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In which an ADD reader invites you to jump inside her brain

There is one very good rule of thumb to keep in mind when you are writing for teenagers: they have the attention span of a goldfish.

Now, this is a very stereotypical statement, and obviously it's not true of all teens. There are certainly high schoolers who can read and enjoy MOBY DICK (eww), WAR AND PEACE (yawn) or THE SOUND AND THE FURY.* However, YA and middle grade writers must assume that their readers are at least partially ADHD - because agents and editors will assume the same thing. And if your first chapter doesn't grab a publishing professional, your book will be rejected. If the agent wasn't interested in the first few pages, how do they expect to sell the book to a handful of kids who have Halo Reach waiting on their XBoxes?**

So today, I am going to take you on a tour through the literary world - from the perspective of a newly-graduated teen with a very short attention span.


First line: "When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

ADD Brain: "DUDE. HOLD UP. Who's Jem? And how did he break his arm? And HOW IN THE HELL do you break your arm at the elbow? Dude. This kid is hardcore. I wonder if he's a bullrider, 'cause my cousin's a bullrider and that's how he broke his arm last year..."

Status: Momentarily distracted by shiny objects but still curious enough to read on.

Interest level: 6.5/10


First line: "It's so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself."

ADD brain: "Lalalalala...Wait WHAT?"

Status: Concerned for the main character's well-being because already the ADD reader is reminded of that one time when her uncle was really depressed and he drank all the time and cussed out Grandma Edith for burning the rolls that one Thanksgiving...

Interest level: 8/10


First paragraph: "A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY."

ADD brain: "Blah blah blah big words caps lock British spelling blah blah blah..."

Status: Already wondering what's for dinner.

Interest level: 2/10***


First line: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."

ADD brain: O_O

Status: Shhh...the ADD kid is trying to read, here...

Interest level: 10/10. Well done, Mr. Gaiman.


First paragraph: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question."

ADD brain: "Blah blah blah shrubbery and polite conversation and comments about the weather blah blah blah..."

Status: Forsaking the book in favor of some outdoor exercise.

Interest level: 3/10

*I have not read any of these books. As a matter of fact, I couldn't get past the first page.

**I have no idea if Halo Reach is actually made for XBox, because I don't have the attention span for video games.

***It is a very good thing that I was required to read this novel for an English class; otherwise I would have missed out on one of my favorite books because of a lame first paragraph.
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  1. Awesome. This is SO true with middle schoolers. I love how you break down each opening in not only hooks the reader but holds their attention and what it means to a teenager. AWESOME.

  2. Love the realism in this post. Totally. Nice job.

  3. Agreed on all points!

    Also I have never read any of the 3 books you mention up top either, and I don't particularly feel I am missing anything.

  4. Love this post! Really <3 it! Son has ADHD and a bunch of other letters going on. ;) I try to see things from his point of view.
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  5. Pride and Prejudice. 1/10 maybe. It made me feel like reading for school. -__-

    and yes, I have short attention span D: but fortunately, mostly usually doesn't apply when reading a novel, unfortunately, it also doesn't apply when I'm surfing the internet/using the computer. so...

  6. My youngest daughter has ADD (no "h") and I will have to show her this. She was undiagnosed (despite my repeated efforts to have the various schools evaluate her; I would categorize their response as "she could do it if she tried" and yes, I'm still bitter) until the end of her sophomore year of high school.

    Medication has made a big difference, that's for sure -- but reading actually remains kind of difficult for her. She reads some things, though and really, really enjoys them. I wish I knew what the trigger is! Loves the Twilight and Harry Potter books and recently devoured A Wind in Montana which she said she liked because it was pretty realistic in its presentation of high school (some of the nagging, the control teachers and administrators have, the calling down to the office, etc.) and what kids go through.

    She will love this post, I tell you!

  7. Oh -- she also enjoyed the "Sex in the City" "prequel." I think it's called the "Carrie Diaries," or something along those lines. We had to wait forever for it to come into the library and I refused to spend nearly 20 bucks on something like that. And ha! She didn't want to spend her OWN money...

  8. Perhaps I am ADD because my reactions matched the ADD brain perfectly - Squirrel!

  9. Fun post! My adult ADHD is a little less flighty, but my limit's still about 3 chapters. If you don't hook me by then, I assume we won't ever be hooking up -- unless I am promised the book gets better (or is a life-changing classic/literary work that deserves extra patience).

  10. Halo Reach is on Xbox. But I think it's Xbox not XBox. I suppose it could be XBOX. Wait what were we talking about again?

  11. Either I am a freak of nature or this post is rather insulting.

    I will admit to being old now (36) but when I was a teen I #1)didn't read YA and #2) voluntarily, on my own read Beowulf after reading a small section in class.

    I LIKED the Scarlet Letter and infact enjoyed a lot of what we read in English class including Pygmalion and Shakespeare. In college I read Jane Eyre of my own volition and loved it.

    I also have to diagree with your analysis of the opening of To Kill A Mockingbird it states that Jem is the narrator's brother.

    I actually had a 'wait hold up' moment during the opening of Neil Gaiman's book. What is the hand in the darkness attatched to?

    Perhaps you meant this post faciciously in which case sorry for coming down on it.

    I'm just so tired of really good literature taking a beating when these books ARE SO WORTHWHILE. They have stood the test of time and till offer worthy and valid perspectives even in this modern age. NONE of that can be aid of either of the two contemporary books you quote and portray as being so much more relevant.

    Perhaps in 100 years we will see if anyone is still reading Neil Gaiman or 'It's Kind of a Funny Story'.

  12. Great post, Kristin! My brain pretty much agrees with yours on those analyses, and I'm 25, so I guess it doesn't end. :)

  13. Bahahahhahahah! Your post definitely made me laugh :) I'm a high schooler and my friends are somewhat-sortof-possibly-notreally like this. We do read the first lines and they do catch our attention.

    One of the most interesting first lines I've ever read was from Uglies and it was something like how the sky was the color of cat vomit...Yepp, weird. Haha so I read on xD

    Loved the post!

  14. Che Gilson, if you come back, I tried to comment on the post you wrote on your blog in response to this one, and it came up that only friends of your blog can comment on posts. Is this something that can be fixed?

  15. @Che Gilson - this post was mostly meant facetiously. I adore TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and I originally read it as a teenager. I adore BRAVE NEW WORLD, and I originally read it at the age of sixteen. I am not in the least bit suggesting that teenagers are stupid or should be treated as if they are stupid. I meant this post to be a little bit tongue-in-cheek and to also illustrate a fact that I have noticed more and more in YA literature: publishing professionals may not expect teenagers to BE ADHD, but they expect you to WRITE as if they are. They expect exciting opening paragraphs that immediately hook the reader, because they assume that teen readers are busy and have better things to do than pick up a book with a boring beginning.

    I appreciate your perspective. Thanks for commenting!

  16. First lines ;) So essential I've just worked on fifty opening lines for my new MG/tween -- I've begun in twenty different places too.

  17. Ha - this made me laugh. Great post!

  18. Dude, this is brilliant. :D

    Even with a decent attention span, if a book doesn't grab my attention by the end of the first page I tend to put it down. I'm not even a teenager. I just don't want to waste my time.

  19. I'm right there with you. After like 15 tries, I haven't gotten past page 17 of Anna Karenina.

    My philosophy on books: if you have something to say, say it. If I wanted scenery, I'd look at paintings. If I wanted philosophy, I'd read Socrates.

    I read books for story and if you can sneak in the other stuff wthout me noticing fine. But I shouldn't have to wade through the peripherals to find the story.


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