Revising Those First Pages

All writers know that if we can’t capture an editor or agent – even a reader – in the first few pages, our story will go nowhere.

When a writer finally accepts the fact that the beginning of her story just doesn’t do what she wants, it’s rewrite time. This moment of realization comes after professional critiques, not those from friends who may not have the knowledge or courage to tell you that your work has fallen short.

Rewrites, even for small sections or only one scene, are difficult. That early section of the book MUST create a sense of place, introduce a believeable and compelling protagonist, and make it impossible for the reader to put the book down.

Where do we start when we restart?

In her book, Elements of Fiction Beginnings, Middles & Ends, Nancy Kress provides a great tutorial in Chapter 3, Help For Beginnings: Early Revision. It is, in fact, a chapter I’m now reviewing for my own rewrite of the key intro pages for my current work.

She presents a few exercises on how to begin your rewrite. She describes five narrative modes: dialog, description, action, thoughts, and exposition. Her suggetion is to use a combination of each of these modes to bring your complete work alive. But, she indicates, most of us begin with just one mode. I went with my protagnist’s thoughts. Now I’m second guessing myself.

Fire Up Your Fiction, An Editors Guide to Writing Compelling Stories, by Jodie Renner Chapter 2, Your First Pages Are Critical, offers twelve dos and don’ts on how to hook your reader right off the bat.

For example, DO introduce your protagonist in the first paragraph; DON’T begin with a long description of the setting or background information; DO start the story from your protagonist’s point of view; DON’T introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages. I can see that I have covered a couple of her rules, but not all of them. I may be in trouble.

In Hooked:Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go, by Les Edgerton, Chapters 2 and 10, offer tips on writing the opening pages.

According to Edgerton, there are ten core components in an opening scene, and first four of those are most important. Those first four are, 1) the inciting incident – the event that creates the initial surface problem, 2) the story worthy problem – the driving force behind the surface problem, 3) the initial surface problem – propels the protagonist to take action, and 4) the setup – the bare minimum or snapshot that allows what’s to come. I’ve hit only three of them. Uh-oh.

Resources

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Brown and Dave King

Revision and Self-Editing (Write Great Fiction) by James Scott Bell

Killzoneauthors.blogspot.com

jodierennerediting.com/resources

 

Creating a Sense of Place

When readers begin a new book, they not only want to be pulled into the story from the start; they not only want to encounter strong and compelling characters; they want to become part of that world; to feel comfortable – or even uncomfortable – and familiar with that world. Creating a sense of place is key to setting the mood in your story.

Readers want to walk the same streets, halls, hiking paths, or mountain passes as the protagonist. They want to smell the same paint, mud, flowers, or body odor as all the other characters in the book.

All great books pull you into the protagonist’s world. They make believe you’re tasting the same food, smelling the same air, talking to the same people, touching the same cloth. Now, this doesn’t mean you write a dozen pages describing a town or a room. You can write sparingly and yet make a place live in the readers’ imagination.

For instance,  The Passage, by Justin Cronin, began with this paragraph:

Before she became the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Belafonte.

The reader immediately wonders what kind of world this is. It’s obvious that we’re about to move from “normal” to…what? Later, Cronin really begins to build his world through a letter written in the book:

Greetings from the jungle of Bolivia, landlocked armpit of the Andes. From where you sit in frigid Cambridge, watching the snow fall, I’m sure a month in the tropics doesn’t sound like a bad deal.  But believe me: this is not St. Bart’s. Yesterday I saw a snake the size of a submarine.

Okay, so we’re in for a bit of the exotic, but things still sound relatively normal. Another letter:

…At first I thought maybe I was imagining things. But look at the image, Paul. A human being, but not quite: the bent animal posture, the clawlike hands and the long teeth crowding the mouth, the intense muscularity of the torso, details still visible, somehow, after – how long? How many centuries of wind and rain and sun have passed, wearing the stone away?  And still it took my breath away…

Now we’re getting somewhere – and the reader is hooked into this strange trek from normal to fantastic.

A different sense of place example is from Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë:

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. “Wuthering” being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.

In this short paragraph, you already have a bleak image of the weather and the dwelling. Later:

On opening the little door, two hairy monsters flew at my throat, bearing me down, and extinguishing the light; while a mingled guffaw from Heathcliff and Hareton put the copestone on my rage and humiliation. Fortunately, the beasts seemed more bent on stretching their paws, and yawning, and flourishing their tails, than devouring me alive; but they would suffer no resurrection, and I was forced to lie till their malignant masters pleased to deliver me…

It’s clear that our protagonist is in some pretty rough company.

Both of these authors, although very different in style, continue with sharp rainbow bursts of description that solidify the worlds in which their stories take place. It’s not an easy thing to do. But it’s a lifeline to your book’s success.

Resources for creating a sense of place:

Down the Writer’s Path

Blue Zoo Writers

The Writers’ Workshop

301media

Professional Critiques – We Need Them

We’re all “jonesing” for it. At the same time, we’re terrified of what might come of it. Hope? Elation? Crushing disappointment?

A professional, agent or editor, provides a critique of those first few pages of your book. Most of the time, you do not receive glowing reviews but there are, typically, a mixture of positive and negative opinions. Incorporating that feedback into edits or restructuring of your book can be crucial to your future success. Agents and publishing editors know their stuff! We need to listen…most of the time.

Writers’ conferences, programs, or retreats often offer an opportunity to meet with a professional in the publishing world who will critique a small selection of your work. This service is not free; it’s usually part of your registration fee. But, if we don’t think our future is worth a legitimate and reasonable investment then we’ll miss out on opportunities to learn and network.

I’ll never forget the look on one agent’s face, at a writers’ workshop, when we met for 5 minutes to discuss the first few pages of my sci-fi fantasy book (in process at the time). She noted a particular section and, as she spoke, her face scrunched up and she grimaced as though she smelled something very NASTY. From that moment on, I took everything she said as poppycock, to put it mildly.

She may have had some very insightful suggestions for me, but my mind was closed and I almost immediately forgot everything she said…and threw away the hard copy with her notes. That was probably not very smart of me, but I had no confidence in someone who showed me so little consideration.

Another time, at a writers’ convention, an agent reviewed those very same pages (edited to be sure, but not because of the other reviewer) I received relatively positive feedback and was asked to supply the first three chapters for further review. Woohoo! I could hardly wait to get home and put the chapters in the mail. In the end, she informed me that her company was not interested in my book at that time, but encouraged me to continue writing and feel free to submit another query later. I still have that letter – and a few others.

In the beginning, disappointment can be an overriding emotion – and may last minutes, hours, days even; but if you go any longer than that you really need to find something else to do with your time. Rejection, and handling it constructively, is a big part of writing. We must take what we learn and produce better work because of it.

I’m attending another writing event this week, a webinar, which will result not only in me learning something about improving my work, but also with an agent’s review of the first 750 words of a new book I’m writing. That’s not much real estate to catch someone’s attention. But, it can be a testament to how much I have learned over the years…

A couple of resources for conference dates and locations:

Poets & Writers, Conferences and Residencies 

Association or Writers and Writing Programs

Hold the Backstory to a Minimum

Once you deliver that commanding first sentence or paragraph, you still have the challenge of keeping your readers’ interest. You can’t let them down, either by ignoring that lead-in or by totally reversing the tone the beginning has invoked. Neither can you distract them from the current action by breaking into a history lesson – also known as the dreaded exposition.

Many writers, myself included, make the mistake early in our writing careers of trying to squeeze entire decades of a character’s history into a few paragraphs all at once. That can get very boring for readers. We’ve taken away many surprises they could have discovered on their own, one surprise at a time.

You should definitely know your backstories for all main characters, good guys and bad guys. How else can you build even the vaguest of plots? Exactly what you do describe on those next pages depends, in large part, on what your book is about, as well as the tone you have already set.

Crime fiction may require building suspicion or doubt about the protagonist; or just plain describing the murder victim – again, not with the entire backstory in one basket. Action adventure may call for some tricky encounter with the bad guys or bad creatures. It may call for a description of packing a survival kit.

If you have set an ominous tone, stick to menace or threat. If your opening began with humor, weave that humor into your text – whether that is cynical, slapstick, or dark humor.

Let most of the backstory reveal itself as a result of character interactions in those first few chapters. Spread the backstory over actions, dialogs, introspection. And that is not easy.

I don’t pretend to be an expert – I’m still struggling to master the art. But here are some resources that may help you out.

How to Weave Backstory into Your Novel Seamlessly  by Brian Klems, Writer’s Digest

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

In the Beginning: The First Sentence

“They’re out there.”

You don’t have to be paranoid to see this sentence as a warning of some kind. That’s the opening line of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. When you discover that the next few paragraphs describe a patient in a mental ward you are not surprised.

That first sentence sets expectations for the tone of a book.

Though it should probably be one of the last items you finalize before your book or short story is finished, it can be the most important sentence in the entire work. Potential readers usually glance at the first page and, if I can judge by my own actions, decide then and there whether or not to buy the book.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

This line starts with a little sarcastic humor and suggests that this story will lead to some kind of romantic adventure. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice delivers the goods, admittedly mostly to women. But it’s a great book.

“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

A little bit of humor, a touch of confusion and dismay, and you have the first sentence in Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. And it seems perfectly logical that, within the next couple of paragraphs, the bitter protagonist is speaking to a doctor.

Some writers can start immediately with that surefire hook the minute they put pen to paper – or fingertip to keyboard. Some of us work our way up to that sentence, once we’ve written a few pages or gone deeper into our protagonist’s character.

Of course, your story can take the exact opposite tone of what your first sentence implies, but that’s like smashing your reader in the face with a pie. It might be funny for a second, but it just hurts and makes him angry.

I usually go back to the first page (75? 100 times?) and revise the first sentence and paragraph as the story matures. It’s also important for me to compare the tone of that first sentence to the last sentence – but I’ll talk about that in another post.

And lastly, I can’t resist, had great fun with this one!

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

 

 

Joseph Campbell, an Inspiration to Creative Writers

Writers are, typically, curious beings, so we find inspiration in many places, people, television, movies, books, history, even newspapers. For me, one of the most profound sources is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, first published in 1949. I purchased my latest copy a few months ago (not sure how I lost the first one I had) at a used book store. I also own several other books by Campbell. I can’t help myself.

As described on the Joseph Campbell Foundation Web site, Campbell was a traveler, professor, editor, writer, public speaker, philosopher, and, more importantly, the bridge between myths and our own lives. For The Hero With A Thousand Faces, he won the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contributions to Creative Literature. And there were many more awards to follow through the years.

Ever heard the phrase, “follow your bliss?” That was Joseph Campbell. Do you know where George Lucas’ inspiration for Star Wars came from? That was The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

He was brought into the spotlight in 1988, after his death in 1987, through the PBS program, Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. (I’ve got the DVD!)

I have always loved reading myths, Greek, Roman, Native American, Irish; but it wasn’t until I started reading Joseph Campbell that I realized why these narratives so resonated with me. Campbell’s description of the “monomyth” (a word he borrowed from James Joyce after contributing to A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork), is a universal pattern that is the essence of, and common to, heroic tales in every culture.

And those tales continue today through creative writing, whether we write mysteries, science fiction, romance, fantasy adventure – all influenced by myth and inspired by Joseph Campbell’s need to know, understand, and share the art of “following your bliss.”

Four Steps to Structure Your Book

When I began writing my first book (now out of print, working on digitalizing and republishing), I didn’t know that it would be a book. At the time, it was a fun story about characters in a Dungeons & Dragons game I made up.  A few of the players who created the characters weren’t happy about the “embodiment”, if you will, of their characters. Choosing to play a character one way in a live game and then seeing those actions on the printed page created quite a discussion when I presented the story. And some of it was not happy talk. I, on the other hand, had a whole lot of fun.

It finally dawned on me, “Hey! I can do this! I can make this a BOOK.” And off I went on a very bad start. Some of the bad stuff was still there when the book was published. But thanks to prompts from a friend, I got seriously organized. That organization and structure were the secrets to my completing the book.

  1. The first thing I did was get index cards, and create a character card for each main character, a city/place card for every important location, a racial/ethnic card for each race (yes, it’s a fantasy book and I was enamored of Tolkien’s multi-racial world), a term card for each key “foreign language” word I invented (no way do I have the talent of Tolkien, so words only, no real languages).
  2. The second thing I did was draw a map – using a few colors – adding rivers, lakes, mountains, cities, islands, etc. I used lined graph paper (I know I’m dating myself, but this was just at the dawn of the digital age) to help with perspective and taped several pages together to help see my “world” in one piece. I knew where characters were going and how they had to get there.
  3. The third thing I did was create a time line on a very large accounting tablet. The time line began before the book’s starting point, so I created back story for the main characters in a way that I could see what happened to Character A at the same time a specific incident happened to Character B. That book contained a LOT of exposition. Knowing what I know now, I would have used that information source to hold back a lot of the exposition. I would have doled that history out fewer times and in much smaller bits – and held back a lot for the sequel. It was a fantasy/adventure book, of course I planned sequels.
  4. The last, and most important, thing I did was actually follow the plan to maintain consistency throughout the book. The combination of time line, which was really the plot line, map, and detailed cards WERE my book. Everything, everyone was there, just waiting for me to pull them together in print.

Don’t get me wrong, I ended up changing a couple things; I still struggled with character development and dialog; I still worried about what I should or should not keep in the story; and I still made mistakes. I couldn’t get an established publisher interested. I lost money on co-publishing. I had to pay to get my materials back and return the copyright to me. I have no idea how many people actually read the book or liked it.

But I did it. I finished a book that followed a multi-character,  structured  plot line.  And I was proud of it. Still am.

You can do the same – even using digital versions of my pencil and paper treatments!