Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Keeping the Reader Reading - Analyzing the first 50 pages of a Manuscript

I've heard the rule of thumb for adult fiction is that all the elements of the story have to be in place by page fifty of a book to keep a reader reading. For kidlit, it's probably much earlier than that. As writers, how to we know we've got the first fifty pages where they need to be? I’ve been doing some critiquing and some editing of my own work, and came to some realizations in the process. We know it’s hard to see the flaws in our own writing, but critiquing others has helped me know what to look for now. I’ve made a list of some things I use whether I’m reading my own story or someone else’s work:
1. For each character introduced, do I have a picture in my head of them besides their name and occupation/role? Will I be able to remember something about them when I encounter them later? I read fast, like many others, and if a character comes into the story and then disappears again for awhile, it’s frustrating to me when that character reappears and I can’t remember who they are and what point they serve to the story. Somehow, they need to be memorable enough the first time around to stick.
2. For the important characters, how do I feel about them? Do I like them? Dislike them? Don’t care?  Too often, when a story starts out where the main character is unhappy with their current situation, it may make sense plot-wise, but the reader needs to feel more than sympathy for a character to really be hooked. I want to know something interesting about a character. It doesn’t matter what, but I like to know how at least some tiny distinction that would make me want to keep reading about them.
3. Do I have an inkling of what the main character wants or what they are going to face? This may seem obvious, especially in middle grade where the pace moves faster, but sometimes you can get hung up on dreaded backstory infodump. It may feel like everything about the character’s world needs to be defined, but neglecting the plot to do so can kill the pacing. Relating this back to #2, it’s a fine balance to get into the plot fast enough while not neglecting the character development. If the first few pages are about your characters about to fall into a pit of boiling lava, that’s exciting, but I have to care a little about them too. 
4. Is the world in the story interesting enough to make the reader either want to be in that world or at least be able to easily imagine it? If your story is set in an ordinary place, you still can engage the readers’ senses so they can feel they are part of the story. If it’s an unusual place, again, anything you can do to make the reader believe it’s real, the more the reader will be drawn into the story. For me, the best stories of all are ones in which I want to be in that world, if only for a little while.
Any other tips for critiquing or editing? I'm always looking to add to my list!
~Dee Garretson


  1. Dee, Your point about characters is very important! In my last manuscript, I really had to work at making characters memorable if they were going to make only a brief appearance and then return later. There had to be something striking and unique about them, something that would stand out to the reader.

    Running jokes about characters often work well in MG. THIS character is always hungry. THIS one is armed to the teeth at all times. THIS one is mysterious and everyone in the room clams up when his name is mentioned.

    1. Diane, I like the idea about running jokes. I've tried to use quirks as well, though again, it's always hard not to overdo it.

    2. I like that idea too. I think it relates to a larger idea -- if we know who a character is at an essential level, we can showcase or highlight a few characteristics to bring them to life. Then it's just a matter of doing it with consistency, and giving the *right* moments, which hopefully reveal more of who they are underneath.

  2. And I would add (from experience with an ensemble cast) the more characters you have, the more important number 1 becomes!

    1. Matthew, I admit I sometimes shy away from even attempting to write stories with large casts, because I just feel overwhelmed. My very first full-lenght now trunked novel had multitudes of one large extended family, and one of my first beta readers told me there were just so many cousins it made her head spin.

  3. Good advice for YA writers, too.

    1. Yes, the whole caring about the characters may be even more important in YA. My kids will stop reading a book if they don't like the MC no matter how interesting the plot is.

    2. Well Dee, I strongly believe characterization matters just as much in MG as YA and beyond, but while I don't read much YA, I'm hard pressed at times to see a certain level of character development beyond the romance stuff in YA. At least most of the YA I've read.

      I'm with your kids in not wanting to finish books where I find the MC really is not my thing.

      That doesn't mean I try to be so set in my ways as a reader that I don't branch out. But it's why I could finish the first Artemis Fowl, I just personally couldn't get into it.

      I don't blame the author.

      It just wasn't for me, and I say that not as the writer I am now, but the lay reader I was when I read it before the series ended (13 or 14) so I was in the target age group and still didn't like it, but the writer in me wants to re-read if only because I know this book spoke to so many boys, and I have issues with a lot of "boy books" that didn't do it for me, but try to have the "Even books I don't personally like can teach me things" and while most writers I know don't have to work through this, I DO, and I hope I'm not alone.

      I'm not as into snarky narrators as a lot of my writer friends are, I have to really love the writing or story overall to stay with it, but I'm speaking generally here.

  4. Hi, Dee! This is most helpful. Thanks.

    I just attended the NJ SCBWI conference, and learned quite a bit. The first three chapters are all-important in MG (as opposed to picture books, where the end is all-important). So in my novel, with short chapters, that's only 20 pages. You MUST hook the reader in those first three chapters. Engaging all the senses helps. Adding flaws and secrets, as well as likeable traits, makes the character more relatable.

    I also learned that any dialogue that doesn't move the story along needs to be axed! I came home from the conference and slashed some unnecessary dialogue and description from chapter 2 and 3 to make it tighter and more fast-paced.

    1. Joanne, good point about the dialogue. We think we need to make it like real-life dialogue, but real-life dialogue meanders way too much. And dialogue is a great way to show character development, if done the right way.

  5. This is great Dee! Four relatively simply questions that will dramatically help keep a writer on track for that all important opening. Thanks for sharing!

  6. This post reminds me why I'm more anal about beginnings than endings, while I know ending well's important, too, having a lame beginning scares me FAR MORE!

    I'm so merciless about strong openings in my own books because-

    1. I personally LOVE opening that while may not be "Guns blazing" but is willing to put characterization over atypical "catastrophe" and NOT be boring, IMHO.

    2. No one will get to the end if they're underwhelmed by the beginning. (I don't count assigned reading in this because to me that's a different argument)

    3. I'm not a "Master of Brevity." Anyone who's seen my blog (or comments on other blogs) knows what I mean...

    1. Taurean, yes, i'm always afraid readers won't even get to the ending if they are bored in the beginning. One of my children will absolutely not read on if she isn't hooked by page 20

    2. I can relate, and despite concerns educators have about kids and teens not challenging themselves enough (I do think there's some legit concern there, and I'm not even a parent or teacher, so there![LOL]) I also believe there HAS to be a balance between challenge and enjoyment.

      I don't think of myself as a weak reader, in general, just because I find Dickens and Tolstoy a chore to read on the page. If not for great audiobooks, I would've given up on Dickens in particular, and I do feel authors today can be torn between challenging their readers to be stronger readers, and STILL entertain, and avoid patronizing all the while.

      I do fear at times we put enjoyment over raising reading skills. But I believe there has to be balance between whatever assigned reading is necessary and what kids want to read without
      bad mouthing what they do read by choice.

      As a writer myself, I really have to watch what I say about books I may not personally like, but I respect readers who do. Just like I want respect for books I read and write, because they're HARD to write well, and you have to love it because even the least discerning readers will spot a phony (Someone who doesn't really love what they're writing) a mile away.

      And I say this as someone who has favorite books about things I was too chicken to read as a kid (War, Mentally ill who are NOT psycho pervs, sex of any kind, I was NOT the kid who who snuck into R-rated movies, and I'm NOT ashamed of that anymore!) so I hope future educators also take into account what a student is or isn't ready to read.

      Even GREAT books can be ruined for readers if it's just not the right time emotionally, not JUST developmentally.

      Believe me, I'm not for things being harder than necessary (From the technical aspects of how stories are written and are read), but I do think even amongst fellow authors and teachers who deal with primary grades every day, we face challenges wrestling these equally viable concerns different than readers in middle or high school.

      I believe this issue gets worse in some respects after elementary school because we still champion LOVING what you read, not just the mechanics of how to read and basic writing skills, by middle and high school, it's all about being "College Ready" at the detriment to everything else, INCLUDING enjoying what you read.

      All that said, having been lectured by many a parent/teacher/author about how I write "too complex" for the average MG reader, I take the stance of "I'd rather overwhelm JUST A LITTLE than insult their intelligence, trying to 'Keep it Simple' Period."

      Let me tell you, even the most illiterate souls are still NOT idiots, and no less hurt when they're deemed incapable of having the same dreams, feelings and fears as those of us privileged to be literate, even if they can't express it in words, they do in actions, however extreme or subtle.

      It can be either positive or negative. Depending on how open-minded as the adults around them influence them.

      Though I don't have specific word or page count, from a reader's perspective, it's more by feel for me when I can no longer read. For me it's on a book by book basis, this was true even before I wrote my own stuff, and is even more true now.

      Sorry for not keeping this short, but the more I care, the longer I put things, can't always help it...

  7. You share some strong points here! I totally agree that in kidlit, you have to draw in the reader much earlier. It's very easy to lose a child's attention when they decide the story isn't moving fast enough.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!