05 March, 2013

The Ford 99 Page Test

"Open the book to page 99, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." - Ford Madox Ford

This quote, from one of the 20th-century's greatest writers, makes me nervous. Does page 99 of my novel really show the quality of the whole work? In a way, I suppose it does - every page of a manuscript should be of good quality. If I'm serious about writing - and I like to think I am - then every word of every sentence in every paragraph should be as good as I can make it. Writers often put extra effort into polishing the first 50 or so pages, and can re-write the ending dozens of times (Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different endings to A Farewell to Arms - some of which are radically different to the one he decided on for publication) but if you want to see how good a writer really is, look somewhere in the middle.

Have you ever tried this with your writing? I have. For my novel, The Art of Letting Go, I took a peek at page 99 when I first read about this rule. I was disappointed. Page 99 is certainly not the page I'd pick to show people! It wasn't bad, but it wasn't one of the best. But that's the point. Each of your pages should show a reader how good you are - you shouldn't have good and bad pages! Curious, I picked another four page numbers at random to see what they said about the quality of my writing - after all, 99 is just an arbitrary number. I found that:

a) the other four pages were all more pleasing, which was reassuring;
b) on every page (of this final, final draft edited to within an inch of its life) there was something I wanted to change - mostly just single words, but always something.

I found the exercise encouraging and disappointing: I like my novel and my novel isn't perfect. So how about you? Indulge me - turn to page 99 of either the manuscript you're working on (if it's long enough!) or the book you're reading, and tell me what you think of it. If you don't mind sharing - and it doesn't give away the whole plot - pick your favourite sentence/passage from the page and pop it in the comments below. I'm pretty nosy when it comes to sneaking a peek into manuscripts/books!

I was tempted to cheat and pick a page I liked from my own manuscript, but I'll play fair. Here is a passage from page 99 of The Art of Letting Go (which - in other news - my agent has just sent out to editors for the first time this week. Wish me luck!).  This is the first-person ramblings of Ben, thinking about another of the characters, Jenny:

"She was a good woman, in that old-fashioned, biblical sense. Somebody you smiled at when you saw her coming. There was just nothing about her that made you remember she existed when she wasn’t there. She was a background person; a character in a TV drama who only exists to look shocked when the body is discovered."

If you get really into this test, you can critique other people's page 99s, and have your own page 99 critiqued anonymously at page99test.com. Published and unpublished authors welcome!

6 comments:

  1. I've recently been enjoying "The hundred year old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared". Its made me laugh multiple times and is a very gently paced book - sometimes maybe a little too much. Page 99 (of the kindle version at least) reflects this a bit, not much happens or is described. Its a bit of a nonevent sort of page.

    "The mystery of the vanished and presumably kidnapped centenarian caught the attention of the nation. More than 1.5 million viewers, including the centenarian himself and his new comrades at Lake Farm watched a report that didn't actually reveal anything more that The Express."

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  2. Page 99: Egg-Liquid mixtures. Including the theory of baking cheesecake and some of the first recorded recipes for creme brûlée, creme anglaise and creme caramel.
    About par for McGee on food & cooking but possibly a bit sweeter than the average of the tome. Quite a low level of chemistry compared to some of his pages but that is towards the end of the chapter.

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    1. I love that your food books involve varying levels of chemistry. Mine just tell me which ingredients to put in which order for lasagne!

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  3. Standpoint, my thriller, where the 'action' moves to a brother and sister reunion:
    Pat laughed and grabbed his arm, winching him in close. “I have missed you though. You should come up more often.”
    “So I hear.”

    Scars & Stripes, my comedy drama:
    It was a long and thrilling ride from JFK, a journey every bit as colourful as the language.

    In each case, the characters and plot are sufficiently established that I've focused in on the relationships. As a pin on a page goes, it gives a different perspective!

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    1. Two for one - thanks, Derek! I am looking forward to reading Scars and Stripes!

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