April 2016 – Parvus Press

The First Fifty Pages – A Walkthrough


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Hi Parvuteers! Last week we talked about how important the first fifty pages of your book are to me both as a reader and as a publisher. I thought it might be a useful exercise to look at a couple of well-known books and see where they are at page 50. For the purposes of this exercise I’m mostly grabbing paperbacks. The whole “page 50” notion is supposed to be more directional than literal, but since it offers a nice, definitive spot it’ll be a good point for discussion.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
I’m pretty sure this was the first Hugo/Nebula winner I ever read, and to say that it’s had a huge impact on my tastes would be putting it mildly. Let’s just say that from where I’m sitting, I can see the original version of Analog magazine where Ender’s Game first appeared as a short story on page 100.

I’m going to assume that if you’re bothering to read this, you’ve read Ender’s Game. If that’s not true, follow us and Twitter and Facebook and tweet us (@parvuspress) with the hastag #thereisahugegapinmyscificollection. I will send the first two people to actually do this a fresh copy of Ender’s Game straight from Amazon (not any of my many signed copies, you vultures).

Let’s take a look at all of the goodies crammed into the first 50 pages. I’m going to bullet this cause there’s so MUCH going on.

  • Character Development
    • Ender wants to be a normal kid, but he’s not. He’s a Third.
    • Ender fights with his mind in the most coldly calculating manner imaginable
    • Peter is an ambitious sociopath, and Valentine is the peacemaker
  • World Building
    • We’re on earth, with humans, in a near-future scenario
    • Earth has been attacked by Aliens, twice, and almost lost both rounds
    • The government monitors all children and recruits those with military talent to a special school in space. It also controls how many children a family can have
  • “Voice” and Story
    • Each chapter starts with transcripts, underpinning the idea that the government/military is watching everything and everyone.
    • We’re going on a “coming of age” kind of journey. It’s not a revenge tale, or a conspiracy story, or a planet-hopping space epic.
    • Ender leaves home, rides a spaceship, and arrives in Battle School

I had to restrain myself from penning a 10,000 word dissertation on what makes Ender’s Game so good, but it should be clear that there’s a lot we can all learn from how Mr. Card opened this novel. I will also point out that after 50 pages Ender has put a kid in the hospital, opined on how he wished here were a real boy, and traveled to/arrived at Battle School. There’s a ton of plot going on in addition to all of this other character and world building stuff.

Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
Before he was “that guy who finished the Wheel of Time”, he was that guy whose sophomore work Mistborn had a pull quote from Romantic Times Book Reviews on the back cover. Seriously, they called it “an exceedingly satisfying book”. Anywho, Sanderson is well-known for his deep world building, engaging characters, and zany magic systems. He knocks all three out of the park in the first 50 (note that the first 50 includes the prologue cause, y’know… you read that too).

  • Character Development
    • Kelsier is a snarky, sardonic badass  who is laser focused on his own goal and he doesn’t so much care about the price he and others pay for it. It’s not that he’s heartless, but he recognizes that his real enemy is the status quo.
    • Vin begins the novel as a timid street rat with trust issues who thinks she needs to be part of a group to survive
  • World Building
    • We have a class-based society with corrupt nobles and an oppressed but superstitious working and serf class
    • Magic exists, and some special people can use it.
      • Also, there are “inquisitors” who walk around with spikes in their eyes!
    • There’s an active seedy underbelly to this city
  • “Voice” and Story
    • We don’t get deep into the main plot, but we get an appetizer by watching the first “crew” of criminals scam another crew and pull a fast one on the government. This is essentially a microcosm of the larger story we’re about to get.  It helps us understand that there’s going to be a lot of moving parts working together
    • You’ve got that Sanderson style of writing interactions between good friends. In addition to being a key part of his voice (he does it well in everything) it also helps us understand that this is not a lone-wolf story. Kelsier is not a “man apart”, but rather the respected leader of a team.

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher
Ah yes, the first book in the Dresden Files. No one has ever accused Jim Butcher of not being able to build a compelling world or write interesting characters, and the first 50 pages of this series sets up some relationships and character traits that have persisted through 15 books and counting. Go back and re-read these particular first 50 pages and see how much he crams in.

  • Character Development
    • We meet, and love, Harry Dresden. He’s a grumpy professional wizard working in modern day Chicago. Not afraid to stand up to folk and things who are… “bigger” than him.

Seriously, check out this amazingly crafted paragraph:
“Cujo growled at me in the rearview mirror again and I beamed at him. Smiling always seems to annoy people more than actually insulting them. Or maybe I just have an annoying smile”

Let’s unpack it:

    • Harry gives the bad guy’s henchman a silly nickname. This gives you great insight into his personality
    • Harry goes out of his way to antagonize the guy without actually picking a fight
    • Harry acknowledges that maybe he’s just annoying
    • We meet and get to take the measure of John Marcone. Yes, Butcher uses a shortcut here with a kind of soulgaze that allows him to exposit on Marcone’s character but in that same interaction we also get to see him act in such a way that bears out the exposition. He’ll be doing a lot more of that later in the series.
    • And of course, we meet Harry’s on again, off again, off some more, maybe on, back off, off for realsies, maybe on, someone dies now, on again paramour Karin Murphy. Butcher uses tropes and our pre-conceptions about hard-bitten detective types to give us some initial introduction, and then proceeds to do his own thing.
  • World Building
    • We’re in the “real” world
    • Some kind of magic exists and there are many practitioners  of it
    • There are references to several different kinds of magic, as well as the world of Faerie
    • We’re in for an urban setting
  • “Voice” and Story
    • It’s a detective novel
    • This thing is going to be told in first person, and it’s going to be by a sardonic, smart-ass with a mental smirk.
    • In 50 pages we investigate a murder, go for a ride with a crime kingpin, and take a case with the stereotypical damsel in distress. Not bad for a day’s work!

Each of these three books delivers a lot in the first 50 pages. Yours may not be quite as action packed, but make sure that you’re giving the reader enough to form some meaningful judgments about the rest of the work. If you can nail your first 50, you’ll have your hooks into the reader (and your publisher…) and they will eagerly follow your characters through the rest of the journey.

The First Fifty Pages


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Hello all, Eric here, and I want to talk to you about what the first fifty pages of a book tells me. Because it’s my company, I get to choose to publish books that I enjoyed reading (which is, for sure, the #1 benefit of starting a publishing company). In the three months we’ve been at this, Parvus has been fortunate enough to receive about 50 submissions. I’ve personally read through 30 so far and have selected one for publication (congratulations again, Scott Warren).

What I’ve come to realize is that I form judgments about books fairly quickly. By the time I’m 50 pages into a book, I am very rarely thinking to myself “I wonder if I’m going to like this”. Oh to be sure it has happened on a number of occasions (at page 50 in The Eye of World they were still about 150 pages from leaving friggin Two Rivers and I had no idea what to think), but most of the time by page 50 I’ve formed a solid opinion. As an author, you want that opinion to include:

1. Elements of your world-building

I don’t need to know the intricacies of your reptile-powered magic system (that’s patent-pending by the way, Sanderson…) but I need to know that magic exists and that some people use it. Let’s go back to The Eye of the World. We don’t get anything resembling in-depth knowledge of the Source, or the Forsaken, or the different Ajahs. But I know that there’s a “Dark One”, I know that there are female magic users called Aes Sedai and that some of them are out to apprehend the third “False Dragon” in five years! All of this happens in the background as Rand and Mat wander around town and start to build some character (spoiler, young Matrim is a bit of a rogue).

2. Your Protagonist

I should be able to describe your main character by the end of the third chapter. It should be pretty clear to me who he or she is, and I should be able to jot down a couple of adjectives describing that person (or whatever). If you’ve got yourself a rotating viewpoint cast, like in Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, I should have spent at least a little time with all of these folks by the time I get to page 50. Even if I’m not super invested in them yet, I should at least be generally on their side. If your guy spent the first chapter kicking puppies in front of orphans, don’t expect me to get the feels when he stubs his toe on Fido.

You also want to be consistent, here. I get that your main character is a complex tapestry of flaws and super dark and interesting, but don’t expect me to buy in when the guy who is cheerfully walking home from the whorehouse kneels down and weeps when he gets home to find that his wife has been murdered.

3. Your Story

By the end of page 50, I need to know what kind of a ride I’m in for. Establishing character and world is important, but you can’t spend so much time navel-gazing that you don’t at least hint to me what I’m in store for. Are we going on a quest? Is this going to be a revenge tale? Are we going to be defending earth against aliens? Give me something I can get interested in. Characters who just develop and then don’t do anything are best left to 19th century Russian intellectuals or Shakespeare (seriously, go back and re-read Crime and Punishment and Hamlet and tell me I’m wrong).

I want to stress here that the whole of the plot doesn’t need to be laid out. If you’ve got an ancient prophecy that’s going to be slowly revealed over the course of the whole book I can dig it! I wouldn’t mind knowing that we’re in a world where prophecy might be a thing.

4. Your voice.

This is probably the hardest one to quantify, which is why I left it for last like a coward. Give three authors the same basic plot to write and you’re going to wind up with three wildly different stories. There is that quality in all writing that is a shadow of the author (or at least the part of their shadow they want you to see). That’s especially important for a small publisher like Parvus, because a good voice can make a decent story absolutely amazing. I think my favorite example of this is Day by Day Armageddon, by JL Borune. It’s a fairly typical zombie apocalypse story told in a masterful way.

Other authors similarly lend their voices to their work. Rip the cover off any John Scalzi novel and I’ll be able to identify it as a “Scalzi” in the first 30 pages. Jim Butcher I can probably tag in the first 40 and I’m guessing John Ringo takes less than 20. My point is that the uniqueness of your voice is an asset, and you should let it come through.

Those are four of the elements that I, as both a reader and a publisher of books, want to see. They don’t all need to be perfect (that’s what our amazing editors are for), but when someone asks me  what your book is about I should never have to answer “I’m not 100% sure…”.  Put another, more mercenary way:

You can’t convince me to buy your book in the first 50 pages. But you can definitely convince me not to.