The 50-Page Rule
I taught high school English for almost two decades and one of the biggest challenges I faced was when I would introduce a novel, and the students would immediately decide they hated it.
This reaction, which was predictable, especially with students who did not grow up in a book-loving environment, often prompted my telling a story about my book nerd mother.
My mother is the reason I love to read. She’s also the reason I love humans, which I believe is a big reason why I write. Before she died, she would read anything I was reading, and I mean anything, so we could talk about it.
For a long time, I felt guilty if I didn’t want to finish reading a book. Even when I wasn’t enjoying it, I’d force myself to finish it. Did anyone else do this?
I told my mother about this guilt, and she told me about her 50-page rule. If she didn’t enjoy a book by page 50, she’d walk away. Most books, she argued, really got going by 50.
Like any child, I was skeptical of this rule of thumb she followed. I mean, what kid isn’t partially suspicious of the things their parents say. This is the same woman who told me that eating broccoli would give me curly hair. Spoiler alert: it did not.
Years later, after earning my degree in English and my MFA in creative writing and reading so many freaking books, I realized how true this rule was.
Think about the many books you’ve read. Sure, some never take off, those books aren’t for you, and yes, some come right out the gate and entice and titillate, but for the most part, it takes the writer some time to set up the conflict, show us who the characters are, and establish what is at stake for them.
When I would introduce the 50-page rule to my students, I usually use the novel Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier as my example. I used to teach this novel to my seniors. Every time I taught it I had to endure the same conversation.
“Miss, this book is boring. I hate it.”
“Well, how far along on you?”
“Page 8.” Or they’d say page 4 or even 20 sometimes. The point is they hadn’t met Mrs. Danvers yet. She shows up on, and I kid you not, page 49 of the copy my students used.
“Just wait, I promise it gets more exciting.”
A few days would pass, they’d get through some reading quizzes for the first few chapters, and then enter Mrs. Danvers on page 49.
“Wait, Miss, this Mrs. Danvers is creepy? And what’s the deal with Rebecca?”
They’d stop me in the hall as the novel kept going. “Wait, I don’t understand why Max is acting like this.”
I’d give them my English-teacher smile that says, “See, what I mean when I say it really picks up after page 50?”
Can you think of other books that really get moving after page 50?
So, if you’re writing a book, you need TIME. You need PAGES to get the momentum going. And here’s the thing about momentum: once it gets going, it’s hard to stop.
50 pages is the kind of momentum to keep you going. If you write two pages, 5 days a week, by the end of the month, you’ll have established the conflict, started the character arc, and shown what is at stake for your character. After that, you’ll be rolling downhill to a completed project.
This month, I’m working on writing at least 50 pages. I need this momentum in order to finally finish this project that I started too long ago and is screaming to come out of me.
So, are you ready to get your momentum going?