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