The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors, and Readers and Set Up Your Novel For Success

019By Jeff Gerke; Writers Digest Books; @2011; 226 pages.

I’ve got a few how-to books for writing novels, but this one is the best one I’ve read in quite some time. The author, Jeff Gerke, has worked as an acquisitions editor and offers his insights for what needs to be done in the first 50 pages of your novel.

I was so inspired by this book that I started making notes for my own novel while reading it.

For the longest time, I’ve felt constrained about how to begin a novel. Should I just free write and see what happens, or should I outline the thing to death and start writing from my outline?

Thus far, I’ve done nothing.

Jeff Gerke gives me a third option. Think about a structure and the key things you need to accomplish (he tells you what they are), and then write to satisfy that structure. It’s sort of like playing the blues. You learn the blues scale and then improvise. That, I can do.

This isn’t to say that I’m not still feeling a lot of angst about my novel. I am. But I’ve got a lot of notes going now and a feeling about how to proceed.

As you might expect, Gerke harps on about showing and not telling, but he does a whole lot more.

He says the point of writing a novel is to show us a character’s transformation. He says that the hero has to have a “moment of truth.” He (she) has to acknowledge that he hasn’t been true to himself and that something has to change.

Fiction is about someone who wants something—and the thing that would keep them from getting it.

I like Gerke’s analogy of a character sitting on a fence (makes me think of the Flowers album by the Rolling Stones). The character has been sitting on a fence. As storytellers, we have to set fire to that fence, and our character has to jump off. The only question is: will he chose the path to his destruction (his status quo up to this point) or will he be true to his nearly forgotten core self?

Gerke reminds us to establish a normal before we violate normal. Begin with action, but not the main action.

He talks about the “hero’s knot.” What’s our hero’s deal? What’s his issue?

The more you, as the author, push him to unravel his knot, the more he resists.

Then Gerke talks about four ways (devices you can use) to begin your novel.

He also gives guidance for what the villain is supposed to do. He says that although some novels don’t have villains, in the publishing world, it’s better to have a villain than not to have a villain.

He talks a bit about the three-act structure, and explains how this works in a fresh and understandable way. Since Act 1 takes place in the first 50 pages, he gives you everything you ought to have in Act 1.

I was really inspired after reading this book. I now have quite a few notes on my first 50 pages. And, I’ll probably refer back to the book as a whole once I’ve written my first draft.

2 thoughts on “The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors, and Readers and Set Up Your Novel For Success”

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I always have trouble with the beginning and wonder how to proceed. Is the action engaging enough? The characters real? Are readers going to care enough to keep flipping the pages? This sounds like a wonderful read. i’ll definitely be picking up a copy of this.


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