What Your First 50 Pages Reveals

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.


Is your manuscript ready to pitch, or does it still need work? It can be a maddening question to answer. Even for seasoned authors, the question of when a manuscript is ready to pitch can be a tough call.

Leonardo da Vinci is credited as saying, “A work of art is never done, only abandoned,” and it’s easy to feel like there’s always something else you can do, some new element you can add to make your manuscript stronger.

Of course, that’s usually true. But if you’re ever going to write another book, there comes a point where you’re going to have to take a deep breath, cross your fingers, and hit submit.

So: How do you know when that time has come?

The most effective process I’ve found for determining whether a manuscript is ready to pitch is to look at its opening the way a publishing pro would. This means first reading the query letter and synopsis and then turning a critical eye to the first fifty pages.

First, synopses tend to reveal story weaknesses

Queries are notoriously hard to write, but synopses might just be harder: How could anyone possibly encapsulate the epic sweep of their novel in the course of just one single-spaced page? Even so, learning how to write a synopsis is an essential skill, not just for pitching, but for getting a sense of the overall sweep of your story.

When I work with clients to determine whether they’re ready to pitch, I look first at that synopsis, because when it doesn’t quite make sense, that’s a good indication that there are issues with the plot and/or character arc.

For instance, the synopsis may indicate that there’s no clear through line with this story, no central source of conflict that escalates. It may indicate that the different storylines involved don’t clearly connect—or that the story has no real climax, a point where the different themes and sources of conflict in the story come to a dramatic turning point, a moment of truth, a transformation.

But let’s say all of that is there in the synopsis. That, plus a compelling query letter means the pitch for this book may well get the attention of an agent or editor—which means the next step is to dig into the first fifty pages of the manuscript.

What agents and editors look for in the first pages

First, there are the basics: Is it clear whose head we’re in within the first few paragraphs? Is there a sense that there’s something real at stake in this story, that it matters? Is the voice compelling, the prose clear? If the answer is yes on all accounts, I look for more complex things.

Exposition and backstory

Is there enough exposition for the reader to make sense of what’s happening in the story, and to understand where the protagonist is coming from? There are many writers who skimp on providing information about both the world of the story and the protagonist’s backstory, thinking that doing so makes their story sound more sophisticated—and generally speaking, it’s true: less is more. But if you withhold too much of this information for too long, you won’t be able to let your reader into the story and get them hooked.

The promise

Another thing I look for is “the promise of the premise.” Maybe the premise, as laid out in the synopsis and query—to give a somewhat ridiculous example—is something like “boy meets unicorn, boy loses unicorn, boy gets girl instead” (though come to think of it, that might be a book I’d like to read…). If the unicorn doesn’t appear until page 40, I know this novel isn’t starting in the right place. It’s not delivering on the promise of the premise until too late.

Pacing

This touches on another key issue, pacing. Because no matter how big and sprawling a story may be, if I don’t see the inciting incident and at least one more major plot development within the first 50 pages, I know that the pacing is off.

In fact, when a writer sends me the first 50 pages of a manuscript that really is ready to pitch—or close to it—there’s almost always some compelling plot development that has just occurred by page 50, usually without any planning or forethought on the author’s part. That shows me that the author has an intuitive command of the art of pacing—and that an agent or editor is likely to request the full manuscript.

Narrative tension

Finally, a big thing I look for within the first 50 pages is narrative tension. That tension may arrive from a source of conflict—whether that’s a falling out between two longtime friends or World War III in the making—or it may arise from questions the story has raised.

Who killed the jogger on that early morning run we glimpsed in the prologue?

Or: Who will be guilty of the infidelity we know is coming in this marriage?

Or: Will this troubled teen drift further into juvenile delinquency, or will her relationship with her drama teacher help her turn her life around?

Narrative tension is critical in both novels and memoirs, as it’s the fuel that keeps the fires of story burning—which is another way of saying that it’s what keeps the reader turning the pages, in order to find out what happens next. And at the end of a 50-page sample, it’s a big part of what will compel an agent or editor to request the full.

Parting advice

Prepare your query letter and synopsis, then put both them and your manuscript aside for a few days, or even a few weeks. Then go back and read your query and synopsis as if you yourself were a publishing pro, and turn a critical eye to your first 50 pages.

Does this opening sound like the opening of the book described in your pitch materials? Does it have a compelling voice, the right pacing, and enough fuel to keep the fires of story burning, all the way to page 50—and beyond?

If so, you’re probably ready to pitch.

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Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres, an anthology in tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin (forthcoming 2021 from Forest Avenue Press). Her work has been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the Utne Reader, Story Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Portland Monthly, and High Desert Journal, along with many other journals and anthologies. A freelance editor since 2009 and a founding coach at Author Accelerator, she serves writers telling “stories that matter.” Find out more at her website.

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