Thursday, October 28, 2010

What I Have Learned on Page 99

“Open the book to page 99, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” – Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford was a writer and critic in the early twentieth century. Many consider him to be a guiding influence in the development of literature during that time.

And Ford Madox Ford was wrong.

Okay, maybe he wasn’t exactly wrong. Perhaps he is only guilty of an over-generalization in the quote above. I’m sure when he wrote that, he meant you could tell the overall quality of the writing by sampling a page from the middle of a novel. Which you can, if you are a discerning reader who understands that what you are really looking for in that one page is the quality of the writing, not the development of the plot. How many books have you read in your life that have a major plot development on every page? I know I’ve never read one.

The flaw in – the website that takes the above quote as its credo – is that not everyone is a discerning reader. For example, I posted my page 99 from my most recent novel (which will be published in February by Ink n Beans Press). Based on that one page, I have received comments accusing me of everything from being anti-Christian to copying The Sixth Sense. Considering that the main character is a novelist suffering from writer’s block who has a great idea right after he kills himself, I suppose the critiques do have a certain amount of validity. However, how they arrived at that conclusion from one page – a page on which the main character doesn’t even appear – is beyond me. In any case, the critiques should be held to grammar and style. If you don’t like the way I write based on one page, I’m fine with that, but hold your tongue on the plot, please.

I’ll admit I was taking the comments a little too personally until I critiqued one particular page on the site yesterday. In it, the writer used some of the most beautiful metaphors and similes I’ve seen in a while, including one that described a girl as being as fresh and green as new Swiss chard. I loved it. When I submitted my critique, I saw the critiques of others. Many of my fellow critics felt that those same metaphors and similes were a detriment to the work. One person even said the writer shouldn’t have referenced Swiss chard because no one knows what that is. In fact, the critiques were split almost down the middle: half would turn the page and the other half would burn the book. And what was the book? Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, a novel first published in 1964 and now well-known to many a high school student in Canada and the U.S. because of its frequent appearance on high-school syllabi.

Writers, I encourage you to post your page 99s on However, think of it as another marketing tool: people who have never heard of you will read your work, even if it is only one page. Don’t take the critiques to heart unless they are oft-repeated and have more to do with grammar and style than plotlines.

And when you are feeling discouraged, remember: one page does not a novel make.


  1. The questions on Page 99 Test are 'would you turn the page' and 'would you buy the book'. They've got nothing to do with grammar. They're all about a reader's first impressions of your work based on a single page.

    But chin up. :) I've got a page on there, too, and my ratings are low (even though I'm agented and my agent loves my book). In fact, almost all the ratings are ~60%, it seems. That's only insulting to us because we think we should get 100% on all our tests. But every single person reading your page is not going to say they'd turn the page. No writing is good enough to please everyone.

  2. StrategiCopy,

    I was inspired to write this after another writer contacted me yesterday. I had commented that the dialogue on his page 99 was stilted. I told him basically the same thing I've said above. I just want other writers to see that just because someone says something negative, it doesn't make it true -- it's just an opinion.

    As for the questions, I agree: I answer honestly whether I would turn the page and/or buy the book. Believe me...I understand that not everyone will love my writing; some people will, some people won't. My point is that making general assumptions about the plotline of a book based on a single page is a little on the pointless side.

    I've got three page 99s up from three different novels. Right now, one has 25% positive, the second has 37%, and the third has 86%. If 25% of the readers like my book well enough to turn the page, maybe they'll like it well enough to get a sample at Amazon or Smashwords, which is the best feedback you can get.

  3. Thanks Susan for the blog.
    Well, nearly 10 people read my page 99 following you but no one noticed the two words
    "partition" and "Lahore". Perhaps no one knew what they stood for. Just google "partition of India" if you feel like. Nearly 2 million people were massacred within a week of Indian independence (15 Aug 1947) and nearly 12.5 million people were displaced who fled for their lives during the religious riots. So, on my page 99 two childhood friends were meeting after 18 years, one who is a painter now (after being touched by human suffering) and another his secret muse once lost in the riots.
    So, what was i supposed to write for that moment? Talks about wine, movies, last orgy attended!! The talks had to be formal and about the whereabouts of each other's families...the first obvious thing any man would ask his friend after 18 years especially if they had been torn apart in riots...and I got feedbacks like "boring", "silly dialogues" etc etc. And no one would like to turn the page. Hah! It didnt discourage me but gave me a laugh.
    All I can say is I fully agree with you that one single page is only enough to judge the style and grammer, not the whole book.

  4. Vicky,

    See? Now I think it sounds like a fascinating novel! I look forward to reading it someday.

  5. Yeah definitely! Someday we'll be exchanging our autographed books ;) I don't have a single autographed book in my collection...


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