Five Mistakes Writers Make in the First Fifty Pages

The first reaction to this post’s headlines may be: What? Only five? No, I’ve made many more than five mistakes when writing my first fifty pages of my thriller novels. We’ve all heard not to begin a novel with description, dialog or a dream, but here are my most frustrating mistakes:

1. Endlessly rewriting the first fifty pages before soldiering on and finishing the novel. It’s almost an addiction. I can’t stop myself from rewriting. Of course, I have valid reasons, like trapping my hero at the top of a volcano, only to realize that he has no reason to be there in the first place. I try to monkey wrench in the setting. Maybe he needs to stop explosives from blowing up the volcano, or he needs to steal the remote transmitter that will signal in the villain’s strike force. I feel that it’s too good a scene to simply abandon, but it’s just not working. The good news is I think I’ve found a cure. More on that at the end of this post.

2. Making a walk-on character too intriguing. In the opening scene of my current work, my beta readers, the men anyway, all love the wisecracking, edgy pilot. I love him, too. But he is just a device to land my heroine on the mysterious island and into the middle of the action. Still, I just may bring that pilot back in the end. A character who was going to be a walk-on in my thriller, The Seventh Stone, made himself so valuable that he is now in my work in progress.

3. Writing a prologue. The debate rages on this one. But with Ebooks, I think more than ever you have to start right off with your hero in the action. When potential readers “Look Inside” your Ebook on Amazon, you have very few pages to involve them in the story. The easy solution to this “mistake:” Replace the word “Prologue,” with two words, “Chapter One,” and tie it to my cure for endlessly rewriting the opening scenes, which I reveal below.

4. I’m not entirely convinced on this one, but more and more I’m seeing that the traditional “front matter,” including the copyright page, should come at the end of your Ebook. Many readers do not want to scroll through pages before reaching Page One. Wherever you decide to place the copyright page, include a link to your website.

5. Trying to weave in too much backstory too soon, while neglecting the main focus of the story. Often, writers do a great job with a hook in the first paragraph, only to backpeddle and try to justify it with backstory in the paragraphs that follow. Keep the story moving forward. Once the reader is strapped into the rollercoaster, let it rip, and don’t stop until the end of the ride.

Now for the cure for endlessly rewriting those first fifty pages. I stumbled upon this while reading a Writer’s Digest article by Jeff Gerke, who wrote Plot Versus Character. He writes: Make no mistake: Your book is about what your main character decides at her moment of truth. Everything else is just the vehicle to drive her to that penultimate moment. (Writer’s Digest, February 2012 issue)

I now know just what to include in my opening pages and why. Every line has to tie in with this main focus of my story. If you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t feel like it’s working, ask yourself if it is focused on propelling your main character, and your reader, to that moment of truth.

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19 comments on “Five Mistakes Writers Make in the First Fifty Pages

  1. Pamela: Great stuff. I’ve made all these mistakes and even corrected a few of them. On prologues, you’re right that it is an open debate. I never liked them much, but on a dare wrote one in one of my novels. It had an opening sentence that ran to about 300 words. Later in a group of people who had read the book, the first comment I received was from a reader who told me how much that sentence had impressed her. So go figure. I doubt I will ever write another prologue, though.
    Thanks for the practical and useful advice.

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  2. I learned a few years ago that if I didn’t stop rewriting my beginning, I would never get anywhere. That said, I tried last month to rewrite the beginning while I was in the middle. I messed about for an hour before I realized I was making a terrible mistake. I stopped. I went back to the middle of the book and kept writing. Thank God.

    Great post.

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    • Thanks, Sonia. You’re right about outlining and storyboarding being helpful skills. I write a basic outline, a few paragraphs on each major plot point, which works well until I realize I am forcing my characters to behave out of character. Then I need to adjust the outline, even though I always know the beginning, middle and end of my book before starting to write it. My plots tend to be complex, so I keep adding details to my outline to keep track of all the moving parts.

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  3. In my first novel, I was guilty of the endless cycle of write-re-read-re-write in the first fifty pages or so. Ironically, a couple of years later when that book was about to be published, I looked at it with fresh eyes and re-wrote the first couple of pages, relying on the craft I had learned in the interim while I wrote other books. My point is that a book is a living thing that matures along with the writer. So the best thing a writer can do is to push himself to the end of the first draft so that he can set it aside and allow it to age while he works on new projects.

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  4. Oh, and on the story board issue Sonia raised, I have to admit that I am a pantser, i.e., I learn the story as it goes. I have found that this works well for me and keeps me interested and excited about future developments in the plot. I saw an interview with James Lee Burke a couple of months ago in Writers Digest. He said that he starts each day with two scenes, and only two scenes in mind. When he finishes those two scenes, he stops and starts again the next day with two more scenes in mind. He said Hemingway said that if he knew how the story would end, so would his readers. So call me crazy, but that’s what works for me.

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  5. Hi. Good insights. In writing my first thriller novel, I started with the most exciting scene, just visualizing the action. Then I went back and laid background for that scene. Then I laid background for the background. And so on. To my surprise, my initial scene ended up being the final scene in the book. Has anyone else written a book in that order?

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    • Thanks for the comment, Kate. Yours is one example of why the writing process and creativity keeps us hooked. To have your initial scene end up as your final one is certainly a surprise. I’m polishing the final revision of my thriller in progress. I keep chopping more off the first few pages. I heard good writing advice from bestselling thriller author, Steve Berry, the other day. The opening sentence of a thriller should be in the POV of the protagonist, put the protagonist in peril and end with a cliffhanger. My opening sentence now reads: “The minute I saw the man with the rifle, I knew I’d made the mistake of a lifetime.” It’s getting there. Like Kate, I would love to hear from other writers who have written a book where the original initial scene ends up as the final scene. It’s a fascinating process.

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  6. Some people say that you should allow only your main characters space in your opening scene. This avoids the same sort of disappointment which the disappearance of your likable pilot caused.

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