• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
  • Archives

You Say You Wanna Start Something New

Dear Betsy:

I love your blog. Thank you. I wonder if you can help me. I have started any number of novels but I never seem to get past page 60. I’ve tried outlines, talking the story into a tape recorder, index cards, you name it. But I always hit that wall. Any tricks? Suggestions?


Dear Running Start:

I know from this. I have some of those 60 pagers tucked away somewhere myself. Why does it happen? What does it mean? Bottom line:  you’re probably not a novelist. Tolstoy told me that he had barely warmed up by page 60. That’s the moment at which a book usually needs to shift into second gear, or maybe be thrown wildly into reverse. If you’ve written entire outlines or outlined your book on index cards (my perferred “method”), you should be able to get a little further down the line. Your problem generally occurs when a writer heads into the forest with nothing but garlic flavored croutons or yogurt covered raisins in her pocket.  Or, maybe you have a congenital disease and on some level you know that if you wrote pg. 61 your heart would explode leaving your computer in a crimson spray whilst you keeled over at your desk, not to be found until the following Tuesday when the cleaning lady came and noticed a hideous stain or red and yellow on the kitchen ceiling because by now your body had drained itself of all its blood and other bodily fluids and seeped through the floor of your office. Have you thought of writing novellas?

Contest: what is the first sentence of page 61? Winner gets the usual, though perhaps a holiday bonus if you’ve been really naughty.

122 Responses

  1. p. 61: “I was in such shock, at first, I thought my nausea was because I couldn’t believe I was pregnant; it didn’t occur to me until after I made it to the toilet that the pregnancy itself, not the thought of it, was the real reason I felt like throwing up.”

    (a million thank yous for tricking me into scrolling through my WIP beyond the first chapter.)

  2. Of all my WIPs this page 61 is probably the best: “Bobby took a few seconds to let Ethics Head interpret Mr. Goonawardena’s words.”

  3. Naturally, there was always a chance they could make up for a shabby start but why make things harder than they needed to be?

  4. It was just as she was about to have her first orgasm of the morning that the exploding Ferrari crashed through the bedroom wall and exploded into a fireball, the belts of heavy machine gun ammunition stashed in its trunk quickly going off and sending bullets buzzing through her bedroom like hot, angry bees.

  5. She sat up tall in her shabby orange housecoat, like the model she used to think she could be, and her cigarette dangled from the corner of her lips as she dipped a forefinger into the jar of Vaporub and shoved a clump up each nostril.

    (you asked)

  6. i have two page 61s, both followed by many more pages. It’s interesting to look at past drafts and see how different page 61 is.

    1. My baby is learning the grown-up art of secrets.

    2. Emmie sighed, remembering the conversation with Aidan, the morning in bed at the hotel, the sunlight streaming in like it was searching for the two of them, dead mothers and trailside
    killers momentarily irrelevant.

  7. He looked at his hands again and they seemed to belong to someone he didn’t know.

  8. I like #1

  9. Sat in bed, at three in the morning. The orange glow from the street lamp outside seeping through the gap in the curtain like some insidious toxic waste. The scales had fallen from her eyes. She now know where her life would lead.

  10. Sat in bed, at three in the morning. The orange glow from the street lamp outside seeping through the gap in the curtain like some insidious toxic waste. The scales had fallen from her eyes. She now knew where her life would lead.

  11. “Huh. It’s like…a penguin treadmill,” she mused aloud.

    (I loved this covert exercise. ^_^)

  12. From my memoir – Tell me what He did
    First sentence, page 61:

    “No, Shirley,” Diane tells me. “The lawyers say you can’t go back home, it isn’t safe.”

  13. I wondered why an “old money” woman would deprive herself of the luxuries of life–even used a teabag so many times that the water barely changed color before she would throw it away–but she was the type who could stretch a dollar until it cried uncle as far as her own self and then give the girl she was keeping out of the goodness of her heart all the money from the farmers’ market–enough to buy a truckload of teabags.

  14. “The first wave of white dust chased him back and then enveloped him just as he entered a small deli-convenience store for cover, the windows were shattered but a man led him into the freezer where a group of people waited in the dark gray air, gasping for breath. “

  15. Coming down and shutting down I crawled onto a bed heavy with pillows, wildly printed, lay on my side like a wizened baby, hands curled in arthritic fists.

  16. (1970) On the day Blanche died there was a phone call, I don’t remember from whom, but I can picture the big, black rotary phone and my mother’s face partially obscured by a scrim of cigarette smoke, her eyebrows knitted together in an emotion I can’t identify–concern? confusion?–and then nothing, a smooth, blank space where the information is missing.

  17. His wife was laughing and animated, hanging on his father’s every word. “How does he do that?” he wondered to himself. “For the life of me, I can’t draw that kind of response from her.”

  18. From The Women of Watch Hill:
    “Fifi, you should know that I’m dying,” she said, her tongue a scalpel cutting into my calculations.

  19. From my first novel, page 61:

    I had this notion that the iron in Guinness was good for jet lag—and whether it was true or not, I preferred to believe it.

  20. “And if you please, Miss Schaefer may need something a little less fortified with her mother and father present.”

  21. They drove with the windows down, the sea air in tatters through the car.

  22. 61: “In the background Ma cracked the tip of her grapefruit juice open, next was gin.”

  23. Her eyes were open, but she was dead, and the slack jawed mouth you couldn’t close was just hanging there open, they didn’t even remove the oxygen mask from her face, but she was gone, where I really wasn’t sure.

  24. Here’s what I imagine page 61 to read, since (to be honest) I’m only up to page 22.

    “FUck. FuCk. FucK!!!!”

  25. “It’s no secret that I’m wanted in Georgia.”

  26. “Dara lay on her back and stared at the ceiling, wondering if girls could have sex together.”

  27. Page 61, 1st sentence from my novel (near completion), BLACKHEART:

    Noel lay on a bloodstained, filthy mattress in the back of an otherwise gutted van, fading in and out of consciousness.

  28. Alastair had been so confident these times were behind him, left in Scotland along with the rain and dampness.

  29. Now, my weekend, I guess I’ll have to explain the situation when I get home.

  30. Uh. The wrath of grapes. Uh.

  31. And they all lived happily ever after.
    The end.

  32. She gave me a look and I knew she was thinking about the cost of the rooms.

  33. She closed the phone. Harriet hated to hang up on Henry. Prudence not so much.

  34. For one wild moment I thought of phoning my grandparents and saying, “Help, we’re living with a crazy man who wants us to march in his funeral parade!

    from my novel, The Funeral of the Man Who Wasn’t Dead Yet

  35. I didn’t hear the chanting at first, confused as I was by the unexpected break in the fence; Nigel’s hasty note hadn’t warned me about that.

  36. The man in gray studied him with shark eyes. “You’re Jimmy Blaine’s golden boy,” he said, in a voice full of genteel gravel.

  37. Feeling somewhere between sheepish and relieved, I got on my bike and rode into traffic.

  38. There’s some good stuff here. Really good.

  39. Clay drove to school with both hands clutched to the steering wheel, his body seized with a type of pain as if he’d been whipped in the chest with a chain.

  40. Some days he’d head straight for Self Injury and Cutting, other days he’d linger over Eating Disorders (Bulimia was his favorite).

  41. “After applauding Ray, Mrs. Latour suggested Leah-Anne and ‘do something for heaven’s sake’ so we went for a walk around the block and when we got back the lights had been turned down even more and the stain was invisible.”

  42. The simple truth, what we all knew but didn’t want to acknowledge, was he didn’t have control over his drinking and the alcohol was only granting him some mercy until the next shitstorm appeared on the horizon.

  43. In the window, positioned behind the bride in her meringue dress, the groom in his muted gray tuxedo, bow-tie, and cummerbund was a second-string player, a background extra in her movie.

  44. The door to their trailer was open, it was full of people, a baby was crying.

  45. “That had been at the apex of Sejanus’ tyranny, of course, when a man never knew which end of the sword he might end up on.”

    The full ms is ~430 pages, almost done, just polishing it up now. Anytime I’ve hit the page 61 wall, I realize it’s because I’m writing about a situation, a concept, vs a fully fledged novel. Then you either need to take a few steps back or a few steps in.

    Ah, Tolstoy, I don’t think he’d even finished clearing his throat by page 60. Man that old bastard could write.

  46. I’ll skip he contest and tell you what I do. I tell myself to write two pages of nonsense–no matter what it is; just type. Once I addressed Dear Reader and had a conversation with myself: It was fun. And I did finish the novel. Hope this helps.

  47. Pg 61 “For years I’ve read, from who knows where, that our sense of smell is the the one that most directly hits our brains and triggers memories, but I think the pundits got it wrong: for me it’s always been music.”

    Dearest Name Withheld…Go to your nearest online bookstore and order this book: The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Do it! Like…now. And then, of course, read it. It is all about this very thing and more.

    And next, maybe consider writing out of order. Start at the beginning of Act Two, or with that one pivotal chapter midway through that changes everything. Or whatever. But don’t start from page one.

    I would love an update from you if that’s possible. Good luck, dear!

  48. Before long, my mother appeared with another glass of wine in hand.

  49. Whip the butter until its soft and white, fluffy. If its cold in your kitchen, wrap a warm dish towel around the bowl of your mixer.

  50. Wait a minute: Tolstoy talks to you? Hasn’t he been dead for over 100 years or is there another – living – writer using that name?

  51. Mum needn’t have worried about the funeral, nobody came.

  52. The outline of a grin crept onto Karl’s face, and Burnett was pretty sure it was the first real emotion he’d shown that day.

  53. “I’m not just talking about them,” she said, “Everyone is after you. Everyone wants you dead.”

  54. 1) The force of acceleration slammed her door shut and pressed her back into the leather as she struggled to straighten herself out in the seat.

    2) “You purchase people’s desperation and sell it back to them at a mark up, honey.”

  55. Daphne told him she snuck out the night of her sixteenth birthday to meet her friend Mari at a construction site to smoke cigarettes, crawled back in her window at four am and pulled the covers down to find her mother lying in wait.

  56. I am the archer of the Dwellers Army–there is no one here as skilled as I am, and I’ve used everything I know to teach Thomas Dwyer and Jemima Jim how to fight the Thayne and the Nicor.

  57. If she were to open her mouth and let loose a giant diaphanous bubble of spit, the table would probably applaud; she might simply belch or repeat her own name over and over, it wouldn’t make any difference.

  58. “Right.”

    (Can I get the George Washington consolation prize?)

  59. Little old lady got mutilated late last night; werewolves of London again. Oh, not another bloody one she thought, picking up her knickers and bra from beside her date’s bed.

  60. She slid down further behind the bed, trying to make herself as small as possible.

  61. “I have to unlace your boots.”

  62. “Twig, population 189.”

  63. I wasn’t sure if his don’t-worry-be-happy attitude was a result of his cuddled youth or brain damage.

  64. “I want you to taste both plates and tell me which is best,” I say. I won’t deny that I intentionally placed her in the untenable situation of choosing between God, her Chef and the vegetable man, her lover. I want to humiliate her.

  65. I wish I could have just said goodbye.

  66. I hated seeing Dad so stressed out. I hated her shrill threats, the knife wielding. Cleo needed to be locked up. It just seemed the logical thing to do.

  67. As the intern slowly filled the revolver’s chamber, the insults pounded loudly in his ears…you’re probably not a novelist…Tolstoy told me that he had barely warmed up by page 60…maybe you have a congenital disease…have you thought of writing novellas…and, suddenly, as if by some sort of divine intervention or stroke of dumb luck, he was struck by an overwhelmingly perverse and exquisite sense of raw hatred and anger and purpose: “Fuck, Tolstoy,” he thought, closing the loaded chamber, “and fuck Bennet Lerber, too.”

  68. Ministry of Love –
    “The thought of you all alone in a strange place with uncomfortable bedding and water glasses wrapped in plastic…” she paused, “They do wrap the glasses in plastic, don’t they? I guessed they would. I doubt you would come here if they didn’t.”

    These Got Me Punched (a working title) is only on page 54.

  69. “California,” he says, “Jesus Christ.”

  70. “I think that’s cached,” he said, lying down.

  71. Instead of her warm breath on his groin he felt her weight on his shoulders, the weight of the boy asleep upstairs, the weight of the job he loved, his responsibilities, clean and dirty, his reputation, other people’s expectations of him, his own expectations of himself, his ambitions and desires, the pride of his aging father in South Carolina, the envy of his brother, the whole heavy fabric of the life he had carefully woven for himself.

  72. She could hear the collective sigh, see the loosening of shoulders as the men surrendered to this oasis of calm.

  73. “She stands before a bargain bin full of beauty products that have surpassed their shelf lives.”

  74. “The passing down of mothering had been in many ways like the matrilineal passing down of Judaism, perceptible but faint, a fragile vessel rather than a fully-realized gift.”

  75. From the darkest coming-of-age tale you’ll likely never read:

    She was everything I wanted to be and I loved her because she made me feel I was nearly capable of it. Of being impervious and immovable, like she was.

  76. “It was impossible ever to get the memorandum fully translated.”

    But that’s not mine, it’s Vaclav Havel’s.

  77. You tried to take care of her, up in your little apartment with The Zombies playing, you’d run your hand over her rib cage and look her in the eyes as her breath picked up and your heart rate dropped out.

  78. My totally subjective first pick goes to MONUMENTAL CUPCAKES just because it scans so damn well with:

    Whip the butter until its soft and white, fluffy. If its cold in your kitchen, wrap a warm dish towel around the bowl of your mixer.

    And because where would Miss America be without her runner-up, I’m going for GIRL IN THE HAT’s:

    If she were to open her mouth and let loose a giant diaphanous bubble of spit, the table would probably applaud; she might simply belch or repeat her own name over and over, it wouldn’t make any difference

    Please send me your snail mail address to askbetsylerner@gmail.com and I’ll send you a copy of FFTT with a holiday bonus.

    Thanks to everyone for participating in a contest of tremendously dubious merit.

  79. I’m not a blogger but I just finished reading ‘Food and Loathing’ by Betsy Lerner and I want to tell her it’s the best book I’ve read for ages. And I read a lot. If I could write the story of my life, this wonderful book would be it. Not that you judge a book only by its relevance to your own life but for me this book had the lot-painful memories of a time past but not forgotten, hope, humour, sensitivity and an easy but not simple writing style. I didn’t want to put it down but forced myself to read it in small bits to make it last longer, like sucking on a sweet instead of biting into it. Thanks betsy. I’m off to the library to see whether they’ve got other gems by you.

  80. “The Doctor’s elegant neck arched and his eyes bugged out. He curled his back and lifted his forelegs out and to the side, and almost did a canter pirouette to get away from the little demon.
    “Deepa never moved in the saddle.”

  81. “At every corner, there are tea-stalls like wild mushrooms, sprouting out of a bend in the pavement, bending around the base of a telephone pole, perching on top of a drain.”

  82. Here’s the first paragraph from page 61 of my memoir. Yes, I’m looking for an agent.

    “I wasn’t worried about his best friend blabbing. Adam was doing a fantastic job on his own. I wanted my first time to be special and romantic. I wanted him to hold me afterward and woo me with romantic musings about how I was the best girl breakdancer he’d ever seen. Knowing his best friend was hanging out downstairs, watching GI Joe while we were upstairs trying to figure out how to join our private parts sucked the romance right out. You don’t bring your friend along to a sex date. You just don’t. Unless it’s that kind of date.”

  83. *I just discovered your blog, so Using your blog to enjoy myself and all that it has to offer.*

    Just past the bathroom was the wall heater, which she dialed from the low side to the high side w/o thinking since her behind was ice-cold after sitting on the toilet seat just a few seconds earlier.

    don’t think it’s a page turner but it’s what was there on page 61.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: