The First Fifty Pages
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.