By Allison Brennan

I’m deep into reading the page proofs for IF I SHOULD DIE, book three in the Lucy Kincaid series. I really love this final stage of the publication process–at least the final stage on my end. I see the book as it’s going to be printed. It’s the last time I can make changes–ensuring the copyedit changes were made correctly, double checking the timeline, tweaking words and phrases. No major changes can be made at this point, but I often find the little errors–repetitive words or phrases, for example.

I also read most of my book out loud during this final stage, so it takes me longer to go through the proofs than most authors. Reading out loud helps me make sure the rhythm is right, especially in dialogue. To me, an author’s voice has as much to do with the rhythm of the story as with anything else. It has to feel right, or I’ll tweak it. There’s nothing I can explain or map out–I just know my rhythm is off when the story doesn’t sound right. It’s ironic, because I’m a very visual storyteller–meaning, I *see* the story unfold, I don’t hear it. I write what my POV character sees and feels. When I revise, I’m looking for for the visual story structure. But this final stage is all about story rhythm.

Which made me think about all the writing guidelines and story structure. I’m a big fan of Christopher Vogler, and have a well-worn copy of THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. I’ve never used the hero’s journey to plot or structure a novel, but I have see the hero’s journey in all my books … after the fact. So I can identify when my protagonist crosses the threshold. I know when I hit the midpoint of the story–and at that point whether my book is on the long or short side. Once I hit the third act, I feel the momentum of the story.

When I read the book in its near-final form, I see all that laid out, and it feels almost magical because I didn’t plan it that way. I remember when I first read Vogler. I had already sold my first book, and someone recommended it to me. I was reading it while doing stress tests during my last pregnancy–one hour of doing basically nothing. I saw how my debut novel followed the hero’s journey and it stunned me. But it shouldn’t, because in the introduction Vogler says:

“All stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams and movies. They are known collectively as The Hero’s Journey.” He goes on to quote Joseph Campbell who “exposed for the first time the pattern that lies behind every story ever told.” And the key for me, that “all storytelling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth. … The way stations of the Hero’s Journey emerge naturally even when the writer is unaware of them.”

I believe this is true, whether you plot or don’t plot; whether you consciously assess the hero’s journey as you write or don’t see it until the end of the story.

That’s why I love the final page proofs. I can see the structure of my story clearly for the first time, and each and every book follows the hero’s journey. Not rigidly–because the hero’s journey is as flexible and diverse as people. It’s not a formula, but a guideline into the human psyche in how we perceive stories. And that’s why it always marvels me that the hero’s journey is always there at the end.

But the steps of the journey are not the only “tests” of whether a book is good or not. Sol Stein wrote that the first page was the most important. If a reader picks up a book in the bookstore, reads the first page, then turns the page, they are more likely to buy the book. If they don’t turn the page, they almost always put the book back on the shelf.

Agent Noah Lukeman has a writing book called THE FIRST FIVE PAGES–and you guessed it, he claims they are the most important in any book. Many agents and editors say they know whether a book is good after the first five pages. Some give the author more time if the writing is there, but many don’t go beyond the beginning.

The Campaign for the American Reader has the “Page 69” test. They quote from John Sutherland’s HOW TO READ A NOVEL:

“Marshall McLuhan, the guru of The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), recommends that the browser turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works. Rule One, then: browse powerfully and read page 69.”

There’s also the midpoint of the book. For me, the midpoint is just as important as the turning points at the end of each “act.” Some claim that at the midpoint, the protagonist hits rock bottom (or near rock bottom) where it doesn’t seem like it can get any worse, or a false victory, where everything seems to be going great (but of course, it’s not.) In police procedures, the midpoint is often where the protagonist thinks they’ve figured out the crime, identified the suspect, made an arrest, and all is right in the world. Case closed … then right after something happens and she releases she has NOTHING, and is worse off than at the beginning.

Of course, there are infinite variations and ideas for the midpoint–like one main character is at the all-time high, while the other is at the all-time low. 

And then there are the readers who have to read the end of the book FIRST. (Yes, I know some of these insane people, they drive me crazy. But there are more of them out there than you think!)

All these “tests” — first lines, first pages, page 69, the midpoint, the ending — are supposed to help the reader decide whether they should read the book.

Ironically, I don’t use any of them.

When writing this blog, I looked at the “tests” in my proofs for IF I SHOULD DIE. The midpoint is critical–during the midpoint chapter, my hero Sean Rogan learns some important information about the villain, but he doesn’t know how it all fits. At the end of the chapter, he gets a warning from an unknown source (who may be a good guy or a bad guy or neutral) that the bad guys know what flight his girlfriend, Lucy Kincaid, is going to be on. That tip completely changes their plans and sets into motion a series of events that go from bad to worse.

All my midpoints tend to have story changing elements. In my debut novel THE PREY, one of the main characters is murdered and that changes the motivation of the hero. In SEE NO EVIL, the prime suspect ends up dead. 

The Page 69 test in DIE gives the reader part of a barroom conversation that offers up more questions for my hero and heroine than answers. My first three pages are the prologue which is one of the creepiest prologues I’ve written–a guy treks into an abandoned mine to visit the frozen body of the woman he loves. Chapter One begins with Sean and Lucy in bed right after morning sex while on vacation in the Adirondack mountains when they smell smoke. I remember in my first draft, it took six or seven pages to get to the smoke, and I knew as soon as I started editing that it was way too long–even though the six pages were interesting, there was no action. By the end of page two, we know that Sean’s helping a family friend who has been the victim of sabotage while getting a new resort ready to open, that this isn’t supposed to be a big case because Sean and Lucy are expecting to enjoy a well-deserved vacation before Lucy starts her training at Quantico. And then–well, it definitely doesn’t go as planned. 🙂

Apply one of these tests to a book you’re reading now and share with us–avoiding spoilers if possible (or at least identify them!)

16 thoughts on “Proof

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    Quick question. I'm reading a couple of books on Kindle at the moment, and the only 'page' numbering you get is a percentage of how far through the book you are at any given point. How does that equate to the pg 69 test – any clues?

    I totally agree about the rhythm and the voice – it's the thing that tells you if you're going to like a book or not, far more than plot or character or any other aspect. You're going to be listening to the writer's voice right the way through, and if it grates, you're not going to finish the book.

    Good luck with those pageproofs!

  2. Reine

    Hi Allison,

    I love this. I went right away to my iPad and looked at an iBook I'd just downloaded called A BREAK WITH CHARITY: A Story about the Salem Witch Trials by Ann Rinaldi. I bought it almost without thinking, because it was a YA historic novel about some of my Salem ancestors. I discovered a certain fondness for YA when i read the Harry Potter books, and there was something about the theme taking place in the town where I was born, in the very neighborhood where so many of my ancestors have lived . . . well it just caught my interest.

    The psychology of religion was my major field of interest and have only studied these times in relation to the more academic study of religious history during the witch trials. Discovery of these ancestors very recently has actually kindled a new desire to develop a theology of social recovery. This was a surprise to me, as I thought I'd dumped all that into the Atlantic of my past. So finding this YA historic novel in an area of special academic interest excited me about both.

    So to get on with it, I estimated page 69 in the iBook to be equal to the hard copy with the smallest standard font and line spacing. And I read.

    My page estimate could be off, but it was amazing anyway. I really was taken aback by how gripping the dialogue was. The teenage daughter of two of the accused is confronting a teenage accuser and feels the presence of evil for the first time. Incredible really.

    Note to Zoë: I worked out my estimating technique by trial and error with ebooks that I had hard copies of. I read mostly on the iPad. The numbering shows, but it really isn't the same, especially when you change font size and spacing. You probably need a logarithm to do a good figure, but this method has been pretty good for me so far. And like most things "good enough" works.

  3. Reine

    Ugh . . . dysphasia often sucks when trying to write with Dragon. That note just above should read:

    PS: I don't believe there is any sort of spoiler there at all.

  4. kc stone

    Wow and Holy Cow! I just went to page 69 in my current work. If I was shopping for a book I'd buy this for sure and that's really weird to say out loud.
    Yes the scene is one that is a transition point and I can hear the scepticism in the heroine's voice plus it gives me several tidbits or hints about what all is going on.

    As a buyer, I always read the first half-page, never turn to the second. If the voice and rhythm grab me right away I buy.

    I will confess that all of my go-to authors get away with some very shaky starts on occasion just because of their name on the cover. I've often wanted to write them a note saying that while the opening pages were only ho-hum, they delivered the expected good read anyways… but if I wasn't a fan, I wouldn't have bought the book.

    On the flip-side, newer authors sometimes seem to have a hard time delivering the promise that was in the first few pages.

    And I only skim-read prologues if they are longer than two pages… but often go back later, when I think what's in the prologue may be important to know.

  5. Allison Brennan

    @Zoe — I figure page 69 is roughly 15-20% into the book, depending on the length. So you could probably take the total number of pages in any font size and divide by 5 or 6 to get the approximate spot. I haven't made the jump into reading books electronically yet 🙂

    @Reine — I think my daughter would like that book! Will go check it out. Though she's moving away from YA and wanting to read more fantasy. I recommended Jim Butcher. Anyone else have any fantasy recommendations? She just read LORD OF THE RINGS and loved the story and characters, but hated the long, drawn out descriptions that seemed to have no purpose.

    @Louise — LOL. I like proofs. I tweak away. Nothing substantial, but I probably make a mark on 80% of the page.

    @KC — I've seen that, too, with new authors. I guarantee, if you skip the prologues in most of my books you would miss a hint/clue. In DIE it's particularly important. And I, personally, don't like first chapters that are set way before the beginning of the story. But I try to keep the prologue short.

  6. Fran

    Interesting, Allison! I'm not going to name names here, but the book I'm reading has a murder on the first page (promising, yes!), on page 69 there's a discussion of the actual physical direction the protagonist will take (not so thrilling unless you really like maps), the mid-point has our protagonist lose her strongest ally and has her moving on alone, except not really (hard to explain without telling more, but trust me, she's not at all alone facing the Enemy), and the end seems to be upbeat, which I kind of anticipated anyway.

    But you've got me thinking about what people want in books, and while this book isn't particularly action packed or thrill-laden, for some folks it's going to be absolutely perfect, and I think that's the joy of this method. All those suggestions give a feel for a book, a taste of the style, and we all know that people's tastes are wildly divergent, which is super-cool.

    Thanks so much, Allison! You've given me the way to frame my review! Woo hoo!

  7. Allison Brennan

    @Fran — you're welcome! And you also said something very important — all the ways of "checking" out a book help the reader find books she wants to read–the right tone, the right genre, the right voice.

  8. David Corbett

    I find it interesting that Midpoint and Crisis often get lumped together, confusedly so. I think of the Midpoint as a crucial confrontation, reversal or revelation that obliges the hero to rethink what direction she's chosen. The Crisis, which often serves as the climax of act two, is the hero's lowest point, where she must make a crucial decision, resulting from what happened at the Midpoint.

    McKee makes three key observation on this, I think.

    First, that the decision in the Crisis is actually the hardest thing the hero does, for making a decision is harder than taking action once you've decided. This is why I like the term Crisis of Insight. The hardest thing –and most heroic thing — the protagonist does is search her soul truthfully and change. After that, Act Three is just movement toward the final confrontation, with the only certainty being the hero's resolve — not the outcome.

    Second, the closer the Crisis/Decision is to the Climax, the greater the dramatic effect. So placing it at the Midpoint actually lessens the emotional impact.

    Third, the Crisis must have a different emotional charge than the Climax, to heighten the impact on the audience. This is why the sister's wedding sequence in UP IN THE AIR ends so warmly and hopefully — because Clooney's going to get a kick in the teeth in the Climax. And in CHINATOWN, the key scene in the Crisis sequence isn't Jake slapping Evelyn and getting my-sister-my-daughter for an answer. it's a moment later, when Evelyn brings Catherine down, and she and Jake share a simple, gentle "Hello." Without this moment of tenderness, and the hope and heroic decency it reveals in Jake — the hopefulness and love that still reside in his heart — the ending wouldn't be so bitterly tragic.

    As for Vogler/Campbell — I've expressed my misgivings before. Since Vogler derives his ideas from Campbell, I'll simply address the latter. In a nutshell, and at the risk of repetition:

    1. Campbell's approach assumes that myth is “true” in a metaphysical sense.

    ➢ He imputes a spiritual meaning to myth that he thinks is both constant across societies and crucial for individual psychologcal and spiritual health.

    ➢ He separates this meaning from the specific religious doctrines of the societies that formed the particular myths. (He assumes similar narrative elements have the same meanings in different cultures — but Amazons and snakes and ravens, for example, have different narrative meanings and functions in different places, times and cultures.)

    2. He never attempts to prove the truth of his interpretations, but simply asserts them.
    (For example: He assumes the human mind has a spiritual dimension. Those who find him compelling also seem to make this assumption implicitly. I don't)

    3. He claims to be discussing narratives (“monomyths”) that occur worldwide.
    In fact, he takes elements from many narratives to make a composite that does not actually occur anywhere. (And at times he cites a particular element of a myth that supports his thesis, while neglecting the rest of the myth that does not.)

    4. He assumes multiplication of examples amounts to proof of his interpretation.
    (While making little to no effort to examine examples that contradict or undermine his interpretation.)

    All universalist theories (Jung, Freud, Lévi-Strauss) of the “why” of myth rest on unprovable assumptions, i.e., that myths are “a dream of the people” or rise from “the Collective Unconscious” — and simply assume as true the fact that such a thing exists.

    But do stories adhere to the structure Vogler suggests? In the west, sure. Most of the time. But the hardest thing is staying ahead of the reader/audience, and once I sniff out "hero's journey," I can pretty much predict where a story's going, and I lose interest. yes, it's not supposed to be a formula. But guess what?

    Good luck with the proofs. I'm kinda with Louise here. Oh God, spare me from the critic in my brain.

  9. Alafair Burke

    The only book I'm reading right now is the one I need to turn in to my editor at the end of the week, and I can't bear the thought of sharing any part of it. But I did enjoy the post and wanted to say congratulations on being at that very rewarding stage of your book!

  10. Stephanie St.Clair

    Allison – if your daughter is into Urban Fantasy, I would recommend Seanan McGuire and her Toby Day series or Ilona Andrews and their Kate Daniels series. Both are great series.

  11. Reine


    Your daughter might like THE CATSWOLD PORTAL by Shirley Rousseau Murphy. It's a fantasy about a netherworld under California inhabited by people and various creatures, prominently the Catswold who are shape shifters who switch between cat and human form. The protagonist of this world of magic is Melissa, a girl with no memory of her life before entering Catswold Portal.

  12. Allison Brennan

    @Stephanie and Reine — thanks, I'll pass those onto her!

    @David I don't particularly care much for Campbell, either, and never read more than brief snippets of his books. But I'm simple that way, and he's too dense. What I like about Vogler is that he discusses how and why stories resonate with viewers/readers, and how we connect with characters and stories. I don't see the hero's journey as a formula–I see it as information you can use and discard. I never use it prior to writing or the writing itself, I see some of the steps when I'm editing. I think the point I wanted to get across that whether someone consciously or unconsciously considers the hero's journey while writing, it's usually there in some form. As far as the midpoint, I don't think it's the crisis of the story, but I usually write in escalating crises. But I think the midpoint is generally a pivotal turning point of the story like the end of act one and act two.

    Unfortunately, when I start talking in Alex's terms, I tend to confuse myself, which is why I don't teach on story structure. Hard to do when you write without a structure! 🙂

  13. JT Ellison

    I love it – I like Campbell and don't ike Vogler. Campbell makes perfect sense to me. Vogler turned me backwards and literally stopped my writing for a few months because I got so cuaght up in trying to figure it all out…. Different strokes, right?

    I didn't read the Vogler book until I'd already written several novels – and I never finished it. It can be a great guide, and can also really screw with your head. It messed movies up for me for quite a while, too.

    Have fun with the proofs!

  14. Shizuka

    The first page is crazy important to me. I'm too impatient to wait for a book to grab me.
    Part of this is bitter experience: I've read too many books I thought I'd warm to that
    ended up being so-so all the way through. I've also read a lot of the reverse — the book that has an intriguing beginning, but doesn't seem to be able to pull things together enough at the end. I read Alafair's LONG GONE recently and it aced all your tests!

    I'm scared to try these tests on the book I'm writing..
    I have to finish first in a way that's not absolutely ludicrous. I'm starting to think I should write fantasy, not mystery.

    BTW: I'm dying to read IF I SHOULD DIE after you gave out those first chapters at Thrillerfest.

    Oh, and one YA recommendation for your daughter — Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma.
    Very eerie and original.

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