Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Can you pass the 69 Test?

Now that I have your attention...

No, I am not going to talk about sex again. Not even bad sex, which as we writers know is a helluva lot more fun than good sex. I want to talk about finding the heart of your story. And to do that, you have to try this little exercise:

Get out your book. (For our purposes here, "book" means published or un, completed or not. "Book" is that thing that has been keeping you up lately.)

Open it to page 69. Read what is there. I don't care if it's a full page or the last two lines of a chapter. (If you hit a blank page, you have permission to use either 68 or 70 but that's as much cheating as I allow.)

This page -- this single page -- capsulizes your entire book.

You don't believe me, do you. I didn't believe it either until I tried this experiment. I did it at the request of Marshal Zeringue, executive director for the Campaign for the American Reader. Marshal has this terrific blog wherein he promotes reading. Sez Marshal: "The goal of this blog is to inspire more people to spend more time reading books. I'll try to do that by shining a little light on books that I like and think others might find worthy of their time and attention."

He also came up with the Page 69 Test. He was inspired by Marshall McLuhan's suggestion that you should choose your reading by turning to page 69 of a book and, if you like it, read it. Marshal tried it with Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, and was so taken with the results he devised the Page 69 writers challenge.

On his blog, he has asked dozens of writers to answer the question: Is your page 69 a good place to get a sense of your book?

At Marshal's request, I took up the gauntlet and cracked open our most recent, An Unquiet Quiet. Here is our page 69:

As Charlie Oberon staggered closer into the light, everything came into focus. His bloody sweatshirt. A woman’s lifeless, naked body. Charlie’s long fingers pressed into her thighs. Arms hanging limp, shreds of dark wet leaves stuck to them. Her hair...long, blond and thick with blood.

“She won’t wake up,” Charlie cried. “She won’t wake up.”

Louis broke into a run toward him.

It's the end of chapter 8. Does it give a good sense of the book? I'll say only that I went into this experiment a sceptic and emerged...

Well, hop over to Marshal's blog and find out. And check out some of the other entries. They're fascinating. Especially N.M. Kelby's analysis of her book "Whale Season." Her page 69 is blank. She says it speaks volumes.

Okay...back to your own page 69. How does it work for you? What is there on this one single page that somehow serves to represent the very heart of your book? Think hard. It's there. If it's not? Well, maybe, just maybe, you haven't really found the heart of your book yet.

Let me know what you found out. We'll print them here.


Blogger David Skibbins said...

Great idea, PJ. Page 69 of my third book (The Star) had a telling paragraph in it:

I know, I know, "Friends don't let friends go to Starbucks." But I was a desperate and dangerous man. I chugged the triple latte and wolfed down the ham croissant sandwich. That began to take my edge off. One more latte and I'd be ready to contemplate my mission.
I'd bumbled through a couple of earlier investigations, but I was ready this time. Last month I'd read The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigating, and I knew just what to do. Well, sort of.

6:59 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


If I read this entry cold (it sounds like the end of a chapter, no?) I would read on because I love the fact your hero has to resort to the Idiot's Guide to Private Investigation. He is less than James Bones, shall we say.

In a nutshell, I know who I am dealing with and the tone of the book...

7:03 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

My page 69 has:

"I'm not really trying to prove anything. But couldn't we be friends?"
Larissa widened her eyes. "Friends. With him? Uh, no. No, you couldn't be. 'Cause he's a jerk."
"Maybe he's changed?" I said, sounding pathetic even to myself.
She snorted. "No way. You know it, I know it, that ridiculous cat of yours knows it. People don't change unless they want to. He won't have changed, because he thought he was perfect. So why would he change?"
Why indeed. Maybe I could ask him when I saw him next.

It goes right to the core conflict of my novel. That's so weird!

7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've tried this out on my current WIP, and it almost reads like a hook:

Jules gets the cab to drop him off on the corner. He’s had plenty to drink, but even though he feels sober, he doesn’t want to risk being even later. In his pocket is a small bag of speed, some of which he snorted quietly in the back seat of the cab. After all, the quickest way to combat a depressant is with a stimulant.

He runs down the stairs, gives a nod to the bouncer at the front door, grabs his headset from the woman behind the counter and steps out onto the dance floor. The smoke machine and strobe make it hard to see the crowd, but the floor is packed already.

Walking around the edges, Jules wonders who he’s supposed to report to. Reggie isn’t here and if everything that happened to Jules wasn’t a dream or a drug-induced hallucination, Reggie will never be here.

1:20 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Here's my page 69:

*“I saw something...I can’t tell you.”

“How am I supposed to help if you won’t tell me anything?”

“Don’t you get it? I don’t want your help. If I tell you, you’ll tell the police and somebody will be arrested and tried and sent to prison, but they’ll still get to me. I know they will. The only way for me to survive is to be far, far away from here. Somewhere they won’t find me.”

We rode in silence for a few minutes. I turned on the police scanner. A man in Orange Park was holding his wife hostage in their home with a gun. The SWAT team had been called in. I turned it off.

Jimmy’s tires hummed a monotonous tune on the blacktop.

“I did a little acting one time,” I said, trying to find some common ground.

“Let me guess. Arsenic and Old Lace in the high school drama club? You were the stiff, right?”

“Nope. I had a bit part in GI Jane, movie back in the nineties with Demi Moore. They filmed part of it down at Camp Blanding.”

“You got to meet Demi Moore?”

“Bruce Willis too. He was hanging around with her during part of the filming.”

“Oh my God, you are lucky. What part did you play?”*

Here's the thing: My manuscript is in Courier. If I change the font to TNR, the page number will change. When I make additions or deletions to the MS, the page number will change. When the publisher chooses a font, makes additions and deletions, the page number will change. So how can "69" be any sort of reliable indicator?

I don't get it.

The thing we have to strive for, I think, is to get some sort of tension on EVERY page, and to let every page touch on the book's theme as a whole.

If we do that, 69 will be a winner every time.

And when you get down to it, how can you really lose with 69? ;)

1:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's page 69 of THE HADES PROJECT:

“How long?”
“Eight, maybe ten minutes.”
“That’s a long time for a kid to take a piss.” Carillo finally looked up and locked on Alan’s eyes.
“I realize that. That’s why I’m so upset.”
The cop made a few more notes. “Did you just hang around there or did you wander around, maybe leave and come back?”
“I never moved.”
“Did you talk to anyone?”
“No. Well, yes. Some guy struck up a conversation with me about football statistics. I found him a bit overbearing and boring. I mean, I’m not that big of a football fan.”
“Then why did you come to the game?”
“Devin loves the Dolphins. He can rattle off all the players’ stats. This was his first NFL game.”
The officer tore the page from the pad and stood. “Anything else you can tell me before I call this in?”
Alan hesitated. There was more, a lot more. But probably the guy wouldn’t understand or believe him. “No, nothing else,” Alan said.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Huh, says I. That's weird. I pulled out "The Devil's Pitchfork" and got a segment that really does get to the heart of the novel. Right from the top of the page:

Derek laid it out for him. The stolen infectious agent, the murder of the family, the tape, and his recognition of a voice he thought was Captain Richard Coffee's.

Tallifer considered him for a few minutes. "If I may say so myself, Doctor, that doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Captain Coffee died in Iraq."

"I'm aware of that. I was there."

Now I'm going to have to go and look at some other books.

Mark Terry

10:46 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

On the changing type face thing, I know what you mean. We write in Courier, Wordperfect always have. But our new editor speaks Times Roman Word. When we got ready to turn in the new book, it came out near 600 pages, and we went oh-oh. But then our editor converted it into his language and it magically slimmed down to about 450.

Go figure.

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is a great exercise. I used to walk into a book store and read the first sentence of all the newly release novels, searching for the one that begged me to read the second sentence. Now I have a better test: page 69. Interestingly, page 69 of our new novel that I posted earlier does capture so much about the book.

Thanks again for an interesting exercise.


12:10 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I long ago stopped reading the first paragraph of a book as a buying test because I know, as a writer, how easy it is to write one great opening graph.

The trick is, can you open a book ANYWHERE and find one great graph or in this case, one page?

Just for fun, I closed my eyes and pulled a book off my shelf. It was "Snake Eyes" by Rosamond Smith (aka Joyce Carol Oates when she writes crime). It is a chapter opening:

It was the first morning of his new life.

Don't forget medication on this special day! -- no, he sure wouldn't.

He was a man with a mission burning inside him fierce as a laser beam, you would not want to impede, frustrate, deny or challenge him.

Yes but he smiled. Sweetly.

Ducked his head, shifted his skinny shoulders inside his new cheap white Dacron shirt. Black gabardine trousers, too, but no belt. He'd buy a belt tomorrow. A mud-green necktie the chaplain had given him. And his own brown shoes with the cracks and waterstains from maybe fifteen years ago.

You know what you look like, Lee Roy, ha ha! -- one of them whatdayacallit Moron guys goin door to door sellin' fucking Bible haha!

Yes, but you would not want to stand in his way.

(This is the killer, of course, as seen by my favorite author. Good stuff.)

12:22 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I pulled a couple books off the shelf to check it out, too. It worked well for my novel "Dirty Deeds" and reasonably well for John Sandford's "The Hanged Man's Song." I'm not sure Sandford's was the heart of the book, but if you weren't interested in it by reading that page, you wouldn't be interested in it at all, which may really be what this exercise is all about.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Evil E said...

Yup, it works! Uncanny, isn't it?

5:10 PM  
Blogger Evil E said...

Yup, it works! Uncanny, isn't it?

5:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd never heard of this test until now, but when I was a kid, sneaking Harlequin romances, popular wisdom had it that if you opened to page 69 that's where all the sex was. Naturally, this was the first page I checked.

I tried this with a few of my books, and it's uncanny. Maybe I had the right impulse after all, even if I had the wrong reason.

Incidentally, none of my books had sex on page 69. Bummer!

4:17 AM  

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