I’ve long been a lover of post-apocalyptic fiction. As a lifelong introvert, I think there must be something about the concept of a world without people that appeals deeply to me. Or perhaps it’s the speculative thought exercise that follows from the starting point of “what if we all died in this particular way?” Either way, it’s a favorite of mine.
The earliest example I can remember inhaling was The Stand, back in high school — along with the excellent miniseries starring Gary Sinise. Since then I’ve become something of a connoisseur, with other favorites featuring Emily St. John-Mandel’s Station Eleven, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, and The Girl with All the Gifts. (See my last post about the TV adaptation of that one.) Many of these, not coincidentally, involve some kind of zombie/vampire plague, but that is not always the case. Often, it’s the latter type that are the most interesting.
This past week, I came across and downloaded three samples of three post-apocalyptic novels, all of which approached the theme from very different perspectives — and not one of which involved zombies. The first one was A Lovely Way to Burn, the first in the Plague Times trilogy by Louise Welsh. I enjoyed the premise and the prologue, but the TV saleswoman protagonist whose boyfriend stands her up seemed to be setting it up for a new adult type slant. Given this positive review from The Guardian, I may yet end up giving it another chance.
Secondly, I tried Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor, which has been optioned by George R.R. Martin to be developed for HBO. I was intrigued by the premise and the fact that it’s both by an African author and set in post-apocalyptic Africa itself. I enjoyed the sample of it, though I was somewhat put off by some brutal sexual violence in the beginning. That was enough to put me off of purchasing the rest, although as I say, I was intrigued.
Last, I started Bird Box, by Josh Malerman. This one had me hooked from the first line. I can’t explain it without giving spoilers, but the entire concept and its execution were flawlessly (and terrifyingly) executed. It might even have kept me up one night. Possibly. Maybe.
After reading Box — and starting to reread it, just to figure out how he set it up so damn well — I started to wonder: what made the difference in these three books? What was it about that first section that had me hooked, whereas the others didn’t? There was a strong sense of suspense, as you start to figure out what is happening to the world along with the protagonist. But Burn also described the mysterious, gradual beginnings of the epidemic. I am still figuring out what it was that set Box apart, and I may reread the samples again. It could be that the buildup was slower for the other two, while the payoff may have been just as large.
However, it does go to show the importance of those first few pages in hooking a reader. You can’t change that first impression, nor do you get a second chance to suck us in. Much of this is subjective, of course, as what gets one person’s attention may not be the same as another’s. But you can make sure that errors in your writing don’t deter that reader from getting into your story.
Moral of this story: when sending to an agent, make sure that the pages you send are at their best.