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Monday, October 18, 2021

Novel idea: judge books on their first 20 pages, says leading crime writer

Don’t judge a book by its cover – judge it on the first 20 pages instead. That is the advice of one of Britain’s leading crime writers, who said life is too short to waste on novels with boring first chapters.

Mark Billingham said the world was divided into those who put down a book if it fails to grab them and others who persevere until the bitter end, even if they are not enjoying it.

He urged readers to stick to the 20-page rule when beginning a new novel. 

Billingham has sold six million copies of his own crime thrillers, which include the Tom Thorne series.

“I’m a crime reader first and foremost. I very much enjoy reading stuff. Having said that, I probably only finish five books out of 10,” he told an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

“I have an ongoing argument with my wife where we’ll be sitting there reading books and I’ll say, ‘Are you enjoying that?’ and she says, ‘No.’ And I go, ‘What are you reading it for?’ And she says, ‘Because it’s not going to beat me,’ like it’s a war of attrition.

“Put it down! Pick up a book you enjoy. Honestly, life’s too short. There are so many great books out there. We’re supposed to tell you a story and if that story isn’t grabbing you then for God’s sake throw it across the room angrily.”

Billingham said his rule applied particularly to crime fiction and thrillers. “That book has got to set out its stall in 20 pages,” he said.

“I used to be a stand-up comedian – I couldn’t walk out on stage at the Comedy Store and go, ‘Stick with me, I’ll get funny in about 10 minutes.’ There has to be something within the first chapters that’s got me interested or hooked or engaged or, really, what’s the point?”

The most important way of grabbing the reader’s attention is through character rather than plot, he argued.

Billingham said: “Crime writers have all sorts of tricks in our armour – the reveal, the twist, the cliffhanger. But they’re just tricks. The key is character.

“If you give the reader of a suspense novel a character they care about, then they have suspense from page one because they know there’s bad stuff coming. So that’s suspense on every page.

“It’s the characters you remember, especially when talking about series characters, whether it be Inspector Morse or Jack Reacher or Sherlock Holmes.

“I can’t remember the ins and outs of the plots of those Sherlock Holmes books I read when I was 13, but I remember the character because he was so brilliant.”

Let us know in the comments below which book you struggled to read.

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