Interview with Author Meg Medina

In episode 55 of Working Title podcast, I chat with children’s author Meg Medina. Having written for teens, then middle grade, then onto picture books, she now adds chapter books to her bibliography.

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First Pages 2012 Follow-up

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.)

Chatter Later

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.

First Pages 2012

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.