The Writers' Group had a great post Monday titled Be Bold that really inspired me. In short form (although I encourage you to read the original post), the writer was having a hard time deciding if she should write the ending she *wanted* to write for her story, or play it safe and tone things down. She was inspired by hearing a short story by another author at a reading that was "bold and elegant and brilliant and stunning, quiet and touching, but most of all bold", and in her own story wound up writing the ending she'd had in mind all along.
I admit, put that way, the story doesn't sound that incredible. But when I read that post, something clicked. I often find myself toning things down, trying not to get too carried away, while I'm working on this revised plot. And sometimes I need it- I have a strong tendency toward melodrama- but sometimes I should just write the story that I want to write. If I'm not excited about the plot I'm coming up with, how can I expect a reader to be excited about it? I need to remember to be confident. To be bold. To be myself.
Wow. That is a very unique concept, writing from the point of view of a harpy! I was fascinated. You have a very good writing style, and I didn't notice anything on the first reading to distract me from my focus on finding out, first, what the narrator was, and after I found that out, if she got away safely.
I have a hard time believing a harpy can be likeable enough to be a main character- and she does sneer at the people she's stealing from, and has threatened them- but I would definitely read on to find out. I'm sorry, I don't have much to say about this one because your writing is excellent, and the way you introduce the harpy is interesting and makes us care about what happens to her. I'm just very startled at the concept, and while I would read on there would be a little bit of distance there, because I know what harpies are generally thought to be like, and it would be hard to identify with that sort of character. Usually as a reader I like to put myself in the main character's shoes- here that would be hard, is what I'm trying to say. But it's very well executed!
Overall, I definitely liked this. You raised interesting story questions- what happened to his eye? What exactly was the girl crying about? I really liked the last paragraph- well, from "He knew the suffering.." to the end. It pulled the two of them together very cleverly.
There are a few small things that don't work well: "Suddenly, without warning, his gaze slipped to a spot behind him"- it's not really believable that his own gaze would slip without his having directed it. You could replace this with "He noticed a young woman, a few seats up..." or something. Also, "His curiosity turned him from his ill thoughts for the first time in many days" is very awkward, and makes the character sound very passive.
At this point, I would definitely read on because of the story questions you raised, but I think you could make it even more enticing by adding a few interesting details about what, exactly, Fernao (pardon the lack of tilde, Blogger doesn't seem able to do that) is going to be facing when he goes home. You throw out a lot of enticing hints, so that we know whatever happened to his eye is a reminder of "what he'd done to his family", but I think you could pick a few choice details that will show us why going back is hard for him, and why we should care that it's going to be hard for him. Does that make sense? I'm not saying you need to reveal your entire plot in the first page, but let us get to know Fernao a little more deeply than you are curently.
I got a comment asking for a critique, but the author wasn't sure if I was still accepting requests because the first page contest was officially over. While I'm watching the contest eagerly to see who wins, the reason I offered critiques is because all the people who aren't in the final 6 won't get any feedback from Nathan. That's still true, even if the contest is over. Everyone who posted a first page is going to go back to work on their projects, and if anyone still wants a critique, I'm definitely still willing to give them.
I'm so glad someone else asked for a critique- I don't have a lot of time to do these, so I had talked myself out of just going through the comment thread on Nathan's blog and doing them wholesale, but if someone *asks* for a critique, well, then I feel obligated! And I like doing them, so this is a good thing.
17. David Wisehart, Red Wedding - I love the opening description of the storm. I would definitely keep reading this one- the humorous tone is very nice. Zoey seems a little nutty, but that's part of what makes it interesting. One thing I did notice- while I love the opening description, some of your similes are distracting. I think coming up with non-cliche similes is definitely one of your talents, but you should use it a little more sparingly. There were at least three in the first page- the storm in the beginning, then Zoey's underwear, and then the "skull cracking under an avalanche of boulders". That last one came out of left field, and really pulled me away from the story. I also might try to work in a little more of what Zoey's attitude toward Peter is; I couldn't tell if she was really in love with him or if the book was going to head in the opposite direction and she would find out she didn't want to marry him after all. But then again, I should have learned my lesson from Nathan's post about first pages (see my last post). I think that principle can apply to more than just action; this is a novel, you have an intriguing first page, and you don't have to show me how all the characters feel about all the others all at once.
18. Jordan, The Incredible Blanco Brothers - Jordan says she's been getting conflicted advice on her opening. Well, I haven't seen any of it, so I'm pretty unbiased. You'll have to let me know where I fall on the scale of responses.
I really liked this. The writing really pulled me in. No distracting tics or overwriting or anything, just solid, descriptive writing. It's in a very passive voice, and I bet you're getting some responses harping about that, but I thought it served as a very good introduction to a complex character. I liked his motives for dying his hair, I liked his father's reaction, I was interested in the home life he must have. I did get a little confused was when you switched from the backstory to the present - "The ridicule, however, continues to come." I thought the "one of them would say" was a little weak- who are "they"? Just the kids at school? This seems like it's build-up to the reveal of Ansel's full name, but I think that could be tightened up a little. Also, the "you see" was distracting- I got pulled back out of Ansel's head, and a narrator came between us. Maybe that's going to be part of the book's style, but if not, I think that could come out without weakening the sentence. You've made me like the main character, I can see what some of the conflict is going to be, and I want to know what happens next. I don't have any idea where the book is going to go from here- but I'd keep reading to find out.
As always, let me know what you think. If you've read Jordan's or David's work and agree or disagree, I'd be interested to know.
Nathan Bransford has a really good post up about what makes a good opening. His point is that writers get caught up in the goal of getting an agent's attention, and confused "pulling them into the world of the book" with shocking them.
Perhaps the most common shortcoming I'm seeing in some of the entries is that they try too hard to be surprising or shocking or pulling one over the reader.
I've been guilty of that in some of my critiques here- telling the author they should move the action closer to the beginning, or complaining that there's not enough action. I think that's because at some point, everything in this business is subjective, and we've been bombarded with conflicting advice. Start with action! Start with drama! We read 500 queries a day and you need to have something that makes us *notice* yours!
And Nathan's right- shock value might make them notice it, but that doesn't mean it's good. I think the most important thing in a first page is to make the reader care about the main character. That's why they're going to keep reading. Whether you do that through action or a slower opening is up to you.
The second most important thing is to show some conflict. It doesn't have to be physical, or shocking- but it needs to be meaningful to the main character and help with the most important thing, making us care about them. Ray Rhamey is very fond of pointing out that there's no story without conflict. And he's right.
Now, to take my own advice. I'm starting over this time around (having just completed my first-ever manuscript and realized that it needed a major overhaul). This is another place I've gotten conflicting advice- do you think it's important to get the first page perfect before moving on? Or should I not worry about it until I'm finished?
There are good arguments for both methods. I used the latter when writing said manuscript, on the principle that a whole novel that needed reworking was better than having a great first page and nothing else. But now that I've tried the second method and wound up with something fairly unusable (although it's because of plot, or the lack thereof), I'm awfully tempted to try the first.
Labels: first page
If you stumble on this page, like what I've done so far and want your own critique, leave a comment, and I'll be glad to give one- it just might not be right away. I don't think I'm going to try to critique everyone who has posted in Nathan's comment thread about being open to critiques- there are just too many. I would never get my own story written! I like this method better, where you can see what I've done for others and ask for a critique if you like what I'm doing.
Also, feel free to comment about the other critiques. I'm always trying to learn, and I'm certainly not an authority on this subject. Yet. ;-)
A few quick critiques to start the morning- more bracing than caffeine. As always, my opinions are my own, and while I love to generate ideas and offer suggestions, the critiqued should feel free to ignore them. ;-)
13. Brigid, Wicked Sensibility - I love urban fantasy! Although I didn't get to find out what was fantastical in this one. Still, it's a well-written first page. I noticed a slight tendency to overwriting- examples are "Rebecca flung herself into the car in a vain attempt to escape the nighttime November cold." and "He hesitated, and she was sure he was going to refuse or take some action borne of desperation." The phrasing doesn't seem quite natural, and interrupts the flow of the story. Overall, though, I think this is a good first page: action right away, believable reaction by the main character, you've raised story questions I want to know the answer to (what is he hiding from? why is he bleeding? etc). Actually, on second thought, I might move the action a little closer to the beginning- do we really need to know it's cold and November and Maryland right away? Could you work that in when he's getting out of the car- that might be more natural than the detailed description of his clothes (would she really be paying so much attention to clothes in that situation?), his open door lets in the cold November air, or something? And then just start with "There was a man in her car."
Okay, I'm getting too long with these again. It's just so much fun...
14. Christy, Viva! - I think I would start with "The numbers on the bedside clock", and work in the bit about loud music later when you say the music gets turned up. If I hadn't been reading this with a view to critiquing it, I think you would have lost me in that first paragraph, because I didn't know why I should care that the music is giving someone a headache... But once I know she's a prostitute who doesn't seem to want to be one, it gets interesting. That's your hook, and what will make me want to keep reading. (This entry was short, so that's probably why the critique is short. And here I thought I was getting better!)
15. A. Genova, For Sparta - Oh, wierd. a friend's WIP has a villain by the name of Melaina, which is not exactly a common name. I'm guessing she's not the villain in your story, let me adjust my thinking. Okay. The writing is good. You work description into action nicely- I especially like the part when she runs up the hill. But I wound up a little confused. I think this is possibly because I have no idea what the story is about at this point, and if I were an agent I would have already read your query and know a little more about what was going on. The first three paragraphs seem to be a childish game of hide-and-seek, although I didn't realize she was a child until she "flung her small body" behind the tree. But then the "Melaina, you can't hide from me forever" line sounded more sinister than I expected. Still, she was *grinning* as she hid from him... but then she's chanting in her head for him not to find her. I like the revelation of character in the scorpion encounter- she's not going to let her fears make her do something she doesn't want to, even if she *is* a child. I think I want to know more about what's at stake- is it really a simple game of hide-and-seek? Is the scorpion really harmless, or is she in danger? If it is just hide-and-seek, then I'm not sure this is the right place to start, because there's no conflict, just a fond memory or a child having a fun time with a...brother or father or friend. I want to know that too- who's looking for her?
16. Jessica, Repose - Love this. You have a fabulous way with words, they seem to flow almost.. magically. So I'm going to focus on the problems- I didn't realize at first that Mairead had just entered the cellar, I spent the first few paragraphs wondering if her mother had locked her in or something. Also, I thought she was much younger, and the soldier's fingers on her thigh gave me quite a start- I thought it was going to be an abuse story. These things are easily cleared up- make her close the door before she leaned against it, maybe say "her mother hadn't told her stories like that for years" instead of just a long time, which can mean something different to a young child. Now, why doesn't she know the soldier's name? That bothered me a lot, it didn't immediately seem to fit with the character. She seems like a rebellious young girl, sneaking off to meet a lover while her mother is away- not knowing the name of who she's going to sleep with puts it on another level entirely. That's pretty trashy, and might make her a little too unlikeable? I'll finish up with more praise- strong voiced character, you pulled us right into the story, it's easy to see that there's conflict between the girl and her mother. I'd definitely keep reading.
I only hope I'm not getting in over my head.
I noticed Chro over at Journey of the Scribe is doing critiques too. I liked his idea of a disclaimer so much I'm going to do it too.
DISCLAIMER: I'm not published. I haven't even tried yet, and couldn't enter this contest because I'm in the replotting stage of my first ever manuscript, and didn't have a polished front page. That said, I've been a voracious reader since I was four, and I know enough about what writing should be like to have been able to realize that said manuscript needed reworked. Besides, it's not like this is costing you anything. ;-)
6. kelly maher - Okay, I didn't see where the mystery came in. I'm really not familiar with cozy mysteries, or mysteries of any kind, so feel free to disregard my opinions! ;-) I thought there was too much back story- almost the entire page was backstory. We need to know it, but there must be a better way to work it into the current scene then an inaudible conversation. I guess what I'm looking for is more action. Also, I like the opening thought, but I think you could lose the cartoon bubble line, which was confusing. The italics conveys that she's not saying it aloud.
7. taylor (Valden's Heir) - Cool concept, making the pov a dinosaur, but one of the things a first page is supposed to do is make us care about the main character, and I'm afraid I didn't. I'm wondering if it's just because he *is* a dinosaur, and so I have less ways to relate to him, or because the only thing I know about him is he's a loner. That helps a little, but in general we need to know what the main character cares about, what their ambition is, etc in order to care about what happens to them. His ambition seemed to be eating ferns. I imagine cows think about grass a lot, and I'm not exactly a vegetarian. What are Igasho's problems? Are there bullies in the herd? How old is he- a kid? An adult with kids? If he's a kid, is there a female Kentosaurus that he's into? In other words, what does he do besides eat ferns?
8. vinnie sorce, jimmy vincent - Um, "nasal passages"? That's a really wierd way to phrase that feeling... Okay, the voice made me smile for the first half of the page, but by the end of it, I was ready to stop reading. Now, my husband would probably feel differently, but I'm a total goody-goody, and while I might *think* all those idiots out there on the roads deserve what Jimmy Vincent is giving them, he gave me the creeps. So, sorry, not fond of your concept, but your ability to create a character using narrative voice is impressive. Objectively, there's not a lot of action happening in the beginning, which is often a fault, but I think your character's voice is strong enough to pull people into the story in spite of that.
9. cat - Do you have any idea how many people used the word "cat" in their entries? It was hard to find yours. Anways. I like the character's voice, but I have no idea where the story is going. Who is Dean? What's his relationship to the main character? Why was it such a bad thing for him to squeeze her hand? If I already knew both characters, I think it would be a great scene. Your writing style started out awkward for the first two paragraphs, and then you seem to have gotten more comfortable and everything flows nicely. On the first paragraph/sentence: we already know it was a multi-syballic pronunciation, I'd try something like "That was a sure-fire indicator that the man sprawled across my passenger seat..." On the second para/sent: Is she really aware that her mouth is in a grim line? Couldn't she just clench her teeth?
I have got to make these shorter, or I'll never have time to do them all.
10. tiffany aller - I'm afraid I just wound up confused. Why does he have to kill people to get his DNA? Why does he refer to whoever arrived in the alley as "the other"? That's persistant, but I had a hard time understanding if it was a non-human, and so should be capitalized, or was just meant to be a quirk in the way he referred to them. Overall writing style- you seem to throw in sentences that aren't necessary, which slows the story down. Do we need to know there's water dripping? From that sentence, I expected the water dripping to be significant later. And "Following the instructions of his own directive for this operation" and then he just leans against the wall. That seemed like a little bit of overwriting. I like the concept of the rest of the book- but I'm not sure the prologue is going to be useful to the reader until after they've already read the rest of it and know more about the bad guy.
11. jennifer walker - I like the concept, but you're giving us a lot of backstory without any action. I think a lot of that backstory could be worked into a conversation with Fran. That's where I thought the page really got interesting- when Kathryn answered the phone. Another concern is that there was no conflict (maybe that's because it was all backstory? I'm learning here too.)- in a story like this I want to know what Kathryn is going to do, now that her daughter's gone, and who's going to oppose her in it. I'm guessing that's where the conflict will be. Maybe I critiqued this one too much like a pitch, expecting all that in the first page? I guess what I'm trying to say is that if I hadn't come to the part about Fran, I probably would have put the book back on the shelf, because I don't yet care about Kathryn in particular.
12. scott - This was another one from that bunch I read in the beginning that really caught my attention. Good setup, and I like your characters- very quirky. I'm just not sure where the story is going, but I would have read on based on the strength of the characters. You're obviously a good writer, and your descriptions create a good sense of surroundings without slowing down the story. No suggestions.
I welcome comments about my comments- I'm learning a lot from critiquing these. Thanks for the opportunity.
Well, just one critique. I *do* have a job I'm supposed to be doing, but this is so much fun!
13. ros - I really like this. Daniel seems like a very three-dimensional character, with very believable human responses (how it was a relief to go to the shrine after his wife miscarried). There's a lot of backstory here, but it is logical because of what he's doing- he's praying for a son, of course he's going to think about what's happened so far. My only concern is the last paragraph- where he regains some hope. That provides some premature resolution to the tension you were building. What I'd like to see instead of that is some action- but maybe it's just because I'm such a fantasy nut that I see an opportunity for the god to come to life or an angel to appear. Also, your use of the name Daniel and praying to the god El and the mention of palace made me think this was meant to be the biblical Daniel, but then I don't remember him having a wife named Danatiya? So maybe some more clues about the world this takes place in would be helpful.
I hope I don't come across as inconsistent about backstory in a first page. I think it's fine if it's woven into what's happening. Just a big info dump doesn't help pull us into the story.
451 entries and counting! At least we have a slightly better chance against in the real world; I imagine it's rare that an agent receives 500+ submissions in one day.
About the critiquing flare-up: I'm really surprised that not everyone wanted critiqued by as many people as they could get. I entered Nathan's first line contest, and was thrilled whenever someone posted what they thought about my entry. But I can understand Nathan's desire to keep the contest fun. Besides. I really wanted to critique all the entries, remembering how much I liked the feedback, but I didn't have time to do all of them. This makes it much more manageable (I hope).
So I'm going to be offering my opinion of the entries by those who want to be critiqued, presuming I can find out who those people are. I think one of the best things about this kind of informal contest is the connections with other readers and writers.
As of 10:06 AM, the following people had posted on Nathan's site wanting a critique:
1. jordyn (#117) - I really liked the character's voice, I liked what I could see of the conflict- pretty sister vs. smart sister. But the whole entry seemed to be backstory. So far, nothing has happened in present tense. I'd also take out the paragraph about what she did as teacher's aide, it's a definite tangent and doesn't move the story forward. And I can tell you're going for a dramatic effect with all that buildup to the "Guys love Caris." line at the end, but even your character says she should have seen it coming. With all that talk about how beautiful Caris was, I think your readers will have seen it coming as well.
2. allen b. ogey - This one caught my attention yesterday when I skimmed through the first 30 or so entries, and was one of the entries I read all the way through. Still, your first line is a little cliche, I'd start with the second line. And I might object to the use of "bestir"- what farm kid knows that word? (I grew up in a farming community in MI). But you have strong characters, and I can see that there's conflict between the siblings- my concern is the likeability of the main character. I'm fine with his fighting with his brother, but when he pinched his own sister's butt I got a little nervous.
3. angela (#350 liar-ya) - Love your opening line! And I got chills at the end of chapter 1. Your character has an interesting voice, and you've created a strong picture of what their family was like and what it's becoming. This is really good. I'm not sure where you're going with it, but I would definitely keep reading to find out. Complaints: FiFi?? Yikes. It kinda fits with sibling fights, I imagine, but it sounds fairly stupid (my apologies if it was a real name). And the last paragraph at the end of chapter one didn't make any sense to me. I think you could take that out without losing anything.
4. beth (the read thread) - Fantasy! Yay! (Sorry, I'm biased.) I love this opening line as well. This is another one that caught my eye when I read the first thirty or so posts. Back when there were only thirty or so posts. I love the situation you've thrown your characters in, but the constant shifts between viewpoints makes this almost unreadable. My opinion is that you should stick with one POV per scene or chapter or some other sort of boundary. You might be able to get away with switching POV once in a scene if you stayed with the first person for awhile, then stayed with the second person for the rest of the scene, and you had a good reason for switching. This post at Ray Rhamey's Flogging the Quill site backs me up. ;-)
5. aimless writer - Ooh, is this the one from the pitch contest over on BookEnds where she saw the serial killer and got away, and had to help the police find him? Excellent! I loved that pitch. And this is a very well-written first page, by which I mean the quality of the writing didn't distract at all from the story. My only problem is that I didn't realize she was psychic until I saw your tag line at the bottom of the entry. I started wondering if *he* was psychic, and got a little confused about why she was panicking. But if I'd read the blurb on the back of the book and knew what I was getting into, that would clear up. I really like how you're explaining the killer's motivation. Fabulous.
I'll check Nathan's blog later to see who else is looking for critiques. So much fun!
Writing is generally supposed to be a solitary occupation. We sit alone in a basement room somewhere, pounding out pages and pages of brilliant story.
I don't know about anyone else, but I can't imagine writing being solitary. I need critiquers. I can generate a million ideas a day, but I can't always tell which ones are good. I need someone to read my plot outlines and point out that my character is overlooking something that should make her fighting mad, or that my latest idea about the world my story lives in is ridiculous and unbelievable. The critical input I get is necessary and useful.
But more than that, the positive input I get is invaluable. Finding out which parts others like helps guide my next attempt and helps define themes for the story. Nothing makes me excited about my story like having someone else be excited about it too.
Something else that happened when I got caught up in getting the plot finished was that I neglected the world I was building. I left a lot of questions unanswered that, according to OSC, have the ability to shape and enhance the plot. In his book Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, he recommends asking "what if" questions, which will lead to other questions, until you have established firm rules for your world.
That was one of the things my plot critiquers mentioned- they got confused about the rules of my world. When I looked at the questions they were asking, I realized that they were confused because I didn't know the answers. So I started asking what if, and focused on writing an explanation of the rules of my world instead of a plot. After a week, I had four and a half pages of explanation, and there were still some questions left to answer!
The fun part was that some of the answers to "what if" that I came up with really did open up the plot. Some of my characters changed dramatically, which led to new possibilities for the plot. Certain aspects of the world I built made plot twists possible that hadn't been there before. Now I'm really looking forward to working on the plot- I'm no longer constrained by what I don't know.
So now I had a premise, and character sketches, and it was time to try to put all those new ideas into a plot. So I spent a week putting together a ten page "outline", then sent it out to my readers, and sat back and waited for the adulation for my creativity to start rolling into my inbox.
To my surprise, one of my readers liked it even less than they'd liked the original story. I was shocked, because this one had all the right elements! There was a villain! And fight scenes! And... that was why they didn't like it. I had written a completely cliche plot.
I fought against the idea in the beginning, but soon realized that they were right. I remembered something OSC (Orson Scott Card) said in his book for the Writer's Digest Series, Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy: that the first idea you come up with is almost always cliched. That was what I'd done- I'd been so eager to get input that I'd written down the first ideas I'd come up with. In fact, when I started looking closer, I could see that my plot echoed every fantasy ever written. All I had done was regurgitate the story structure that I'd been absorbing for years.
It's not a bad story structure, but it's not mine, either. And I want to make it my own. To do this, I'm revising the plot again. It turns out I was confusing the concepts of a synopsis and an outline, and so I'm also trying to keep my outline to no more than two pages, to make it easier to see the story structure and to make corrections.
I started revising almost petulantly, because I really thought I should have gotten it right the first time. But something Lynne Griffin said at The Writer's Group blog really helped me (this post):
When it comes to potential novel problems, I suggest a bring it on philosophy, rather than turn the other way tactic. That's one of the many reasons I treasure my friends at The Writers' Group. In knowledgeable and compassionate ways, they tell me like it is. And I know my work is better as a result.
I want my writing to be the best it can be, and I know that being critqued and challenged honestly is the only way for that to happen.
Labels: story structure encouragement
So I have a premise. Great. Now what? If I seem to be asking that question a lot, it's because I am.
Lajos Egri (and if I seem to be quoting him a lot, it's because I am. I think his book is one of the best on the subject, and most clearly defines the elements that make up story) writes that plot comes from character. You must know everything about your characters before you can know how they will react in a given situation.
For the first draft, I ignored this advice. I decided I would get to know the characters as I went. It worked- by the end, I knew them well, and that was reflected in my writing. But the first two-thirds of the book showed that I didn't know them. This time through, I decided I didn't want to finish another draft and then have all that work left of going back and fixing the characters.
Because Egri is right. The choices humans make are a direct reflection of their life experiences. My story will be richer and deeper if I can make the characters three-dimensional, with motivations that form naturally from their pasts.
So the question at the end of the last post was, is it worth it to revise the fairy tale?
The answer turned out to be yes and no. See, by the time I finished writing the story I had originally planned, I had a million other ideas for the world I was creating. I wanted to include them in the revision, but I couldn't tell if it should be a whole separate story. I loved those ideas, and found them way more interesting than what I'd already written, but I didn't want to have wasted *eight months* of work.
So I sat down with Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing. I decided to try to identify a premise for both stories, and see which one was stronger. Egri points out why a premise is so important, and how strange it is that not all written work has one, with the following example:
A man rushes down the street, panting for breath. You intercept him and ask where he is going. He gasps: "How should I know where I'm going? I am on my way."
Egri says that a good premise is made up of three parts: Character, conflict and where the story is going. For example, he identifies the premise of Macbeth as "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction." Character is identified in the phrase "ruthless ambition", one can easily see how that character trait would lead to conflict, and the end of the play is suggested by "its own destruction".
In the end, I couldn't come up with a premise for the story I had already written, because there wasn't any conflict. I decided I would do a major rework of the plot, but keep the main characters, which would make me feel less like I had wasted all that time. And although my story is nothing like Macbeth, I have chosen to get started using that premise: "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction". Hopefully as I work out the plot and further develop the characters, I will be able to refine that basic premise into something uniquely mine.
I was really struck by something Jessica over at BookEnds had to say today (in a post about something completely different):
Trying, no matter whether you achieve the results you thought you wanted, is never a mistake.
Sometimes I find myself wondering if I'm making a big mistake, if five years from now I'll have to give up on writing and realize how much time I wasted on something that didn't pan out. But she's right, trying is never a mistake. The mistake would be if I didn't try, and always wondered.
Peter: "You said no. We broke up."
Ashley: "No, no. I was confused, we stepped back."
Peter: "You moved to Portugal."
-While You Were Sleeping
After discovering that my manuscript was lacking oomph, I decided to take a step back. Throughout the first draft, I'd made myself stay close to it so I didn't lose momentum. I didn't want to think too hard in case I changed the whole story- I needed to get into the habit of writing.
To take that step back, I started writing a summary of each chapter, highlighting the plot points and character motivations/decisions. As I went through it, my heart sank. Through the first two-thirds of the story, my main character was consistently indecisive. She made bad decisions, and consistently did stupid things. But I can explain! I told the hubby, who was reviewing the summary.
See, I started this manuscript as a rewrite of a fairy tale. Bluebeard, to be exact. I didn't know how to plot, and this was a great way to learn- the major plot points are already there, and you get to practice in between. So in the fairy tale, the girl meets Bluebeard and agrees to marry him rather quickly- the original takes place in that magical fairy-tale-time, when arranged marriages were common. But because I was rewriting the fairy tale, I needed my main character to marry this guy rather quickly. So *that's* why it seems odd that she meets him in chapter one and is married to him in chapter three.
...the hubby didn't buy it. And I shouldn't have either. Character should drive the plot, and I'd let the plot dictate to the characters. Stepping back helped me see that the story needed some major reworking, which lead me to a question I really didn't like: was it worth the effort?
As you can see in a previous post, I was really excited over the pitch critiques going on at the BookEnds blog. I learned from reading the examples that were being critiqued, and I got excited to see what my pitch would look like.
That's right- I wrote my entire first draft without knowing what my pitch was. Well, I thought, now's the perfect time. I know what happens! I've learned who the characters are! This is going to be great! To my dismay, it wasn't. I couldn't write a pitch about the story I had because I couldn't identify the conflict. As I started looking at the story, I realized that was because I didn't really have a villain. I have a weakness for bad guys, and wound up making the villain too sympathetic.
All the way through the first draft, I kept telling myself, "it's a first draft. I can clean this- and thisandthisandthis- up later." Well, it's later. And I've finally noticed that I have a mess on my hands. It's a well-written mess- I keep consoling myself with that. I can see a real improvement in my writing throughout, so by the last four chapters, the writing is clean and the characters are decisive and the plot keeps moving along. (Yes, I'm trying to make myself feel better.)
Writing is a learning experience. When I started this adventure, the most I had written at one time was ten pages- the beginning of a short story for a college writing class. Of course I'm not going to get it right the first time. But I'm not going to give up either. I'm going to learn everything I can from each mistake, and apply it the next time.
What I learned this time is that I need to work out the pitch- or the premise, as I'll call it in my next post- before I ever start writing. I'm not saying this will work for everyone. But I've found out that without the guidance of a pitch, I don't really know where I'm going, or what point I'm trying to make. A good premise should be able to focus that story like a magnifying glass focuses the sun. The result of my first draft is a fun read- but it's like gentle sunshine: pleasant, but I wanted to fry the ant.
So there I sat, thick binder in my lap, pen in hand, ready to edit, when it occurred to me that I had no idea what to do. I started anyway, fixing a few grammar problems here and there, realizing that certain sentences could be phrased more clearly. And about halfway through the first chapter, I stopped. Even I could tell that this haphazard method of editing was not going to result in the masterpiece I was hoping for.
Then I remembered an interview Writer Unboxed had posted with Dave King, co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. The second part of the interview addressed specific techniques for editing that I found interesting- but at the time, I was very skeptical. Rules for editing? I thought I should just be able to edit by instinct.
But with the manuscript actually in my hands, I was desperate for some guidelines, something that would focus all the energy I was throwing into this task. To my surprise, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers was exactly what I was looking for. My second draft of chapter one was much, much better than the rough draft. Some of the ideas I found most useful:
* Watch out for narrative summary- both too much and too little. To my disgust, I found that I had my main character washing dishes for two pages while she thought about something. It was surprisingly easy to work what she was thinking about into a different scene using dialogue.
* Beats. The pauses between words where the character thinks or moves. They're wonderful when well used, but as I discovered, you can easily obscure good dialogue with them. I had two pages of dialogue where every time a character spoke, there was a beat afterward.
* More on beats- what kind of beats are you using? Are they generic or do they help show who your character is? I found that I'd been falling back on generic beats as a kind of writing crutch- after all, it's easier that way. (Of course, that was part of my problem- I didn't really know who my character was, so I couldn't come up with unique beats. More on that later.)
But what I found most useful was something Dave said in the interview with Writer Unboxed:
"...if you’re applying any of these techniques mechanically, then you’re not really writing. Your story has to be a living being, growing and changing according to its own internal spirit. It’s that story that I try to help writers find."
It was surprisingly easy to lose the perspective of the larger story and get absorbed in making sure that I'd eliminated all the -ly adverbs, etc. I need to remember that I'm the writer- it's up to me to decide if my story needs a few -ly adverbs sprinkled in. The guidelines are just there to make sure the story shines through.