This Was One of My Session Choices on Sunday, January 22.
The First 50 Pages (and Why Getting Them Right Is the Key to Your Success)–Jeff Gerke, Founder & Publisher of Marcher Lord
The focus of this section was fiction.
Gerke asked: What do your first 50 pages have to accomplish?
- Fiction is about someone wanting something they can’t get.
- Agents and acquisition editors make their decisions based on the first 50 pages.
- JOB #1 of those 50 pages: Engage the reader!
- Introduce hero & main characters.
- Establish context for your story. That means establishing the “normal” before you violate that normal with your inciting incident and subsequent plotline. Establish what the main characters’ lives are like before everything changes.
- Reveal genre. Include backdrop, era, story world.
- Set the tone/voice.
- Introduce a theme (underlying message), villain, stakes.
- Start time bomb, which helps generate suspense.
- Start hero’s inner journey.
- Set up Act II.
- Establish “circularity” (something that’s set up at the story’s beginning, which is then referred to again at the story’s end).
Normally, editors are sheltered from the slush pile. Agents are those who deal with slush. They are looking for something they like and something they can sell. They see so many submissions that aren’t ready. If they choose you, that’s really an accomplishment!
Acquisition editors receive the best manuscripts, already screened by the agents. Then they have to sell those manuscripts up the food chains of their publishing organizations. There isn’t time for them to really cull through the piles they receive. That’s why proposals and the first 50 pages are so important. Concentrate on writing a great synopsis.
Editors are focused on their companies making money and on keeping their jobs, in addition to the quality of the writing and storylines their receiving.
In publishing houses, chances are good that only one person in the firm will actually read the entire manuscript before a contract is signed with the author. (I found this to be one of the most revelational things I heard at the conference!)
Four Different Ways to Begin a Novel (the first two listed are the most commonly seen and recommended):
- Prologue. This method has become unnecessarily controversial, in Gerke’s opinion. He believes that prologues are fine and a legitimate way to begin a novel. Those who disagree say that prologues are too full of backstory and information dump. Gerke says that prologues are good because they can effectively introduce the villain, the stakes, and the ticking time bomb, all with the benefit of not needing the hero to be on stage. Gerke’s recommendation for avoiding any bias against prologues in first-50-pages submissions is to simply change the title of “Prologue” to “Chapter One,” and leave the rest of writing unchanged.
- Hero Action. In this method of beginning a novel, the hero is on stage from page one, doing something interesting. (Ex. cited: Indiana Jones, the Lost Arc.) Reveal the hero’s personality, his heroism, his “normal.” Do not make an unlikeable hero. Unlikeable heroes are disengaging to the reader.
- In Media Res (“into the middle of things“). This method starts in the middle of the story and then flashes back to catch up. Not recommended for a first novel. (For additional clarity, I copied the first two lines of definition from Wikopedia: “In medias res or medias in res (into the middle of things) is a Latin phrase denoting the literary and artistic narrative technique wherein the relation of a story begins either at the mid-point or at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning (cf. ab ovo, ab initio), establishing setting, character, and conflict via flashback or expository conversations relating the pertinent past.” Here’s the link to the rest: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_medias_res. I sort of like this method personally.)
- Frame Device. A modern story where the main characters are old at the start. The rest of the story takes place when they were young and is told through a combination of flashbacks and modern-day plot points. (As a personal note, this method requires extensive research to ensure that the flashback settings fully capture the settings and what was going on in the flashback era(s) This would also be true with the In Media Res method.)
The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors, and Readers, and Set Your Novel Up for Success, by Jeff Gerke, is available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/First-50-Pages-Editors-Readers/dp/1599632837.