I welcome Jeff Gerke to my blog. He is a novelist, publishing industry veteran and founder of Marcher Lord Press, a publisher of Christian fantasy and Christian science fiction. Jeff will be teaching the fiction continuing class at the Write-to-Publish Conference, June 5 - 8 on the campus of Wheaton College in Illinois. He is also the author of fiction and nonfiction titles, including The First 50 Pages, published by Writer's Digest Books.
What is important about the first 50 pages of a novel?
The first 50 pages determine whether or not your reader will keep reading. It is the rare reader (as in, your mom) who will keep reading even if she is not engaged early on.
In the first 50 pages, you also have to introduce your hero and main characters. You have to establish the context of the story. You must reveal the genre and milieu and story world. You have to set up the tone of the book. You’ll also be presenting the stakes, introducing the antagonist, establishing the hero’s desires, starting the main character’s inner journey, and getting a ticking time-bomb to ticking down. You’re basically setting up the rest of the book to work well. You’re building the foundation and creating the context from which the story will arise.
And you want to do all these without boring your reader, losing your reader, dumping backstory on your reader, misleading your reader, insulting your reader’s intelligence, or tipping your hand to the reader.
Finally, the first 50 pages of a novel are what agents and editors will use to determine if your book is worth publishing. In a real sense, your first 50 pages are the sales tool that will hopefully lead to a publishing contract.
What is the best advice you would give to unpublished novelists?
Be encouraged! If you are passionate about your story, there is now—because of the publishing revolution we’re in—an outlet for that novel. It may not be the traditional path you’ve heard about, but no longer can the publishing power bloc say that the story you’re passionate about isn’t “right” and therefore can’t be published.
Discover how you learn, and then learn as much as you can about writing fiction well. If you learn best through books, read lots of books. I have written some that might help you, actually. If you learn best by doing, then be sure you’re writing, and look into critique groups or critique partners for some feedback. If you learn best by hearing or seeing someone teach, then go to writers conferences or avail yourself of online training resources like The Fiction Academy.
You’re the only person who is going to push you to improve, but you owe it to yourself and your readers to make that effort. It’s possible now to get published (or to self-publish) even if you haven’t put in the hard work to raise your fiction craftsmanship, but the cream will eventually rise to the top—and the rest will sink. So find out how you best learn, and learn all you can.
Give a short preview of your class, “The First 50 Pages,” which you will teach at Write-to-Publish.
It wouldn’t be possible to cover my entire Writer's Digest book The First 50 Pages in the time we have at the conference, so I’m going to choose the sub-topics I think will make the most impact on novelists as they contemplate the opening pages of their novels.
There’s no formula for writing a novel, so don’t look for “Do X by page 10 and have your first Y by page 27” type stuff, though I will give some suggestions. Nor is the way I’ll be teaching this material the only way to write a great opening to a novel. But the tools and emphases I provide will result in a flexible system for creating books that hook the reader, get the novel going correctly, and set the book up to succeed.
Tell us a little about the publishing company you founded, Marcher Lord Press.
Many novelists, myself included, got into writing because they said, “No one is writing the kinds of novels I want to read, so I guess I’d better do it myself.” That’s also how I decided to form my own publishing house: “No one is publishing the sort of fiction I want to read, so I guess I’d better do so myself.”
I spent over a decade inside the Christian publishing industry trying to promote Christian speculative fiction (fantasy and science fiction, etc.) and not having much success. When I left my last post, I had seen how publishing worked and had a theory for why Christian spec fiction didn’t sell well in Christian bookstores. Better, I had the inklings of an idea for what the ultimate publishing company that could reach those fans would look like.
So over the next couple of years, I refined the business model, prayed a lot, and eventually launched the company, in October 2008. Now, with several Christy Awards and ACFW Carol Awards under our belts, plus numerous positive reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, we’re going strong and loving being at the forefront of Christian speculative fiction publishing.
Will attendees at Write-to-Publish be able to meet with you if they write in the genre you publish?
Of course! Actually, I love talking to writers of any kind, so anyone can meet with me. But I do like to listen to Christian speculative novelists pitching their story ideas. They’re my kind of people!