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Tips for Improving Your First 50 Pages

Summer is over and it’s the season for authors to be dusting off manuscripts, entering contests, and sending off partials to editors and agents.  That being the case — and also because I have spent the last week judging Golden Pen entries — I thought I would pass along a few tips for improving the first 50 pages of your manuscript.

These tips are hard-won knowledge earned through years and years of making mistakes, and then more years of judging contests.  I can’t guarantee that you’ll final in a contest or get that agent to request a full if you follow these tips.  But I know these tips will make your first few pages much stronger.

1) Start with action.  Read your first 50 pages and find the first place in it where the following applies:  a) there are two people in the scene, b) they are fighting about something or fighting something that wants to eat them or otherwise harm them.  When you find that place, it’s probably the place where your submission needs to start.  Cut everything — and I mean every word — that happens before this moment and start your book right in the middle of the fight scene, or in the first few moments before the fight begins.  Don’t have anything in your first 50 pages that has two people fighting about something?  That’s probably a hint that you’ve got pacing problems with your novel — move to tip # 2 for solutions.

2) Make sure your hero and heroine have something they want to accomplish and make it clear what it is on page 1.  I’m sure everyone has heard the old adage that conflict moves a story forward.  This is hugely confusing to many people who think that conflict is what happens at their house when the kids get tired, hungry, and cranky.  Instead, think about conflict as the barrier that stands between a character and what she wants or desperately needs at the beginning of the book.  That barrier can be physical, emotional, imaginary, animal, vegetable, angelic, demonic, living, or dead.  Anything that keeps your protagonist from the thing she wants or needs is conflict.

So clearly, to have conflict your protagonist needs to have a want or a need and be facing some barrier to it.  This goal needs to be well motivated, and the more pressing the motive, the more intense the conflict when he or she encounters the first barrier.  So if she’s running for her life and encounters the edge of a cliff, that’s a bigger conflict than if she’s trying to rescue a cat from a tree but doesn’t have a ladder.  Either way, each of these stories starts with a character who needs something.  In the first story the hero, who is a vampire, can ride up and say, I’ll rescue you from this cliff but you need to agree to have my first born child.  In the second, the heroine can borrow the ladder from the cute guy next door and get herself and her cat further stuck in the tree.

If you find that you don’t have any kind of fight scene in your first 50 pages, then evaluate your characters’ goals, make sure they have one on page one, and then make sure that something is standing in the way of achieving that goal.

3) Sexual tension needs to grow out of the story.  I love sexy stories, but I’m personally quite tired of reading about twitching groins and throbbing members, especially when lovers meet for the first time.  And if I laugh when the virginal heroine stops to check out the hero’s package the minute he arrives on the scene to rescue her, imagine what agents and editors do.  They have to read this stuff all day every day.   You don’t want your sexual tension to be ordinary, so avoid the obvious descriptions.

Really good sexual tension needs to be appropriate to the character (virgins and harlots are turned on by different things).  More important, though, is the fact that the best sexual tension should be tied to your character’s story conflicts.

Here’s an example of what I mean from the first meet scene in Last Chance Beauty Queen, my forthcoming novel.  My heroine, who works for a senator, has been given the assignment to help an English baron unsnarl some red tape so he can build a factory in her hometown.  The only problem is that he wants to build the factory on land her father owns.  The story starts with her meeting him in a restaurant to try to convince him to find a different location for his factory.  When she first sees him, she’s both attracted to him and repulsed by him.  He’s suave, wears Savile Row, and has Byronic hair.  He’s the epitome of her fantasies, born of reading one too many regency romances, but he’s also an arrogant snob who simply refuses to listen to her arguments about moving his project.  She notices the way he cuts his food, chews his food, what he eats, the way he loosens his tie.  And all of that builds heat in the story, while she is simultaneously losing her argument with him.  This is way sexier than if I’d just put in a line about whether his Lordship dresses right or left.

4) Ax the inner dialog.  There is nothing more boring than a character going on and on and on and on about his troubles, tribulations, and what he’s planning to do next.  It’s especially bad when a character zones out in the middle of fighting zombies to give the reader the full history of zombies in this particular neck of the woods, how you kill a zombie, and why the Queen of zombies is after him.  By the fourth paragraph of this treatise on zombies your prospective agent will be dozing.

So, before you send in that contest entry or query, spend some time with a yellow highlighter marking all of the places where your characters are merely thinking instead of doing.  Then ax all of it.  And if you can’t ax it all, then follow these tips for reducing it to a minimum:

  •  Don’t try to explain your world to the reader by giving them big info dumps about the rules of magic or the ongoing feud between the members of your little town’s book club and garden club.  Let the reader figure it out for themselves and show the world in action, rather than telling the reader about it.  Go find those passages where you’re explaining things and eliminate every one of them.  (Please note that I’m still trying to get you to kill your words.)
  •  Never go on for more than a sentence of inner dialog in the middle of dialog.  And don’t think you can cheat by putting in lots of italicized stuff.  The italicized thoughts will pull the reader out of the action just as effectively as stuff that not italicized.
  • At the end of a big emotional scene, give your character a paragraph to think about things.  Structure his thoughts carefully, as follows:  The first let the character express his emotions about what just happened.  Then have the character rationalize those emotions — moving them from his gut to his head.  Finally, once he’s thought about things briefly, have him decide on a plan for future action.  Please note, his plan for future action, gives you another action scene where you can throw a barrier at him and his plan, thereby increasing the conflict in the story.

5) There is no such thing as a happy beginning.  I see so many contest entries where the heroine meets the hero, goes completely bonkers about him, and then they go on a date and have a wonderful time.  This is great for the characters, and mind numbing for the reader.  Happy endings come at the end, not the beginning.  So take a hard look at those first scenes between your hero and heroine and get rid of the ones where the hero and heroine are suddenly engaged in cutesy romantic banter that leads nowhere, or where they’ve gotten over the initial barrier and are suddenly teaming up on page 25.  Sexy banter is perfectly okay in situations where one is playing the barrier to the other’s scene goal.  But if that’s not what’s going on, the scene needs to go.  Sexy banter is boring unless there is conflict involved.  So keep your lovers in conflict and unhappy until the end of the book.

These are my tried and true tips, but we have a whole sisterhood of writers here who have sold books and finaled in contests.  So have at it, sisters, what other tips can you give for improving those first 50 pages?

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And now, Loyal Readers, it’s time for a bit more Ruby Trivia.  Could it be that this “insider info” can help you win great prizes on our BLOG BIRTHDAY BASH on Wednesday, September 21? Check back Wednesday and find out!!

-Rubies who married their High School Sweethearts :  Laurie Kellogg, Rita Henuber, Darynda Jones, Diana Layne, Liz Talley, Lindsey Brooks.

-C.J. Chase still owns her first car, a 1987 Mustang convertible.

-Addison Fox, Beth Langston and Vivi Andrews have visited five continents.

-4 Rubies are represented by Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

-Autumn Jordon has been the victim of two armed robberies. 

-Jenn Bray-Weber was bitten by a copper head snake (venomous BTW). 

-Liz Talley was bitten by a monkey (not venomous).

-Sara Ramsey can fit her entire fist in her mouth.

-Kate Parker was an ambulance driver.

-Jenn Bray-Weber, Anne Marie Becker, Vivi Andrews and Rita Henuber are all Carina Authors.  

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41 responses to “Tips for Improving Your First 50 Pages”

  1. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great post, Hope! I especially like your explanation of conflict. I read too many contest entries and even books in which the author FORCES ‘physical’ action (like a character running from something) in order to start her novel off with a bang. Unfortunately, a lot of these stories, aren’t action/adventure stories where this would happen naturally and it feels contrived.

    My advice for the first fifty pages is to make sure to let your voice shine. Even a boring laundry list can seem compelling if it’s written with an entertaining turn of phrase.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      I totally agree, Laurie. Letting your voice shine is probably the best all-around writing advice anyone can give a newbie author. I do think that there are beginners out there who have no clue what we mean when we say “voice.”

      Voice is what makes Beethoven different from Motzart, the Beatles different from the Rolling Stones. It’s also what makes Susan Elizabeth Phillips different from Jenny Crusie, although both write funny stories. It’s a combination of setting, word choices, the way characters are drawn, and the core themes that a writer finds interesting.

      So, to me, saying that you should work on developing your “voice” is simply saying that you should try to sound like yourself as an author. Don’t try to sound like the latest best selling author. Try to figure out what your story is, and the best way for you to tell it. It might take a very long time, though, for an author to discover or develop their voice. I know it did for me.

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  2. Elisa Beatty says:

    Great advice, Hope…everyone polishing up their entries for Golden Heart should go through and make sure they’re doing as you say!!

    As a frequent contest judge, I absolutely agree that many stories start in the wrong place (and hence start too slowly and listlessly). You’ve got to give readers a reason to feel like they *need* to keep reading. Give readers a sense of the PROBLEM THAT NEEDS TO BE SOLVED right up front. Make it clear the stakes are high, and that solving the problem won’t be easy. Do that right, and readers won’t be able to look away.

    Also, I was going to add exactly what Laurie did: VOICE has got to be there from page one.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Elisa,

      Yes, I judge a lot of contests, too, and the single most frequent problem I see is the “failure to launch.”

      I think sometimes inexperienced authors feel like they have to tell you everything that already happened, otherwise you won’t understand whats about to happen. If this sounds like you, then relax. Readers are smarter than you think.

      I judge a lot of paranormal contest entries, and authors also spend a lot of time explaining their world, either in exposition or through dialog. Either is deadly in a paranormal. I know I’m humping to get my Golden Pen entries judged and in every single one of them the author spent pages and pages explaining the world before actually getting to the story.

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    • C.J. Chase says:

      A comment on the beginnings — the contest is offered by ROMANCE Writers of America, which means (oddly enough) judges are expecting to read a romance. A women’s fiction novel might fit the Romantic Elements category, but for every other category, try to keep the romance front and central. (Yes, even in a ROMANTIC suspense.)

      I can’t count how many entries I’ve read over the years that began with the hero/heroine married to spouse #1, followed by a nasty breakup/accident and then the meeting of the romantic interest. No, please. I don’t care whether the marriage was great or hell on earth, I don’t want to start a romance novel with an old relationship. I don’t want to get attached to characters who are going to die or walk out and then have to form a elationship with an entirely new character in chapter 2. Even if the action has moved forward several story years, *I* haven’t — I’m reading this moments later. Start several years after the fact when I can believe the character is ready for the new relationship (the one this book focuses on) and weave in the backstory later.

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      • Hope Ramsay says:

        C.J.

        Excellent point. One of these days we should have a blog about what, precisely, is romance. That should get the opinions flying.

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      • Tamara Hogan says:

        This is such a key point, CJ – and one I learned the hard way when I entered an earlier version of TASTE ME in a couple of contests and it got absolutely clobbered. (The book opens with a Prologue written from the villain’s POV.) A couple of early round judges apparently thought the villain was going to be the hero – until he assaulted someone. Imagine that. 😉

        Great advice, Hope!

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        • C.J. Chase says:

          Tamara, I think when we pick up a book labeled “romance,” we are expecting to meet the h/h early on. When we meet a fascinating man in the opening pages, he imprints on our brain as “hero!” or when a book opens with a couple madly in love, I think “reunion romance.” And then when I discover I’m emotionally connected to the wrong character — the fascinating man I was falling in love with is really the villain or the woman I’ve been envisioning myself as dies a tragic death and the guy moves on to someone else — it drains my emotional investment.

          Just like those heroes who’ve been burned in love before and trust issues. We no longer trust the author to give us the right people to connect to, so we keep our distance emotionally.

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          • Tamara Hogan says:

            One of the things that made me fall in love with my editor, Deb Werksman, was her approach to developing Stephen, my villain, in revisions. In the GH-finaling version of TASTE ME (then called UNDERBELLY, which Deb acquired), my Prologue was chapter length. She suggested that I shorten the Prologue, give Stephen less real estate in which to be fasinating. 😉 So I didn’t change anything about his characterization, but limited readers’ exposure to him, giving readers just a taste. That way, as CJ suggests, readers don’t imprint on him before they meet the actual hero, Lukas, in Chapter 1.

            To the subject of rule-breaking – fascinating comments today! – I don’t know if I should admit this here or not, but TASTE ME’s hero and heroine, Lukas and Scarlett, don’t actually share a scene together until Chapter 6, though they’re definitely on each other’s mind in earlier chapters as other sh*t falls apart around them. Having to deal with each other – and their challenging past – is their mutual last straw.

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  3. Good advice, Hope—although my heroes and heroines never even meet on page one (although they do get together within the first chapter these days. Didn’t used to be the case! *G*) Still, there is conflict that is pertinent to their journey as a couple there and questions aplenty to catch, hook, and reel in a reader—or so it has proved, thus far. We’ll have to see what the editors and agents say when I send it out.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      You know I hate rules. So that rule about the hero and heroine meeting on page one is a rule that I think writers should ignore. My heroes and heroines almost always meet close to page one, but not because I’m following a rule. In my contemporaries, the story starts when the hero and heroine meet. But I could see lots of cases where a romance story begins before the hero and heroine meet. So I think it depends on the story. The important thing is to start the story when the action starts. At the moment when everything changes, and not a minute before that.

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  4. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    Sounds like hard work, Hope. I do like to start with H/H meeting, if at all possible and keep them together as much as possible.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Yes you do. And that meet between Lilly and Toby in Lilly in Wonderland was wonderful. But not exactly at the beginning of the book. Which was fine, because the story started when Lilly got the phone call saying she’d inherited her grandmother’s old place. That’s the moment when everything changed. The meeting took place in the next scene. See my comment to Gwyn above. And BTW I have given you a rave review on Goodreads.

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  5. Vivi Andrews says:

    LOL, Hope, I think you and I must be in a dictionary somewhere under “different strokes for different folks”. 😀

    For the most part I love everything you’ve said, but I have to admit I shuddered with horror at the words “Ax the inner dialogue”. To me there is nothing more important than a vibrant voice, a strong POV and those things often come across through the uniqueness of a character’s thoughts. So my advice would be to be SELECTIVE of inner dialogue, but don’t suck all the personality out of your work in the interest of eliminating anything that might be vaguely explanatory, because while we don’t want to over-explain, the last thing we want is a book that is both boring AND confusing because we sucked out our clarity along with our voice.

    Revising is a tightrope walk.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Vivi,

      As usual, you are more careful with your words than I am.

      Yes, you must keep inner dialog in the story if for no other reason than to know and understand the character’s motivations, plans and goals. To make a character live and breathe, authors should also work hard to convey a “voice” for each character that relates to the way they talk and think. This is taking voice to an advanced place.

      But, I must admit that every time I think I’ve sculpted my inner dialog to be tight and character-centric, out comes my editor’s red pen. Honestly the woman is a master at axing inner dialog. And yes she uses a hatchet not a scalpel.

      So it just may be that you naturally write less of that stuff than I do. I am known to repeat myself endlessly. 🙂

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      • Vivi Andrews says:

        The waving red pen might be more a question of house style than a sign that I use less than you. (Because my writing is positively riddled with internalizations.) Different editors are looking for different kinds of voices. I don’t think I would get past the query stage with your house. 🙂

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        • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

          I love snippets of inner dialogue because characters often say one thing but think something else. Personally I have a tendency to say inappropriate things out loud that I should keep in my head. Narrative tho…I tend to nod off reading long passages of narrative. When it comes to writing, I go with my gut. Sometimes my guts are misguided.

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        • Hope Ramsay says:

          You never know until you try. Different editors and all that. My editor is very external plot focused, but other editors at Forever are not that way. So you can’t make generalizations. Which of course is what I did in the blog. 😀

          But then, for a newbie author chances are there is more internal dialog relating to backstory in their first 50 pages than needs to be. Donald Maas recommends removing every scrap of backstory in the first 50 pages. That might, also be extreme.

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          • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

            Again, I like the snippets or crumbs or hints of backstory. I used to bring my dumptruck in and unload it in the beginning of a story.

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          • Kelley says:

            I love Don Maass. I definitely have a crushy crush there and I think he’s extremely smart to boot. But I always wonder…in a romance…how do you raise the stakes for your heroine if there is no context for her dilemma, no understanding (via some small bit of backstory) of why she’s doing what she’d doing? IOW, how can a writer get across internal motivation sans context. I’m still missing that, I think. Any ideas? 🙂

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        • liz talley says:

          I’ve read two or three of your books and I would have to say the inner thoughts are part of your voice and part of your charm. Darynda does this, too, quite effectively. Charley rambles a little and it’s what makes it funny. She doesn’t overdo it, and brings the reader back to the action pretty quickly, but it’s what makes her voice strong.

          I try hard to do this myself because it’s my favorite kind of book. I like seeing a character react to the action and part of the reaction is the thoughts. But that being said, you do have to be careful not to drag it out. It’s salt. Too much and it’s unedible.

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          • Kelley says:

            Liz,
            The salt analogy is so perfect. Thanks. KB

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          • Vivi Andrews says:

            Heh. I guess I’m just a salty girl. Takes all tastes.

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          • Hope Ramsay says:

            Liz,

            I do have a snarky voice, but I have to tame it from time to time. For instance in my last book, my editor really hated the snarkiness in my heroine. So I had to provide context to that story. But every place I added context in the form of inner dialog, got cut down by the editor’s pen. So, you can’t always judge by the finished product. My last heroine drove me batty, because I had to rein in my voice and I only got so much space to set up her inner dilemma. So you can’t always ride on voice alone.

            No one said this was easy. 😀

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Yeah, Vivi…I loves me some good inner dialogue, too! But it’s got to be GOOD!!!

      If I’m reading Jane Eyre or a Terry Pratchett book, I’m good with long stretches of internal contemplation and/or pages of backstory….but that’s because those works do it so well.

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  6. Love what you say about conflict, Hope! I’m reading Alan Watt’s 90-DAY NOVEL, and he’s made me see conflict in a different light. He says conflicts are about dilemmas, not problems:

    “A dilemma is a problem that can’t be solved without creating another problem. At the heart of every story is a dilemma. Problems are solved while dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception. Every story begins with an apparent problem. But as we scratch the surface, we see that underlying these problems are dilemmas—and this is what the story is really about.”

    He goes on to talk about how a dilemma is a war between two opposing beliefs, like ‘love conquers all’ versus ‘no one is to be trusted’. It seems obvious in some ways, but reading this really made the conflict light bulb go on for me in a more concrete way.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Oooh that’s a good definition of the central core conflict that drives a novel from beginning to end.

      I think it’s also important for authors to realize that there are momentary conflicts that drive scenes. It my tips today, I was talking more about scenes than the overall book. But you do need both in a romance. The resolution of the dilemma that a character faces is what drives the overall story forward and if you can make that good and deep and well-motivated, you’re guaranteed to have a good story.

      But in editing a book, even one with a good central dilemma, you may find scenes that are problematic. That’s where the idea of a barrier is very helpful. If you have a scene that just isn’t working for some reason, stop and ask yourself what the POV character is trying to achieve and what’s standing in the way of that scene goal. Answering those two questions can save a scene — or consign it to the circular file. 🙂

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  7. Rita Henuber says:

    Thanks this is a very good guide. I believe there are three things that make a story great. Conflict, conflict and conflict. No conflict –yawn. Doesn’t mean it’s a knock-down-drag-out fight but conflict that relates to the story. I recently cut a first chapter of action because the story conflict didn’t start there. It started right after that action scene. So now I’m weaving some of that action in to the new first chapter. And believe me there isn’t much.

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  8. liz talley says:

    Very nice post, Hope, and timely for me because I’m ending a book and about to make my first revision pass through the book. I often have trouble with repetition and trying to tell the reader too much. Maybe it’s because I have kids and have to repeat myself forty times a day, but no matter, I still beat the reader over the head with telling.

    I do love your posts because they are so well-thought. I flipped back through my mind on all my openings and most begin with good conflict…or at least the great potential for good conflict.

    My one tip – make sure the reader falls in love with your characters. Very, very important. So many times I put a book down, not because of plot or structure, but because I feel no connection to the character. I have to like them before I’m willing to cheer for them.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Liz,

      That’s a VERY good point. I should have thought of it. But yeah, you have to present characters a reader will like and root for, even if their backstory is a little shaky.

      In the first draft of Welcome to Last Chance I provided all kinds of backstory for my heroine, Jane, who has a very dark past and who makes a really big mistake in chapter two. I figured that if I provided all the reasons for her choices it would make her more lovable.

      It turned out it didn’t do that. And once my editor took hold of that first chapter and axed (not exed, although she did that, too) a lot of that backstory, my character seemed lighter and less weighed down. She still makes bad choices and nothing in her backstory was changed, I just introduced it later, once the reader had bonded with her. So your point is a really, really good one. Even if you have a problem character, sometimes withholding all but what’s necessary to fully motivate their action of the moment, can be important.

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  9. Kelley says:

    Hope,

    Thanks fo a very thoughtful post. Timely for everyone getting an entry ready for the GH. I’ll be back once I’ve got my, um, stuff together so I give my work a looksy with your guidance in mind.

    Kelley

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  10. Elise Hayes says:

    One of the things that has really strengthened my writing in the last few years is to be very self-conscious about keeping all the information presented from the genuine POV of the hero or heroine. Sounds obvious, right? But in terms of backstory and info dumps, writers have characters dump lots of information *for readers* when there is no earthly good reason for the character to be having those thoughts or conversations. The heroine already knows what happened to her when she was three. If she thinks about it, it’s going to be in snippets–and only the bits relevant to the current situation. It’s highly unlikely that she’ll just go into a full-scale flashback of the event. So, particularly in the first few chapters, double-check to make sure that everything that comes out of your characters mouths, or any thoughts that cross their minds, are thoughts and words that they would genuinely have in those situations–and not the thoughts/words you think your readers need to set up the story.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Elise,

      What a great point! I was so guilty of doing this at one point in my writing life. And in the Golden Pen entry I judged yesterday — which was really terrific — the one mistake the author made was to have characters in dialog talking about stuff they should already know. This point also should be added the tips above. I think we up to a master list of 7.5 now. 🙂

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  11. I *love* what you said about unhappy beginnings. It makes so much sense. And I also appreciate the axing of info dumps. As a reader, I like to be drip-fed details of the characters’ world and backstory.

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  12. Tina Joyce says:

    Especially loved the “No Happy Beginnings” advice. So very true!

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  13. Great post, Hope, and terrific comments, ladies. I hope those entering any contests this fall take a few moments to soak this advice up. I’m not entering any and I’m bookmarking it as I edit my current wip.

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  14. […] Be sure to check out Katie’s Five Things All Contest Newbies Should Know and Hope Ramsay’s Tips for Improving Your First 50 Pages. […]

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