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

Point of View – How Do You Choose?

Understanding the point of view devices used in fiction writing – even movies and documentaries – is often a confusing process. Terms such as, first person, third person, objective, omniscient, or limited omniscient can give a writer the vapors. Each method has its advantages and drawbacks.

A writer has to make the point of view decision fit into a “trifecta” of good narrative – the plotline/action, the characters (well-developed, of course) in relation to each other, and the perspective from which the journey is revealed to the readers.

The first book I finished was in third person. I presented several characters’ points of view throughout the book. There were many individuals on the protagonist’s “side” so I felt they had a shared experience, although they didn’t all receive the same amount of attention to their part in the story.

I had to be careful to reveal just enough of each character’s thoughts to move the plot forward. I didn’t want me, as the author, to intrude upon the readers’ discovery and involvement in the journey. And that’s why the bad guys’ point of view was never revealed. The antagonist and all his followers were seen only from the good guys’ perspective.

I have just about wrapped up my second book, unrelated to the first. Because I really wanted to concentrate on the main character’s struggle to mature and take on a serious, and seriously dangerous, responsibility, first person was my choice for point of view.

I struggled in the first couple of chapters with the first person past tense and just could not get the rhythm of the story going. I switched to first person present tense, and I immediately felt a real kinship with my character. The hardest part of first person is to not start every other sentence with “I” – difficult sometimes, but not impossible.

The important lesson I learned with both experiences is that a writer must feel comfortable, must honestly see that the point of view contributes to the story’s success.

Here are some sites that discuss the literary point of view conundrum.

Annenberg Learner

The Writer’s Craft

Novel Writing Help

Sheila Larang on Prezi

When Does Editing Stop and Calling It Done Begin?

This is one of the biggest problems for many authors when completing a creative writing project.

I make several editing passes just for grammar (delete all those unnecessary “-ly” words; change passive verbs to action verbs), consistency (oops – the age I refer to on page 10 doesn’t match the age mentioned on page 124), and format (I created a style for chapter title, why didn’t I use it here?).

For those of us without a professional editor, we also follow the editing by friends and fellow aspiring authors routine. When the fourth go-round results in something like the following exchange we should probably let our friends off the hook.

“Looks good to go.”

“Did you see that edit on page 38?”

“Um…”

“You know, the one where I completely changed the description.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s fine.”

“So it’s definitely better than the first one?”

“I don’t remember exactly what the first one said.”

“Then how can you say this one is better?”

“Because it didn’t jump off of the page and stab me in the eye!”

Then there’s the editing for perfection passes, typically done by the author alone. We (okay, read “I”) find ourselves modifying SOMETHING everything 10-15 pages or so, just because a conversation, a tone, a description, even a character,  isn’t flawless. And, isn’t that an exercise in futility? In my opinion, perfection on every page just is not achievable in the art of creative fiction. If that’s what we strive for, then we all lose.

Perfection is found in the truth of the character arc, the precision with which you have built your world. Perfection is found in the rightness of the conflict resolution of your storyline – and that includes all the strengths and weaknesses, the imperfections of your characters.

Truth, precision, rightness…when you find that, you are DONE.

Be Strong Enough to Delete Your Favorite Words or Phrases

This sentiment – instruction/warning/encouragement – was given by a professor during a  writing class many years ago…

I’m on a roll. The words flow so easily. I can’t type fast enough to get them out of my head and into the laptop. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I even use the thesaurus. I add a little touch of humor to ease the lengthy dramatic scene.  Finally, I stop and take a deep breath – yeah – that felt good.

I stand and stretch, take a victory lap into the kitchen for a refill on my coffee (or wine). Then I sit back down and read what I just wrote. As I’m about to go on to the next scene, a niggling little worry prevents forward progress. I read the scene again. It works – sort of…if I don’t pay too much attention to the overwritten bit right there in the middle of the last paragraph.

But the WORDS, that turn of phrase is very CLEVER. True, its not actually needed right here. Try as I might, I can’t bring my finger down on the Delete key. So, I just highlight the content in question and keep going. Two pages later, I go back and read the section again. It’s really not so bad. I read it aloud. Then I read the paragraph without the highlighted content.

Eek. That works much better. No amount of cleverness can make up for the fact that  something just doesn’t work. I have to take it out, I have to. I cut the offending sentences…and then paste the discards into another document so I don’t lose any of my brilliance.

After all, what doesn’t work in one piece might work elsewhere. I can only hope.