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

 

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