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

 

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