Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Page 69 Test

Saddle up, folks - it's once again time to pick on conventional writing advice and point out why you shouldn't always take those oft-repeated words of wisdom as The Gospel According To [Insert-Famous-Author-Slash-Fabulous-Agent-Or-Editor-Here].

Beginnings are terribly important. (This part, at least, is true.) The conventional wisdom goes something like this: an agent or editor is going to give you just a little bit of time - maybe even less than a minute - to hook them with your prose. Therefore, your beginning must:

* Start with someone dying
* Blow something up
* Drip with so much voice that the reader can't hear herself think
* Be The Most Amazing Thing You Ever Write

Yes, you must have a compelling beginning. But here's the thing: once you get past that initial hurdle (Agent or Editor reads sample, requests more material, How Exciting!), the rest of your novel must be just as compelling as the beginning. Whatever bar you set with your opening has to be maintained throughout the rest of the story. How can you tell if yours works?

I was recently invited to contribute to The Page 69 Test blog, where authors open their novels to page 69, read what's there, decide whether it's representative of the tone of the entire book, and provide commentary along with a sample (or all) of the text on the page. This, in my opinion, is a fun and interesting way to evaluate the general tone of a novel (and refreshingly different from displaying, commenting on and reworking your beginning over and over and over and over...)

Does it work? Here are a few quick snippets from my own page 69s.

MASTER OF NONE

I was so dead.

Trevor stopped in front of me. “Mr. Donatti.”

“Present.”

He jammed the Taser against my thigh and pulled the trigger.

I went limp. Fortunately, the rope held me up. He kept the jolt short, and when he pulled back, I gasped, “Jesus Christ. Aren’t you supposed to ask me a question first?”

Trevor shook his head as if he was disappointed. This time, the damned thing juiced the side of my neck.

BROKEN ANGEL

“Leave your manners back at the ranch?” Eddie’s smile stayed in place, but his arms folded across his chest. Where had he gone wrong? And then Gabriel remembered the name. The goddamned name.

“Sorry. I’m...Angel.”

“Well, I’m charmed.” Eddie nodded and stepped back to let him through, and he moved to the bench. Eddie added with a grin, “Looking forward to bein’ the first guy with the pleasure of beating you.”

Great. He managed a weak smile and sat down. The clock moved on, and time rushed him toward the inevitable.

DEVIL'S HONOR

Desolation engulfed Shiro as he trudged up the stairs leading to the security hub. The air around him was stifling, choking, weighed his feet down until he could barely lift them to continue on his path.

Everything was gone. His friends, profession, his alter ego, even the self-control he’d prided himself on for so long—all dissipated like so much smoke. Furthermore, he was faced with an impossible task, one he wished with all his heart had not fallen to him, the unsuccessful completion of which would end in his death.

Without knowing how much time remained until his forced departure, Shiro planned on collecting all the information Serizawa’s security force had amassed on Shonen over time. Perhaps there was something they had missed that would at least give him a starting point.

At the moment, he faced the proverbial needle in a haystack.

SKIN DEEP

“I'll bet you will.” Cobalt shook his head, turned away, and headed for the center booth. The first day, he told himself, would be the hardest. Tomorrow the empty ache inside him would diminish a bit. Tomorrow he wouldn't see Will's tortured flesh every time he closed his eyes, or the look on Will's face for the moment he trusted him—like the sun breaking through clouds.

Tomorrow. But not today.

---------------------------

I do feel these pages are pretty accurate, as far as reflecting the various tones of the books. So, how about you - what's on your Page 69?

13 comments:

Brayden Hirsch said...

I like this idea. Instead of critiques on the first page, it's on page 69. I like it. Too bad my novella is only 40 pages...I could double-space I guess...

Brayden Hirsch
http://writebig.wordpress.com/
Author of The Yellow Eye, a short story at www.wetinkmagazine.com/fiction.htm

s.w. vaughn said...

Hi, Brayden (love that name!) Well, let's do some math. Calling a novel 400 pages (it's easier to math that way) and translating to a 40-page novella, that would make your page 69, page 6.9 ... so we'll call it page 7.

How does your page 7 start? :-)

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Gordon couldn't believe his eyes.

That's from page 69 of An Axe to Grind.

Marilyn

s.w. vaughn said...

That's great, Marilyn - it definitely says there's something happening on the page! :-)

A.B. Fenner said...

Oh man, I LOVE this idea! And not only did it make me check my page 69, but it also made me think of a chapter or two in particular that don't convey the general tone of my novel well. Thanks so much for the good perspective!

s.w. vaughn said...

Awesome, A.B.! (btw, I love your avatar :-)

One of the hardest things to do in a novel is maintaining consistency. I love this test for that. I also love a rather more involved exercise that Donald Maass describes in his workbook:

1. Print out your novel
2. Toss the whole thing in the air and pick up the pages in the wrong order
3. Stack them up and read them out of order, checking to see whether something is happening, about to happen, or hanging over the heads of your characters on every page (excepting those occasional one or two sentence pages at the ends of chapters)

It's time consuming, and once you "get" the consistency down you won't have to do it with every book - but it's fantastic for making sure that once an agent or editor starts reading, he/she won't be able to stop. :-)

Kim Smith said...

WOOT! these are awesome... and reminds me of why I am so proud to be a co-blogger with you and Aaron and Marta. Sigh. Great company... maybe one day you all will RUB off on me :D

s.w. vaughn said...

Thank you, Kim! And you are right up there with the greatness level. :-)

Watery Tart said...

I'm SHOCKED nobody has dived all over the innuendo potential here. Seems fairly obvious what OUGHT to be on page 69 *cough* [yeah, there's a tart in every group]

That said--I adore that tossing in the air idea and making sure every page has something and may just try that (I need SOMETHING--though somehow I know my BEGINNING needs more work than the rest)

s.w. vaughn said...

LOL I caught the innuendo the first time I heard about this test. And my next erotica project, I'm totally making sure page 69 is... appropriate. *G*

The tossing-the-pages-around thing is really fun! And it comes with the added benefit of making everyone in the household believe you're as crazy as you say you are. :-)

Marta Stephens said...

What a terrific idea!! Okay, here are two short ones from page 69 of my WIP, "Shroud of Lies."

“You’re right, it’s none of my business who you cozy up with, but Brian Gates’s life is. He and Warren were partners and if Warren let anything slip in between you and the sheets I need to know.”

I heard her emphatic denial, but every movement she made; from the rhythmic sound of a polished red nail tapping against the near-empty goblet, to the hard drags she pulled from her filtered smokes marked her words as undisputable lies.

s.w. vaughn said...

Ooh, intriguing stuff on your page, Marta! Looks like you're in good shape! *G*

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

This is SUCH a great idea, SW! Here's page 69 from the third book in Moore Mysteries, For Keeps. I'm editing it now (as you know), so it was handy. By the way, I was so happy to get back into all of your books by these excerpts! I LOVE YOUR BOOKS!

This passage comes just after the coroner, Lou, made a pass at Sam and told him she'd always had a crush on him, making him very uncomfortable!

"Sam’s patience thinned. He hurried to finish his muffin and downed the last of his coffee. He wanted to get home to Rachel and the garden. And the marble had been pulsing against his thigh for the past few minutes. “Yeah, probably a good idea to get some food in your stomach and go home. Take a nice hot shower and maybe a nap, too. Better yet, call one of your daughters and have her come over.” He stood abruptly, slapped a five on the table, then dug out seventy-five cents for the tip. “I’ve gotta run. If you need anything, feel free to call Rachel and me. Maybe you could stop by for dinner one of these nights? She’s a great cook, you know.” His mouth had just taken over and started blabbering. He really didn’t want this woman at his dinner table.
Lou seemed to deflate a little. She shot him a half smile. “Thanks, Sam. I’ll let you know how things go. Maybe we can do dinner next week.”
More nervous now than before, he tentatively patted her on the shoulder, pulled his hand away quickly, and pushed the money closer to his empty plate. “Sounds good. Hang in there.” He squared his shoulders and made a beeline for the exit.
By the time Sam pulled into his driveway, swirls of green sparkled around his face, nearly obstructing his vision. The marble seared his thigh, urging him toward the other realm before he’d had a chance to throw it into park and step on the parking brake. He hurried to the barn and into the old horse stall that had been Cricket’s. Before he could choose a comfortable spot, his vision blurred green and he collapsed on the straw-covered floor.