I’ve been thinking a lot about the first hundred pages of books. Everyone–agents, editors, panelists at writing conferences–agrees they are super important. In fact, they can make or break your chances of getting published. My own experience supports that: When I was looking for an agent, the ones who were interested would always ask for the first hundred pages before asking for the whole manuscript. In semester-long workshops, there is rarely time to discuss more than the first hundred pages of a novel. Second and third novels are often sold on the promise of just the first hundred pages of a new novel, with an accompanying synopsis, to the editor who bought a writer’s first novel. And honestly–as a reader, if I don’t like a book after 100 pages (which these days is usually about a third of the whole book), I’m just not going to continue. Life is too short.
More recently, I am learning how critical those first hundred pages are from a craft perspective. Now that I have written four (yes, people, four!) complete novels, and I know how to shape 300-400 pages of raw manuscript into something resembling a book, I see that if I can nail down those first hundred pages, the following 200-ish won’t be nearly as difficult to write, or painful to read. The worst is writing the whole 300 pages, realizing it’s all gone awry, then having to go back and rewrite everything all over again. Because so much of the time, what went awry was IN those first hundred pages.
It’s not that I still don’t have to rewrite. As I hope you’ll see in my book TINAWM, I am a huge proponent of revision. When I say “nail down” the first hundred pages, I’m not talking about making it polished like your grandmother’s tea service. I just mean getting the characters, the voice, the setting, and the stakes firmly in place. These are the foundations of the book. If those are solid, I can build the rest.
This is not easy to do. For the novel I’m writing now, those first hundred pages have gone through 3 drafts already. But I think I’ve just about gotten them right–right enough for me to move forward.
To get those pages in shape, I’ve asked for comments from a few key readers. We’ve done page swaps, and I’ve been intrigued to note that they sent me about the same amount of material. After discussing our stories, we have also chatted about the essential nature of these hundred pages. Apparently, others had figured this out before I had!!
You may have guessed that I am a pantser, not an outliner. I am not yet as evolved as Julia. I may never be. But I know that writing by the seat of my pants will be much safer with those hundred pages in good shape.