First Pages: My Search for the Un-put-downable Start of a Story

I’m revising manuscript number five of my not-yet-illustrious writing career. The story is complete, has been read one critique partner and revised, and is ready to go to beta readers. This story has heists, fight scenes and even kissing (new for me since my prior stories were middle grade), and I’m very excited about it. I dream of agents begging me for this manuscript…if they get past the first five pages.

Sigh.

The story’s good, but the start…meh.

With past manuscripts, I’ve polished my first pages. Changed my start from the bus on the way to summer camp (which apparently rates as low as waking up in bed for interest level), to something more active. But I wasn’t looking for small improvements here. I’d really like manuscript five to be “the one,” so I pulled out all the stops on rethinking my first pages. I don’t want okay first pages. I’d settle for good, but not before trying for great.

Can I get to great?

Not sure. I hope so. (The gremlins are whispering probably not even as I write this). But I thought I’d share what I learned by trying.

What had me worried about my opening pages? Critique partners said they were “really close” but not quite there. I tried:

  • starting just before my main character’s life changed (two different ways),
  • just after her life changed,
  • a flash forward to near the climax for the “How did I get here?” effect,
  • a flashback to the incident that set the chain of events in motion,
  • the first confrontation with the bully, and
  • the first confrontation with the other main character/love interest.

once-upon-a-time-719174__480I was pretty desperate for a set of first pages that would draw cries of “YES! THIS!” from critique partners and propel the reader into the manuscript. But kept getting the same very kind, sympathetic response. “Really close.”

What did I do wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that some of my starts were destined to fail.

  • “No action,” said the critique partners.
  • “Scene 1 is too disconnected to scene 2.”
  • “What does this scene have to do with the story you pitched in your query?”

I felt in my gut that there was a set of great first pages for this story out there somewhere. There was this one scene, the scene the 2nd or 3rd in the manuscript depending on which first chapter option I was trying at the time, that worked. Critique partners said, “Things really started happening here.” I knew if I could just introduce the main character enough to set up this scene, that I could pull the reader in. But what words would do that, without getting my query slotted into the form reject pile before an agent ever got to that great scene?

I complained to the Pennies, because that’s why you have a writing group, so someone can pat you on the shoulder when you need it, and I found out something interesting. Julie Artz, whose lovely, heartfelt middle grade story I’d read months before, said she’d been through five versions of her first chapter. In fact, each of the first four chapters of her story had at one point been her first chapter. What? I felt like slightly less of a loser for sweating version after version of my first pages after that. Tara Lundmark, who I met at WriteOnCon when looking for more feedback on my pages, said she’d written ten different first pages for one of her stories. Armed with this knowledge, I dropped the angst and decided to just give in to as many rewrites as it took to get it right.

At this point, I’ve written 8 different versions of the start of my story, as well as polishing several versions, including the one currently titled “Chapter 1” in Scrivener. This is what I learned through the process of trying to make the start of my story unputdownable.

 1. Don’t Fall in Love with One Set of First Pages.searching-for-the-un-put-downable-start-of-your-story

I was stuck on Version 1 of my first pages for hours even after being told by trusted CP’s they weren’t right. I was stuck on Verion 2 for weeks. I loved the setting and how those pages developed my character. Allowing myself to get stuck on that idea blocked other ideas for how to start the story from flowing. Once I decided to not settle for meh, the ideas flooded in, as demonstrated by the fact that I ended up with 8 different starts. And, really, what’s the harm of trying something different? I wasn’t going to delete those words I loved, just tuck them out of the way. I could always go back to them if my new start wasn’t better.

2. Look to Master Books for Ideas.

Okay, admit it, you laughed at that flashback start. Everyone knows not to start with flashbacks. Except when they work. I was pulling ideas from master books. Both Harry Potter and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo start years earlier in their main characters’ lives. The idea for trying a flash forward came from Twilight and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Flashbacks and flash forwards can be done well, just not by me, at least not for this manuscript. But turning to master texts for ideas is great prep for brainstorming the start of your story.

3. Get Fresh Eyes.

I am blessed with wonderful critique partners who love me even when my words aren’t working. My closest critique partners had been hacking at this story idea with me from the idea stage, seven months before I hit my first pages wall. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t the only one too close to the story to see the pages clearly, they were too. That was stressful! Who do you turn to when that happens?

I found a couple great options: Adventures in YA Publishing holds a monthly first five pages workshop that is fabulous. (We also host our 4 on 400 contest monthly, but I can’t sub to that one!) WriteOnCon hosts an online writing conference with forums for posting your work and exchanging critiques with other writers. If all else fails, you can find a new critique partner. Someone I met on the WriteOnCon Forums asked if I wanted to exchange chapters, and since we’d already critiqued each others’ first five page and her comments were helpful, it was an easy decision. Just what I needed! A new reader who knew nothing about my story and had no worries about disappointing me.

4. Remember that Your First Pages Aren’t Your Only Pages.

I was jealous of Gita Trelease’s gorgeous first pages. They’d been right from soooo early in her revision process. Then, I was reminded that she was sweating her climax. The grass may look greener over by your critique partner’s writing desk, but there are weeds in everyone’s lawn.

Also, eventually you need to let those first pages rest so you can fix up the all the other pages in your manuscript. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there for you to take another look at later.

So, after writing 8 versions of my first pages, workshopping at Adventures in YA Publishing and WriteOnCon, and polishing the final pick, are my first pages unputdownable? Sigh. No. But they’re pretty good. Good enough that I’m going to take my own advice and move onto revising the rest of the story.

Maybe version 9 of my first pages will come to me while I revise.

Or maybe I’ll figure out how to polish this version until it’s unputdownable.

DON’T STOP HERE! If you made it through this post, I bet you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’ve written some first pages and have something to say on this topic. HOW MANY VERSIONS OF FIRST PAGES DID YOU WRITE FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS? WHAT HELPED YOU FIND THE RIGHT START FOR YOUR STORY? I’m no expert! Let’s learn together. Leave comments below!

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Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and writes for The Winged Pen here.

 

 

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Writing for Fun: Reflections on a Workshop with Jo Knowles

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When was the last time you did wrote just for fun? I have to admit I haven’t for a long time. It’s hard to squeeze writing time in around the rest of life, so when I get it, I feel pressure to be productive: write the next chapter, deepen a character arc, start on revisions. Something needs to get checked off the list.

So when I saw that Jo Knowles was leading two workshops at the New England SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference, I let out a SQUEE, put the workshop on creating memorable characters down as a must-have, and eyed suspiciously her second one titled Improv for Writers: Reinventing Your Approach to Writing “Just for Fun.” Jo writes “feel all the feels” books, like See You at Harry’s and Read Between the Lines, so part of me wanted to take the workshop, whatever it was. Another part of me wasn’t sure. I signed up anyway.

This was a Sunday afternoon workshop, the last time slot in a three-day conference. I was exhausted and my mind buzzed with overstimulation, so I couldn’t imagine being able to sit and focus on writing. But Jo, over two hours, challenged us with writing prompts on settings, characters and conflict, pushing us deeper as we transitioned from one topic to the next. She asked for volunteers to read their pieces, all words dashed off in five minutes or ten, and always found something special to highlight.

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Two things struck me about “writing for fun.” First, it was easy. I’d been entirely prepared to forgive myself for not coming up with much from the workshop except for brilliant insights collected from Jo. But spending just a few brief minutes envisioning a character or a setting let me take them farther than I would have imagined. I realized that this would be a great exercise for getting to know settings or characters when I got ready to draft a new story. Thinking about them freely before they needed to be fit carefully into a scene could make them deeper and more real.

Second, I realized everyone in the room was very inspired by the exercise. By just the act of writing for fun, writing something that they may never use in a project. Jo always had several volunteers willing to share their response. At the end of the workshop, she made a recording of everyone in the class saying, in just a sentence, why they write. If you listen to it here, you’ll hear the inspiration in the voices.

Coming out of the workshop I felt “writing for fun” was something I should fit into my everyday routine. I can afford to spend ten minutes on a writing prompt before I dive into the revision list, or on the weekend when I’m not doing “serious writing.”  Since, in the back of my mind, I’m still thinking about the “to do” list, I plan to start by directing my “writing for fun” to pieces that I may use in future stories.

When I asked the Pennies if they write just for fun, I found that most want to, but seldom have time. I did find a couple free writers. Julie Artz said, “I love free writing and would like to do more! I almost always start a new story by free writing everything I can think of about the story idea (this grows into my long form synopsis). I also free write when I get stuck (often poetry).”

Laurel Decher said, “Freewriting helps me to process life and catch funny incidents. It’s like Dumbledore’s Pensieve. In my Scrivener ‘spare parts’ file I have a folder for free writes so that I can easily move pieces to a project or a blog post.”

I’d love to hear how you fit writing for fun into your routine in the comments! Do you do it never? Sometimes? Always? Do you focus it on things that might be useful on a future project or just write about whatever’s in front of your eyes or on your mind?

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Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids.

Unlike many writers, Rebecca did not write her first story at age eight…at least not fiction. She was the editor of her high school yearbook and wrote for her college newspaper. But her first fiction course scared the bejeezus out of her! Having overcome her fear of fiction, Rebecca loves see how much trouble she can get her characters into, and sometimes back out of. She’s on Twitter and is also a contributor at The Winged Pen.

A Few Great Middle Grade Books for Your TBR List

After I finished patting myself on the back for reaching my 2015 reading goal in June in this post, it occurred to me that a few of my recent reads weren’t getting the “air time” they deserve. So while really enjoyed Cinder by Marissa Meyer and The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater, you don’t need me to tell you they’re good. The Twitter chatter and award nominations speak for themselves. Let tell you about a few books that are great but not getting the buzz they deserve.

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Present day England is haunted by ghosts that threaten the population every night and can only be seen by kids. Teenaged Anthony Lockwood starts a Psychic Detection Agency and hires Lucy and George to help him take on cases to rid clients of the spirits haunting them. But while other agencies are run by adults, Lockwood & Co decides to face the ghosts on their own, and their methods are sometimes not the most conventional. Will their psychic senses and rapiers save them from being frozen by the ghost-touch? Lockwood & Co has great world-building, humor and is down-right creepy.

Space Case by Stuart Gibbs

What could be more interesting than getting a spot living in the first space station on the moon? A lot of things, according to 12-year-old Dash Gibson. But when the base’s top scientist turns up dead, Dash doesn’t believe the story that it was suicide. Dash and his family are trapped in the base with the killer, making life much more interesting. Dash launches his own investigation, but soon finds himself in hot water. The Space Case has great characters and enough action to distract a gamer from his iPad.

At Your Service by Jen Malone

Twelve-year-old Chloe Turner’s dream is to be a concierge at a top NYC hotel, just like her dad. She’s well on her way, serving as junior concierge under her father. She handles the hotel’s smallest and sometimes most demanding guests. Organizing back-stage visits with the Rockettes is right up Chloe’s alley. But when Chloe loses a visiting princess on the streets of Manhattan, can she find her before the king finds out? Or the press? At Your Service is a great romp through the tourist spots of New York, as well as a story about having a dream and working hard to achieve it.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Okay, you’ve heard of Huck Finn, but when was the last time you read it? For me, it was probably high school. I bought the audio book because it was assigned for one of my son’s summer literary art projects and I was worried that my twelve-year-old would have trouble getting through a classic over vacation. I was so wrong! Huck has a hilarious voice that while very different from the way we talk today, is nonetheless approachable. Huck, Jim and Tom Sawyer get themselves caught in one mess after another and their schemes for escape generally make things worse rather than better. This book got two kids and I through 20 hours of driving to and from a visit to Grandma’s. ‘Nough said.

What’s your favorite recent middle grade read? (The comment button is right under the post title.)

How I Hit My 2015 Reading Goal in June.

2015 was the first year I had a goal for the number of books I wanted to read. In previous years, I read books, but not as many as I would have liked. There were always books that came up in writerly discussions that I felt I should have read, but hadn’t gotten to. I had all the typical excuses: “I don’t want to cut into my writing time” and “I read a lot for critiquing and beta reads.” But I decided that this year I was going to get past the excuses and pick up the pace.

How did I do it?

I set an achievable goal. Well, as it turns out, I set my goal way too low. I saw other writers on Twitter talking about their goals to read 50 books. A book a week? It just didn’t seem possible with writing and critiquing and kids/family commitments and life. I set my goal at 25.

Clearly my goal should have been 50. I read 27 books before June 30th and I haven’t even had my beachy, read-a-thon vacation yet. I’ll easily hit 50 books easily by the end of the year. But if I set my goal at 50 initially, I wouldn’t be able to write this blog post…so there’s that.

I tracked my progress. I set up a simple excel spreadsheet where I could type in a new title as I started a book and mark it as read when I finished it, then get excited about the next title I was going to add. It’s the tiny rewards in life that keep us plugging away.

I read in all formats. At any given point in time I have a few different books going. I have a physical book I’m reading, I have an audio book I’m listening to when I’m driving or when chopping vegetables (see my post on Why Writing Podcasts Are Better Than Brocolli to find out more about my love of anything that turns errand time into productive time), and I usually have a second audio book I’m listening to when my kids are in the car. The “kids’ book” strategy started when my son needed to make it through Tom Sawyer as a summer read. Too classic for a 12 year old boy, I thought, but not so! We all loved it and listened to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as well. “Reading” in the car not only cuts down on squabbling in the back seat, but also means my kids are reading more too. Audio reading with my kids means that there are more 39 Clues titles in my “read books” list than I would care to admit. I love Halli Gomez’s voice in this series, but still would have dropped it after book 3 if it weren’t for the back seat’s insistence.

Since I had a little spreadsheet tracking my books, I also tracked the format of the books I was reading. Seven were hard cover, 4 were paperback, 2 were kindle and a whopping 14 were audio books. My take-away is that for me, this “made” reading time from listening to audio books is key to getting more books read.

The 27 books I read even include 2 on craft. I’m pretty bad about spending precious reading time on craft books rather than getting lost in a novel, so I’m particularly proud of having had two on my list. I have to credit this to awesome critique partners who gave me great recommendations: Bird by Bird and Save the Cat. Both were great! In fact, I’m sure I’ll reread Save the Cat since I’m trying to get better at plotting

What will I do differently in the second half of the year?

From July on, I’d like to be a bit more mindful about the audio books I suggest to my kids. Too many 39 Clues titles. ‘Nough said.

I’m considering an Audible subscription. I’ve held off on buying audio books because they’re more expensive than Kindle or paperback. Of the audio books I read in the last 6 months, one was purchased, the others were borrowed from the library. But my little study of how much more reading I can do when listening rather than having to find time to sit down with a book makes it pretty clear that audio books helped a lot.

The Audible subscription comes down to being mindful about listening to the books that will be the most enjoyable and will most help me improve my writing. While browsing the library’s audio catalogue led to some great finds, it also limited me to their catalogue.

Next week’s post will be about the books I most enjoyed over the first 6 months of 2015.
Do You Have a Reading Goal for 2015? How’s it going? Feel free to leave a comment! (The comment button is right under the post title.)

Why Writing Podcasts Are Better Than Broccoli

It’s a happy day when I can curl up in an armchair and get lost in the story of a kick-butt heroine or the little guy taking on the forces of evil. But while I cringe to admit it, I am awful about setting aside precious reading time for books on craft. They are the broccoli at the buffet.  Sorry, the fettuccine alfredo and triple fudge cake have filled up my plate. No room for you!

So I was incredibly excited to find a way around this conundrum of needing to focus more on craft and not wanting to give up fun reads…writing podcasts. Writing podcasts are like getting Hermoine to lend me her time-turner. They take boring errand time – driving to the bus stop to get the kids, grocery shopping, and even chopping vegetables for dinner – and turn it into time to focus on craft. They even provide encouragement to get over those days when the cursor seems to be taunting me, and insight into business aspects of publishing. What could be better?

The Writing Excuses tag line is “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.” But show’s four hosts, Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells, are that smart. Their podcast for newbie fiction writers focuses on one topic on craft or the business of publishing each week. They are in their tenth season of this podcast, so there’s a lot of good stuff in their archive. Since the hosts’ writing ranges from horror to epic fantasy to online comics to historical romance, they approach each topic with a variety of perspectives and great insight. You can find Writing Excuses at  http://www.writingexcuses.com/ and on iTunes.

Mur Lafferty hosts I Should Be Writing: The Podcast for Wannabe Fiction Writers. Mur is amazingly forthright about the ups and downs of writing life. She talks about everything from getting rejections to writer’s block in a way that makes you feel like you’re not alone, wasting your time slogging away at your computer. Mur wants you to keep writing great stories. For some of Mur’s Momma Hen encouragement, find I Should Be Writing at http://murverse.com/podcasts/ and on iTunes.

A relatively new podcast I’ve started following is Ditch Diggers. Mur Lafferty hosts this podcast with Matt Wallace. While I Should Be Writing is targeted toward newbies, this show is focused on the realities of making a living as a writer. Mur’s openness about the good and the bad of writing as a career are pushed to brutal honesty by Matt’s pull-no-punches style. And these guys take on the issues no one talks about in public: when your agent doesn’t like your new book, when your publisher decides to change the terms of your already-signed contract. They’ve had great guests, including Kameron Hurley and Chuck Wendig. Mur promises that Ditch Diggers will show up at murverse.com, but it’s not there yet. Look for it on iTunes.

For a podcast that goes deep into craft, turn to Helping Writers Become Authors. K.M. Weiland puts tons of research into her podcasts, delving into a different craft topic each week. You can find Helping Writers Become Authors at http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/resources/podcasts/ and on iTunes.

So from me, here’s a big thank you to Mary, Brandon, Howard, Dan, Mur, Matt and K.M. for making learning about craft and the business of writing more like chocolate fudge cake than brocolli. And you, reader, have no more excuses. Go download some writing podcasts today.