The red carpet rolled out, celebrities stepped out, and cameras popped out at the premiere of the James River Writers‘ new video (I’m waving at the 3:20 mark). Check out the video to see what all the buzz is about. After viewing, please consider joining and/or donating to this worthy literary organization!
Following the fabulous JRW 2012 Conference, I am revisiting my earlier post discussing making the most of your first page and adding more insights I have picked up.
Dreams, Flashbacks and Backstory
Don’t do it. Do not begin your story with a dream. It’s cliche, and more importantly, as someone had noted in a prior JRW conference, dreams are inconsequential.
Do not begin your story with a flashback. If you need to inform the reader of something that happened in the past at this point of your story, then you’re starting your story at the wrong place.
Like flashbacks, a backstory does not belong on the first page. We do not need to know everything about the character(s) on the first page. Just enough to whet our interest to turn the page. Save the flashbacks and backstory for later.
Setting and World Building
There were several First Pages examples where we didn’t have a sense where or when the story was taking place and this made it difficult to follow the story. Where are we? When are we?
Even a sentence or two will do.
Along those lines, there were submissions of the fantasy and science fiction genres, but there was no hint of fantasy or sci-fi elements in the first pages. Be sure to put your reader in this alternate universe at the start. (Horseback riding and uncommon names are not sufficient to tell the reader it’s an epic fantasy tale.)
A first page with conversations generally does not work (not to say that it can’t work). Dialogue at the very beginning can confuse the reader and often does not provide enough context to feel drawn into the story and identify with the characters. Invest in set up and let the chatter come a little later.
Do Not Get in the Way of Your Action
If you’re opening with an action scene, do not bog it down with detail. Strip out extraneous observations and modifiers. For example, if you are opening with your character startled awake and he or she needs to scramble to find a safe place to hide from the antagonists, do not look away to describe the beautiful dawn or digress into backstory.
I had the honor of participating in this year’s First Pages, a popular and especially fun part of the James River Writers Conference (held this year Oct. 19-21 — come join us!). Here’s how First Pages works: Brave authors submit their novel’s first page for consideration. At the conference, a dramatic reading of the selected submissions will be given in front of all the attendees and a panel of agents. After each reading, the panel will share their critique of the piece.
So today was the day that we went through the stack of submissions and chose which ones will go to the conference. We selected about 15, though it’s unlikely that all we be read at the conference due to time.
The authors’ names are left off; all we know is the genre, title and of course the first page of the manuscript. We were looking to get a wide range of genre and age groups.
With coffee and donuts in hand, we got to work and I want to share with you my general observations.
Follow the Rules!
Several submissions were tossed from the get-go, because they disregarded the requirements.
It’s important not just for First Pages, but when submitting your writing to an agent or publisher. This is especially true for query letters. Read the rules carefully and make sure your submission meets each one to the letter. Spacing, font size, margins, whatever. Remember: the default location of your manuscript is in the circular file by the agent’s desk; what you must do is to convince the agent not to put it there.
Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation
Go over your page several times just to be sure to catch any spelling mistakes — don’t rely on spell check! If you’re not sure of punctuation rules, check with a reference book. For example, we saw commas outside the quotation marks (incorrect: “Sure”, Bob agreed.), instead of inside (correct: “Sure,” Bob agreed.). Also, watch tense changes (that’s one of my weaknesses).
Read Your Story Aloud
Find a quiet room, pull up your manuscript, and read it aloud. Do not murmur it. Speak it clearly. This will solve a lot of the issues above and more that aren’t covered here. You will hear awkward sentence construction, poor grammar, breaks in rhythm or voice and more.
There is much more and I will follow up after the conference with a recap.
A sincere thank you to the writers who had submitted to First Pages. We had a great time and often wanted to read more.
I met with the critique group this past Monday and they did not fail in being their usual incisive, helpful, encouraging selves. As I had mentioned here earlier, I was concerned about the length. The word count makes for a rawboned novel and I wondered what could be done to beef it up.
They were not short of ideas.
Fundamentally, the reason the book was thin, was because I withheld too much from the reader. Essentially, in my attempt to avoid slowing the pace, I got into the opposite predicament. The novel read too fast, leaving the reader confused and perhaps unsatisfied.
They assured me that slowing down and taking the time to bring some important background information forward, would enhance the reading, not diminish it.
Particularly the supernatural elements. Though I have real settings (present-day Paris and Philadelphia), one in the group pointed out that I was still building my own world. Thus it was important to write more on its rules than I already have. They know this was a vampire novel that included both familiar tropes of the genre as well as new ones. Those need more detail.
Far from discouraged, I look forward to revising this draft. I hope to complete it by Oct 1.
This year I had gotten into listening to podcasts, though I don’t listen on a consistent basis. One of the shows I like is called Typecast, A Podcast About Writing, presented by Kevin Pang.
The particular podcast (episode 9) I’m mentioning here features Steve Padilla, a LA Times editor and writing coach. Editors of course are very important allies in your writing (though often I’m sure writers feel the relationship is more adversarial) and Mr. Padilla discusses his best tips for sharpening your writing.
One theme that he discusses throughout is the importance of meaning. In fact, Mr. Padilla argues that meaning is the most important element of writing.
“You should be obsessing about what you’re going to say, not how you’re going to say it.”
At one point in the podcast, Mr. Padilla reinforces a lesson that I have kept with me since college. I kick myself for not keeping the story the professor had us examine, so I can’t attribute it and I must paraphrase. It was a short story that opened with the female protagonist taking a bath and experiencing a heart attack. “It was my heart, it stopped.” Something like that. The professor called attention to how the sentence ended with the word “stopped.” Sentences can be structured in many ways, so choose the one that gives the most impact to your readers.
Mr. Padilla argues that simple rewording can transform a sentence from acceptable to extraordinary. “Put the best stuff at the end.”
This ties in with his point about meaning. Meaning will help shape your sentences so that you can determine what to emphasize. And a strong end will propel you into the next sentence. If you are stuck on a sentence, it’s because the previous sentence wasn’t strong enough.
What do you think? What writing podcasts do you recommend?