Just Write Cat

One Writer, One Journey

The First Fifty… July 27, 2010

Filed under: Editing,Writing — justwritecat @ 3:28 am
Tags: , , ,

Whew!  Two weeks of cold/allergies/who knows what else and I’m wiped out.  I didn’t write for an entire week.  Okay, three days but it seemed like for-ev-er.  I did a bit of revision work, but quickly realized that what one writes in an allergy-drug-induced state doesn’t always make sense the next day.  Non-drowsy, my a–.

So, the past three days have proven a bit more productive.  I’m off “my meds’ (hmmm, not sure that sounded right), and my mind’s clear and ready to get back to revision work.  My next session with Lisa is this week, so I’m excited.  To prep for the next call, I spent the last couple of days thinking about ‘the first fifty pages’.  My first fifty, to be exact.  Fifty pages seems to be the typical number of pages asked for in partial requests.  I’m not exactly sure why, but enough agents ask for that so there must be a good reason.  Just enough to get a solid idea on what’s going on, who the protagonist is, is this something I want to keep reading…that sort of thing, I guess.

So, to better consider if my first fifty have what it takes, I read (and reread) the first fifty pages of several urban fantasy books and took notes.  Here’s what I found out:

When I read the first fifty pages of several books, one of two things happened – either I found, on page fifty, that time had flown by and I didn’t want to stop reading.  OR, I held the book in my hand, trying to figure out just how much more I’d have to slug through based on the width of the book.  If it was an especially thick book, say 450 pages thick, I promptly placed the book in my ‘return to library’ bag.  If the book was oh, 250 pages thick…I gave it another twenty pages…and then put the book in the bag.  There really was no in between.  No, ‘well, it’s not that bad so I’ll keep reading because my other books are downstairs and it’s late and what if I get out of bed to go downstairs and I hear a sound and it’s a ghost or something’.  See how my mind works?  I either wanted to keep reading or I didn’t.  So – those pages either grab a reader and refuse to let go.  Or they don’t.  Of the half dozen or so books involved in this ‘test’, only two made the cut. 

Jim Butcher’s Changes (latest in the Dresden Files) and Joe Gores’ Spade & Archer, the Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

I don’t know if you read The Dresden Files, but this last one is a doozy.  No spoilers, don’t worry.  I hate spoilers.  The series is about a wizard living in Chicago.  This guy – Harry Dresden  – has really, really bad luck much of the time.  He’s a good guy, a great guy – but crap is always happening to him.  Of course, that’s what makes the stories so fun to read.  You get to watch Harry deal with the crap in some very creative ways.  First fifty pages of Changes – no less than four major crap things happen to Harry.  Again, no spoilers – but as I took notes, I realized that there was more action in Butcher’s first fifty pages than I read in some entire books.  Lesson learned – things have to happen to your character!  Maybe not quite so much so soon, but enough.  Enough to keep you turning the pages all the way to the last one.  The author Piled. It. On.

You also learn some things about Harry and the larger plot early on, some things that Make You Care about the character enough that you want him to win whatever it takes. 

I reread my first fifty.  First couple of chapters, hey – whaddya know, you do learn some things about Joe.  Things that pre-revision with Lisa, you didn’t learn until – drum roll – AFTER page fifty.  Egads.  Important things, things that matter.  Things that Make You Care.  But, too late.  Again, that was pre-revision, so I do feel good about my revised opening chapters.  There’s more tension, more going on – not just action, but things going on with Joe, with where he’s at when the story starts and where he seems to be headed.  Not nearly as much happens in my first fifty as does in Changes – but, Changes is like book twelve or something in the series (I think).  So there’s been a tremendous amount of set-up, enough that you can bring back characters from previous books, have things happen to them or because of them, and the reader easily follows the plot.  Set ‘Em Up, Joe is the first in a (hopefully) series – so I might need to set things up more before all sorts of stuff happens to characters.  Not sure, will have to ask Lisa during our next session!

Gores’ Spade & Archer.  As one reviewer on the back cover stated – this book is ‘pitch perfect’.  The voice, oh my goodness, the voice.  And the language – this author clearly studied Hammett, read him, read other noir books – maybe all noir books – and then put his own spin on things.  From the first page, nay the first word, I am hooked.  I want to keep reading.  I’m having fun! 

Now, it’s not quite fair to say I learned so much about the character of Sam Spade in the first fifty because I already knew the character from Hammett’s books – and some of the films.  BUT…Gores presents a totally possible explanation for why Sam is the way he is.  You buy it, you see it playing out in your head, you are convinced Gores channeled Hammett somehow.  Not to undermine Gores’ talent….but it’s so darn…darn….pitch perfect that channeling had to have occurred.  First fifty – you understand Spade.  You get him.

My first fifty – yes, a tentative yes, but yes…I think you get Joe.  Get what makes his blood boil, what makes him react.  I believe you can see things playing out.  I’ve been told yes to these things by readers, but it’s hard to see it for yourself sometimes. 

So first fifty – give the reader something to care about, have your protag doing something that is worth caring about.  Make your character(s) real, find a way to connect to the reader.  Make bad things happen to your characters (conflict).  Don’t let up, don’t ease off.  Pile. It. On.  

The books that made the bag rather than the cut?  Nothing was going on, or at least nothing that mattered to me.  In one case – things were happening, but none of it made sense.  It was as if the author tried to throw in every UF plot twist just to keep the reader’s attention.  It lacked focus.  One other book – I actually sort of read it through because I wanted to know how it ended.  I read the first fifty, uh, the skipped around.  Quite a bit.  Like to the end.  I know, I know – I hate doing that, but that was the book in my hands that night when I was suddenly afraid of the downstairs.  So, I read the end.  Um, and in the morning I took the sequel out of my library queue.

Working on your first fifty?  Read other books in your genre, take notes – then apply to your own work. 

Happy Writing!


3 Responses to “The First Fifty…”

  1. Andy Says:

    To be fair, Butcher has had 12 or so books to build up to the monumental blowout that is Changes. I’m trying to remember the beginning of book 1 and how much happened in the 1st 50 or so but drawing a blank, I should probably re-read it and take notes.

    You’ve got more patience than I if you can slog through that many bad books – even just in part! I have the classic “How did this get published?” reaction to most of the UF I see on the shelves. Which is not good for my ego :P.

    I definitely learned a bit about formatting and where to put things and what not to do in the beginning of a book from writing and querying my 1st book. If I had it to do over again I absolutely would not put a flashback in the beginning in the way that I did (ch 2-4 are a single flashback, and stretch past the 1st 50 I think). I mean, it works for me and does what I want it to, but I clearly recognize that the way I did it probably does not pull you in like it should.

    • justwritecat Says:

      I have the first few books…so I also looked at the first couple of chapters of each one to see the progression of things. You’re right – his latest certainly has more punch and right away than his earlier books. The earlier ones would good, certainly, but the last few….well, fantastic. It helps me to see this kind of growth in an author….that gives me hope. 🙂


  2. Bryan Sabol Says:

    Interesting post, Cat. We all hear about how important getting the first 50 pages is to capture an agent’s attention, but I like your spin of trying out the test yourself.

    Think I need to go back and read some MG/YA stories I liked — and didn’t like — to evaluate how much character development falls within the first 50.

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