The late Marshal McLuhan claimed readers could judge a book not by its cover but by its 69th page. In other words, if page 69 grabs your attention, the rest of the book will too. I took his tenet one step further and grabbed three of my favorite writing books: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman and On Writing by Stephen King. If we turn to page 69, what bits of writerly wisdom might they impart?
|The villain has to have a heart, and the hero has to have great flaws. You’ve got to pay attention to what each character says, so you can know each of their hearts.|
|Once you feel you’ve smoothed out your style problem, go through your manuscript one more time and check for redundancy, for places where you might have repeated an event or idea with only a slightly new twist. Cut them.|
|I had written three novels before Carrieâ€¦ But none of them taught me the things I learned from Carrie White. The most important is that the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s. Running a close second was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.|
OK. So far McLuhan has a point. So I tested it some more: I closed my eyes and grabbed the first book I touched on my nightstand: The Last World War by Dayton Ward. Turn to page 69 and you’ll read:
From the seclusion of the forest, Raegyra watched as the creature staggered away from the remains of its companions and into the woods.
His first instinct had been to kill the creature the moment he had become aware of its presence, hiding as it was in the brush. Its death would have been quick, if not unsettling to his stomach. Even with its reduced power settings, the weapons effects had still been horrific during the small impromptu battle moments before.
Do you want to keep reading? I did. Now, the painful part: What do my own page 69s reveal?
First, just to be, yanno, as scientifically accurate as possible, I reformatted the double-spaced manuscripts into a layout more closely resembling a book. And lo! Page 69 of my middle grade supernatural novel happens to be the start of not just one of my favorite scenes, but a compelling turn of plot events.
Whoo hoo! This was a relief, because page 69 of the actual manuscript? Yeah, not so compelling.
Now for the women’s fiction manuscript: Reformat, reset margins, blah blah blah and voila! It’s another of my favorite scenes, as my spunky albeit slightly pathetic at this point heroine butts heads with the bristly musician/proverbial burr under her skin.
Whew, because, once again, page 69 of the manuscript elicits a very “mehâ€ reaction.
This is all good and fun, but do McLuhan’s theories have any real-world weight? What else might you have to say about modern media, Mr. McLuhan? Well, alrighty then. I see your point.
Page 69 wins.
Originally published at Kidlit Central, Sep. 5th, 2008 By Colleen Ryckert Cook
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