was that, in just about all cases, the page 69 test worked.
After a few of these test cases, I worked up enough courage to do the test on my own books. I started with my current WIP (written with Lynn Sholes). Here’s what’s on page 69 of The Blade Of Abraham:
“Maybe I’ll do it,” I said, immediately thinking I would regret the commitment.
“I’m not going to hold you to it yet.” He nodded toward the half-empty Johnnie Walker bottle sitting on the railing. “I can’t let you make a decision while under the influence.”
“It never stopped you before.” I realized that was uncalled for. “Sorry.” I took a bite of the eggs. “You always were a good omelet maker.”
We sat in silence eating. After the last bite, I was full and totally mellowed out. Of all the people in the world, Kenny was the only one who knew me so well—all my secrets, all my vulnerabilities and fears.
He extended his hand. “Give me your plate. I’ve got a pan of hot soapy water waiting. I’ll drop them in and we can worry about it in the morning.”
I didn’t have much resistance left so I handed over the bare plate. Kenny disappeared for a couple of seconds before rejoining me on the swing. His arm slid around me and it seemed so natural.
“Tired?” he asked.
“Pleasantly.” I leaned my head on his shoulder.
“I’ve missed you, Max.” He lifted my chin and kissed me. Not hard. Just soft and affectionate. Cautiously, as if he might hurt or offend me. And that felt natural, too. “It should have worked out,” I said. “We screwed up.”
“What’s done is done.”
I looked at him. “There were times you made a damn good husband.”
Not exactly a knock-down, drag-out scene from a thriller is it? After all, The Blade Of Abraham is about an attempted detonation of a nuclear device in a major American city and the race to prevent it. Page 69 is the end of a chapter. It involves two people: my main character Maxine and her former husband. Max is a retired federal agent who got shot up pretty bad while on a mission and chose to leave after 20 years as a civilian federal agent with the OSI. Her ex has shown up to ask her to come back to work for the government, something she has no desire to do. It’s only when he tells her why they need her back that she must face the choice of risking all that she has left in life or remain safe and secure in her cozy Colorado mountain hideaway.
The basis of this quiet, serine scene is in fact the basic structure of the entire book. A woman is intrigued by a challenge, decides to take it on only to have her life wrecked down to her emotional bedrock. She has to pull herself back up from the depths, meet the challenge, and overcome everything thrown in her way to save not only her own emotional life but the very real lives of millions of innocent people.
Now that I’ve taken the page 69 challenge, how about the rest of you writers out there. Got the guts to show us your page 69 and determine if it exemplifies the heart of your story? Naturally, if page 69 falls on a page with just a couple of lines, you have permission to post page 68 or 70. But the point I’m trying to determine is, does the page 69 test work on your manuscript or published book? If someone picked up your book and only read page 69, would they want to buy it?
And for the readers out there, how about your favorite (or not so favorite) book. Does the page 69 test work for you? Remember, this is only a test. No actual books will be harmed in the writing of this blog.
THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 2011
"A compelling page-turner." – Carla Neggers