The First Fifty Pages

It’s time for another overhaul of the novel, readers.

Writing a novel takes patience. I’m learning that, slowly and steadily; and every time I get frustrated at the novel’s current state, I have to remind myself that it simply does take time for something as large, as ambitious, as intense as a novel to take the shape it needs. I also have to remind myself that as a writer, my weak point is structure. I have to re-adjust and change the novel’s shape. I have to work and re-work and re-work plot. More than anything, it’s amazing to me how if I just give myself a little distance from the novel, I’m able to see things that I simply couldn’t see before.

That change in sight is particularly evident in the first fifty pages, probably the most important part of any book. Because I know all the big events that will happen a hundred pages down the road, I now see that I’ve been coasting for the first fifty. I’m banking on a reader who will be patient and who will wait for something to happen; but the reader doesn’t have the foresight that I do. I can’t blame the reader, either — would I want to read a book in which nothing happens for fifty pages?

It’s astonishing to me, after all the careful work I’ve done on those fifty pages, to look back and be able to realize that nothing has really gotten off the ground yet. But it’s also galvanizing. I’m able to say to myself that I have the courage to make bold changes. I can do this, I’m telling myself. I have the freedom to shift and shuffle and re-think what’s going on. Why not begin in the middle of the crucial choice she must make, instead of waiting for that choice to show up at page 65? Why not just begin?

I think this is a tremendously common obstacle that writers encounter, and I see it in my students and colleagues’ work all the time. There’s this trepidatious opening, this timid little tap of the water to see how the temperature is. Are you liking this mood? We’re asking the reader. How about this character, do you like her? What if I change her in about forty pages? Would you prefer her fiestier, quietier, more insane? The first fifty pages of any draft are a nervous affair.

The funny thing is that those fifty pages endure into third, fourth, and fifth drafts. We’re still holding on to those fifty pages even as we boldly change what comes next, because they were the first foothold into that novel. Maybe it’s nostalgia that makes us cling, or deeply held affection for the way that things began, the first fruition of that little blooming bud of a story. Maybe it’s sentimentality. Or maybe it’s fear; in my case, I got positive feedback for those first fifty pages that encouraged me to write the rest of the manuscript. But now that I’ve completed the thing, I can’t cling to that first fifty just because I got a pat on the head for them. Now I can do better. And now I must.

This week, try looking back at the first fifty pages of your novel manuscript. If you’re brutally honest with yourself, does anything of import happen in that space? And if not, why not change it?

One comment

  1. B R Johnson says:

    My novel was the first thing I wrote, actually WAY overwrote, and when/if it’s ever finished it will be a series. But I put it aside a year ago and have been writing short stories, flash fiction, and novellas since. The novel needs a total rewrite, and I’m just beginning to think I may be able to tackle it-maybe a few months down the road.

    Most things I rewrite on the computer, but I think I’ll work on the novel on paper. I know it needs to be cut, a lot, and looking at it on paper will be a different perspective and best for me, I think. Has anyone else tried this?

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