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 Published and unpublished authors welcome!