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.
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.
Happy Monday, Parvus People, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day to those of you celebrating this week. Being in the storytelling business, we’re big fans of the blarney.
Before we get into submission lessons, if you haven’t seen it already, you should check this week’s Blog Post of our compatriot and Consulting Editor, John Adamus. John talks about showing vs. telling (Something that you’re probably reading about by now) but he does it with stripper metaphors: John’s Blog. I know you folks are tired of seeing “show vs. tell”, but it’s a skill that is still underdeveloped in a lot of the submissions we receive.
Our focus this week, fair friends, is going to be on how to make your job as a novelist harder. It appears to be a topic that many of you are interested in! So, without any further delay, let’s dig in.
The easiest way to make your job harder is to decide that it’s not enough to JUST be a novelist. You should also be a poet, or lyricist, or short story writer. It is common in fantasy novels (and marginally less so in sci-fi) to include an epigraph at the opening of a chapter. This is sometimes a quote from some fictional wise man in your universe, recalling a quote from a major character in an early chapter (A technique we love when used well), or even a bit of poetry.
I implore you, dear writer. If you are not a poet, do not include poetry in your novel. Most novel readers do not read poetry. Most novelists do not write poetry. When a person who Is not accustomed to interpreting poetry reads less-than-stellar poetry, it’s a disaster for both reader and writer alike.
If you must include poems in your novel, find a poet and ask them to write them for you. The same goes for songs. Find a songwriter, give them the rough sketch of your idea, and trust them to write the lyrics for you.
But, should you want to make your job harder, feel free to try to learn to write effective poetry while you are working your way through a 100,000 word manuscript.
What about short stories? The skills are more closely related; so what’s so bad about including a short story in your novel? Again, it’s about reader expectations. A reader picking up a novel is not expecting to find short stories peppered throughout. If they did, they’d pick up a collection of short stories.
Novels are full of side stories, vignettes, flashbacks, etc. that are mostly self-contained bubbles of story hanging off the main host, but they are not entirely self-contained. They must attach to the main story, either by way of a character weaving the telling of the story into the main through line of their arc, by ending without fully resolving their small plot (because the resolution of said plot is part of the larger story arc), or by some other means.
A short story is a fully self-contained tale with a beginning, middle, and end. If you absolutely must include something of this nature into your novel for reasons that don’t immediately leap to mind, have a character deliver it to us in a first person narrative. Have them relate the events that occurred to them. In this way, at least, you are weaving the short story into the larger narrative.
Or, you can choose to make your job as a novelist impossible by peppering your novel with short stories. Not only will you give your reader a jarring experience and break the spell of the narrative, but you will have the joy of forcing yourself to excel in two very different writing styles just to be considered adequate overall.
If you’re writing a novel, friends, just write a novel. Don’t compound the monumentally difficult task in front of you by attempting to master multiple different styles of writing and story composition in the same work. Give me a complex narrative full of foreshadowing, mirroring, allegory, callbacks and rich characterization. Isn’t that enough of a challenge for you?
Before we begin this week’s blog post, let me give you a little background information that will help you understand our perspective on prologues. 28% of the submissions we receive have prologues. The vast majority of those, 75% are fantasy. 25% of those books with prologues are science fiction.
Of the books that did not have prologues, there isn’t a single one that I read and thought “You know what would make this better? A prologue”.
Of the books that DID have prologues, nearly all of them suffered from the weight of the prologue holding the story back.
So, this week’s discussion is going to center on prologues and why you probably shouldn’t include one in your manuscript. I’d like to focus on what a prologue needs to accomplish in order to justify its existence.
A prologue sets up the reader to enjoy your story. It whets the appetite for the main course. Many people will advise you that the prologue establishes the world or setting. While it MAY do that, that is simply one function a prologue can perform. It is not the reason for the prologue to exist. The prologue makes promises to the reader. It tells them that, if they’re patient, the story will reward them with awe and beauty. And it hooks the reader with a question.
Look at one of the single most effective prologues in modern novels; George R. R. Martin’s prologue to A Game of Thrones. Spoilers (of the prologue only) follow:
What happens in this prologue? Martin introduces us to three characters – two of whom are dead by the end of the prologue and the third of whom dies shortly thereafter. He introduces us to the cold, icy setting of the world north of the wall; but it’s a bare bit of forest of no particular import. We are barely introduced to the Night’s Watch and the idea of the wildlings.
None of these things are really all that important. None of these really serve as an introduction to the world or the setting, as most people believe a prologue should. But, at the end, we see the Others, The White Walkers. We see these other-worldly, clearly magical villains and we watch them kill a member of the Watch, who then rises as a lich to kill his former companion.
THAT bit there is the important part of this prologue. Martin is telling us that there is magic in this world; evil, dark magic. He is telling us that there is an ancient enemy who swells its ranks as you try and fight it by raising the dead. He does this because the next chapter shifts us to Winterfell, a thoroughly unmagical place. In fact, there is very little magic observed in most of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.
The prologue was a promise to fantasy readers that while most of the books were about the machinations and politics of Martin’s richly detailed world, there was also magic pulsing in the background. It would be important, but it wasn’t going to be available as a tool for our heroes to Deus ex Machina themselves out of every jam.
And it gave us the question – Who are these Others? When will the rest of the world get wise to the danger they pose? This would be a background question for the reader to keep in their mind as they watched the game of thrones unfold. It’s a question that maintains tension throughout the novels; why is it important which Baratheon boy holds the throne when the real threat is an army of the undead coming from the north?
That, my friends, is what your prologue should do. It should leave the readers with a question that will lurk on the edges of the key scenes in your novel. It should promise something to them and keep them reading. Here’s the secret that a good prologue hides; Make the readers the promise of danger, excitement, or thrills and they will grant you an entire chapter one to set up the world.
The prologue buys you the time (and credibility) to deliver the exposition you need. If you’re putting that exposition in the prologue before hitting the reader with an exciting Chapter 1, you’ve gotten it backwards and they won’t even make it that far.
So; take another look at your prologue. Is there action, tension, and mystery? If not, dump it immediately. It’s an anchor you’re asking the rest of the book to carry around. Look at your chapter one; does it contain all the elements of your story in microcosm? Does it have momentum? Does it compel the story forward? If so, you probably don’t need your prologue.
My perspective on prologues in manuscripts is this: If the book opens with a compelling chapter one and keeps my interest moving through, I may find myself thinking “Great book. Could be better with a prologue to set up mid-point events. Should talk to the editor about that.” However, if I’m reading a prologue that is dragging me down with exposition or that seems wholly disconnected from Chapter One, I won’t have faith that the writer is skilled enough to make the rest of the manuscript worth reading.
At the end of the day, that’s the most important promise that your book’s opening makes, whether it’s a prologue of a plain old chapter one, you are promising the reader that you are skilled enough to have crafted an enjoyable story. You are promising the reader that you are worth their time.
Unless you’re certain that you’ve got a killer prologue, dump it before it kills your novel.
Hello, Parvus People! Firstly, we must thank you for another week of solid submissions. You’re making our job of selecting our debut acquisitions incredibly difficult. We hope to have some announcements on that front by the end of March, though, so keep an eye on your social media feeds!
This week, I’d like to continue our post series on feedback from the submission pool by focusing on characterization. One of the biggest challenges in writing is developing the skill to write fully realized, three dimensional, believable characters that are different from yourself. If you’re a nice, easy-going, gregarious person, it may be a real difficulty for you to write a believable villain who shares none of those traits.
The response to our first call for submissions has been excellent so far. We were incredibly impressed with the quality of manuscripts submitted and that just goes to reinforce our decision to launch Parvus Press. There are some amazing stories out there, sitting on hard drives and ready for a publisher to put some muscle behind them.
As we’ve read through the submissions, we noticed a few common areas for improvement and I thought we should share them out for everyone’s benefit.