Our Masterpieces...Err, Our Novels

Monday, September 27, 2010

Make Your 1st Pages Do the D&%# Thing!

Writing Song of the Day: "Dynamite" by Taio Cruz"

This past weekend, Marquita and I had the pleasure of attending the Hampton Roads Writers Conference in Virginia Beach. We sat in on lots of cool sessions--which we'll be sharing with you guys in days to come--but our favorite would have to be the First Pages Critiques. In case none of you have ever had a chance to attend one of these, this is where first pages are read aloud and a panel of experts share what works and doesn't work. Everything is done anonymously, so we don't know whose opening is getting butchered--unless someone starts getting all fidgety (lady sitting next to us making crazy doodles on your notepad, we TOTALLY know you wrote that memoir).

At the HRW conference, they had two of these panels--one featuring authors, such as mystery writers JB Stanley and Judi McCoy, and one featuring agents, such as Jeff Kleinman (Folio Management), Katharine Sands (Sarah Jane Freymann Literary), and June Clark (Fineprint Literary Management). While we were barraded with TONS of useful info, here are the top Do's and Don'ts for making your first few pages truly pop:
  • DO begin with action or some sort of conflict. Make your readers want to turn to the next page.

  • DON'T pull away from the action with back story. This yanks readers out of the moment.

  • DO get rid of extra words if they don't build or reveal character, or further the plot. Remember how many manuscripts agents and editors have to read each day, so make each word count.

  • DON'T use large paragraphs. White space is your friend.

  • DO know that repetition works well in children's books.

  • DON'T lecture children. Showing is always better than telling them how they should feel.

  • DO establish opening like the beginning of a movie. Start broad and then narrow the focus.

  • DON'T ever start with a dream or your character waking up--unless it's crucial to the plot like Wake or the ever-cool Inception. Too quote one of the experts: "You're boring when you're sleep, and so are your characters."

  • DO understand the motivation of your protagonist. If your main character doesn't care about anything, why should we?

  • DON'T overload us with character traits at the very beginning. Readers should learn these quirks gradually.

  • DO remember the three basic qualities that every agent looks for: voice, writing, and character.

  • DON'T use bland verbs. Instead of "walking," why not "strolling" or "strutting"? Instead of "running," why not "charging" or "stampeding"?

  • DO make sure to proofread your work. You don't want to miss out on the chance of becoming the next Suzanne Collins just because you left out a period or didn't indent your paragraphs.

  • DON'T get discouraged. If agents/editors aren't biting at your first few pages, try something new. Start with a different chapter, or even consider a POV change.

This was a lot to take in, but it's made me reconsider my own openings. Have you ever fell victim to one of these Don'ts? If so, what did you change to make it a Do?


Amparo Ortiz said...

Excellent tips. I feel smarter already :)

Thanks for posting this!!

Abby Stevens said...

I agree, excellent tips! I like the one about sleeping or dreaming particularly. We ARE pretty boring when we sleep!

Also, I like the tip about the movie 'establishing shot.' I might go back and look at my first page and see if I can do this.

A. J. Larrieu said...

This is a great list! On my first novel, I fell into the "starting with a dream" cliche. I re-wrote the whole chapter.

I like the movie analogy as well, and the tip about using white space for effect.

Alex Mullarky said...

Hey :) I know this is random and misplaced, but Pam, I just saw your comment on YA Highway about beta readers saying you're available and was actually looking for one at that very moment. Is there any chance I could email you about it..? :) Please and thank you!

Racquel Henry said...

Thanks for the info! This was really helpful! I like the tip about white space...didn't realize that! :)