Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Advice On The Beginning (stuff I picked up along the way)

I’m not perfect – no where close, even, and I still have a lot to learn. But I have taken a few writing classes(At LitReactor and WritersDigest) that focused exclusively on the first chapters of a novel. The thought was, if we could get our openings to shine we’d have a better chance of nabbing an Agent. Of course, I think it was implied that we would continue revising and make sure that the entire novel glittered with excellence. But in class we only focused on the beginning.

And one of my goals in starting this blog was to give back to this amazing, supportive, online community of writers. To that end, I thought I’d capture some of the fun, and hard, writing advice I’ve gleamed over the years:

Here's what I've learned:

1. Never start with a dream: LOL, I know. But Agents say it's still WAY overdone.

2. Never start with the weather: Again, heard it’s overdone. And opening with weather often fails to move the plot forward so it's wasted words.

3. Cut the first 50 pages of your book:
Literally, one teacher, an Agent herself, said to take the first fifty pages and chuck them out the window. I was in shock. But the point the teacher was trying to make is that, usually, a book doesn’t take off until 50 pages in. Which means, do you really need the first fifty pages? The teacher, speaking from her personal (and subjective) experience, said most of the first 50 pages she receives in her slush pile are boring. Her advice doesn’t sound that crazy anymore.

4. Never include a flash back in the first 50 pages of your book: I think this advice goes hand in hand with item 3. The beginning is about conflict, action, and hooking the reader. Flashback's don't typically hook the reader. Save the flashback for the third act.

5. First sentence: This sentence must pop. This one, measly little sentence could be the only chance you get to hook an Agent. So make sure it's full of action. Generally, its advised that the first sentence should not be spoken, as in dialogue. But I’ve broken that rule. Aren’t rules meant to be broken? No, that’s not an excuse to stop improving your craft. *narrows eyes at you* I know what you’re thinking. Just know the rules and understand their value before you break them.

6. First 250 words: These are the NEXT most important words in your entire novel!!! Why? See number 5. An Agent may never read past 250 words. Use these words to setup WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and CONFLICT (It doesn't have to be the main conflict of the chapter but it has to be something). Think about the 250 words like the first scene of a movie. The reader, or movie goer, needs to be dropped into a world. In order to understand the world they need a few key elements: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and CONFLICT. Often, the first chapter will include all of these elements but not the first 250 – but you may have missed your chance. Rework the first 250 words to ensure the reader is dropped into a fully established world from the get-go.

7. First 10 pages: Can you guess where I’m going with this? These are the THIRD most important words in your entire novel!!! Yay! So you got an Agent passed the first sentence. They even read the first 250 words and now what? Now, they read the full first chapter and it should be short-ish and punchy. In one class our assignment was to slash our first chapter down to 10 pages. Sounds arbitrary, right? But the point was to laser focus our opening and drill the first chapter down to the most essential facts and details. It was hard, but fun. The essential stuff includes action enough to engage the reader and keep them asking for more. But it's also something that makes the reader connect with the MC. How many books start with someone getting fired, getting dumped, getting lost, failing a class, getting an eviction notice, etc. These are little conflicts (although they seem HUGE at the time to the MC) that propel the MC into the next, MAJOR conflict.

8. Eliminate words that create narrative distance: This is especially important in third person POV but relevant to all POV. Words like "felt" or "Seemed" separate the reader from the story. I put together this list of words that I look for when editing my own WIP's. I cut these words and rewrite the sentences so they are no longer needed. Some of the words I target are: toward, felt/feel, seemed/seem, like, heard, saw, think/thought, looked, got, just, almost, big/small, very, never/often, important, thing/things/stuff, went.

9. Rule of Three (aka, avoiding the info dump): when describing the setting – or ANYTHING, really- pick three important things and only three things to describe. More than three things is generally overwhelming to the reader. This is actually more of a best practice and not really a 'rule' but it sounds catchier as a 'rule' LOL. And it's possible to cut too much, so be careful. But if you’ve been told you info dump in the beginning chapters this is a good 'rule' to keep in mind.

And last, but not least,

10. There’s no single right way to write a book: If someone tells you there is a right way they are wrong (run away from them.) Every class opened with the teacher saying their advice was just guidelines in a highly subjective business. If something resonates with you, great, run with it. IF not, then feel free to completely ignore it, heck, maybe even try Ron Swanson's approach to witing:

It’s a lot of advice to take in. I know. And revising is already hard on the soul. But when revising to make changes associated with this advice I picked one task at a time and applied it through my entire novel. When completed, I’d pick another task and run with that. Focusing on one element at a time made the task of revising more manageable.

Want more thoughts on the beginning? Check out this post on Subjectivity in the First 250 Words.

What writing advice have you picked up along the way? Share what works for you here:

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