So I got an advance email heads-up from the writing program that a large envelope is coming next week chock-full of all the preparatory paperwork and instructions for the coming semester. Attached to the email was an attachment with instructions for sending along my written material to be workshopped while I’m there. Everyone sends in their twenty pages, they’re bound together, and then everyone gets a copy in advance so they can read them before they get there.
Going in I already know what I’m submitting because I need to know whether or not I’m on the right track. I need to break out of this vacuum and see how a total bunch of strangers react. It’s going to be the first twenty pages of my YA novel.
But twenty pages?
Backing up for a moment, twenty years ago when I was wet behind the ears and started joined MFA program at San Francisco State I was facing down three short stories with a minimum of fifteen pages each. I wasn’t dedicated to the novel yet and short stories was where I felt the most comfortable, and even then I remember thinking that fifteen pages seemed like a lot. Not lot for a short story but a lot for the types of stories I wanted to write. Looking back on it I’m amused with my younger self because if I’d had any sort of clue I would have recognized that what I wanted to write was more along the lines of flash fiction or prose poems, and there I was in the middle of classic short-story-as-literature country.
Also, I didn’t have much to write about. I think there are a lot of great young writers out there who can dig deep into reserves of life and pull out great writing without having had a whole lot of life behind them, and bless them, I’m not one of those writers and it’s taken me all these years of living to both realize it and learn how to use it. I think if I could go back in time and talk to my twenty-year-younger self the only thing I could say that he might understand is “Dude, you’re such a chucklehead!”
Today I look at twenty pages and think “So little?” How much can really be gleaned in those twenty pages? Already two-thirds through the manuscript at 250 pages, it feels like twenty pages isn’t really enough.
But it’s plenty.
In another lifetime when I was learning how to write screenplays I heard some of the most amazing stories about how quickly (and harshly) scripts were reviewed and summarily rejected. Most books on the craft of screenwriting (and craft is the word because rarely does it approach art or literature) will point out that you’ve got ten pages to catch a reader’s attention; your tone has to be set by the first page, your central question established by the third, all your main characters by the tenth.* If you haven’t hit your act-turning plot point by page thirty you’re dead in the water. Formulaic? Yes, but it’s a tried and true formula as weekend box office grosses can attest.
Fortunatly the novel isn’t as rigidly formula-driven. Still there are some parallels. The first line, or the first paragraph at the very least, has to set a tone. The central theme needs to be apparent within the first five to ten pages. After twenty pages or so you’re going to need to have your main characters grounded and showing you where they’re headed or else you’ve lost the reader.
Twenty pages, do-or-die.
I’ve looked over the first twenty pages of the manuscript this morning and I’m comfortable enough to send them off into the world on their own. Not so comfortable that I won’t be open to suggestions, but comfortable that the reader — my fellow students — will at least want to know what happens next.
That’s the least I can hope for, right?
* By the way, once you understand this formula and can internalize it, there are very few Hollywood movies that will surprise you in the end, especially mysteries and thrillers. Your bad guy is going to be there in the first 25 minutes, if not in person at the very least mentioned by another character. The same is true with television, only on a shorter timeframe. Police shows will show you who the person-of-interest is usually within the first five minutes and then spend the next hour trying to hold your suspense while they feed you red herrings and connect the dots. To those who wondered at how I guessed the ending of The Sixth Sense from the beginning, it’s all there in the first ten minutes.