"Go by the first five pages," he said. "If they can't grab you by then, toss it aside."
It seemed a bit cruel. What if some really great scenes came later in the book? He assured me I don't have time for that. (The awards are given in May, but we must have our results in much earlier than that.) He pointed out that this is exactly why we, as writers, try so hard to get those first five pages perfect. Heck, I had a speaker tell me the first page better be "the best one you've ever written in your life." People don't have time to meander. They grab the good stuff and go.
Okay, newly empowered, I started reading, ready to toss after the first five pages. And instead became engrossed. Now here was a problem. What happens when the book seems fairly interesting, but after a while, starts getting too weird? I went out to Office Depot and bought red, yellow and green stickers. When I hit a book that started foundering, I slapped a yellow sticker on it and stopped reading. If other judges liked it, I could continue later. I almost always went from cover to cover with green books. Red books. Well, you get it. The first five pages did them in.
However, along the way, I found that had I used my original organizational plan, I would have missed the best of the best. I always "knew" I didn't like books about war, serial killers, down-on-the-farm tales, or anything about the Holocaust (my Nazi aversion is powerful). Now I was unable to put a book down that was ostensibly about serial murders, but really about life (and some very sicko life) down on the farm. Not only could I not tear my eyes away from this book, I thought it was brilliant, beautiful, all the things one looks for in a haunting novel about the human condition. Then I was deeply engrossed in a war novel. And not just a book about battles and weapons and naval maneuvers, but also about gore and torture — two things I can't abide. Yet the depth of the characters, and the constant avenging of atrocities, somehow made it work for me. The book went down as not only thrilling but educational.