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Start at the very beginning -- a very good place to start

Most of us begin a novel at the beginning, but what happens when you turn instead to page 99 and read that first?

Well, according to that great writer of the early 20th century, Ford Madox Ford, if you adopt such a practice, it will give a clearer indication of the book's virtues or otherwise than you'll get by starting at the first page, which is usually concerned with the boring business of scene-setting.

"Open the book at page 99," Ford advised, "and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

I mention this because there is a new website called page99test.com, which asks aspiring writers to upload the 99th page of their unpublished magnum opus and invites readers to say whether they would like to read -- indeed, buy -- the whole book from what they've just perused.

I tried the test on a few of my favourite novels, starting with Ford's own masterpiece, The Good Soldier, where on page 99 the suicide of one of the four principal characters was disclosed to me. This, I fear, would spoil the enjoyment of anyone coming new to the book, and anyway The Good Soldier is notable for its irresistibly intriguing opening sentence: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Who could not read onwards after that?

I can see what Ford was getting at in his page-99 test. By that point in a novel, characters should be well established and action under way, but dipping in at that point is like hearing 30 seconds of a bar raconteur in mid-anecdote, where you've no idea of the context.

Certainly, if you apply, as I did, such an experiment to novels as various as EM Forster's Howards End, Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, you'll feel somewhat bewildered.

In other words, there's a good reason why storytellers are usually advised by their audiences to begin at the beginning.

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