Hey everyone. How has your April been? Mine has been absolutely insane.
Don Rocko and I were both part of a wonderful wedding between two of our close friends. (Not so unexpected, but still intense.) We didn't quite get much chance to take a breather after ECCC. Add bachelor/ette parties, holidays and requisite feasting into the mix, and it was busy, to say the least. Busy but fun.
I also sadly had to say goodbye to my maternal grandmother this month. To call it "not fun" balances out the narrative of the preceding paragraph, but doesn't really do the situation justice. Sometimes my penchant for euphemisms, though an excellent skill at key times that call for tact, instead leads to me doing an injustice to myself. That's about all I have the energy to say right now.
So if that was all tl;dr for people, the long and the short of it is that I've been very busy, and the result is that I've got a decent collection of notes I haven't had a chance to post, so my goal for May (and the days leading up to it) will be to share as much as I can. One of the great things about this is that it's good for me, too. When editing these to share here, I remind myself of what I learned in the first place. Now, let's get started with an exceptionally useful subject, taught by some of my favourite writers: a manuscript's beginning.
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The First Five Pages: A Magical Words Panel
Faith Hunter Misty Massey, David B. Coe
The First Five Pages: A Magical Words Panel
Faith Hunter Misty Massey, David B. Coe
MagicalWords.net is a website for readers and writers of fantasy that started in January 2008. Faith Hunter, David B. Coe, and Misty Massey all met at a convention and clicked, and the concept was born. Over the years they have brought in other writers and related folks. They have many regulars and guests. Enjoy this discussion with the founding members!
The topic, in a nutshell: If you are unpublished and you want to become traditionally published in the traditional market, your pages have to be better than anyone else’s first five. Here’s some great tips on how to do so.
FH: Established authors can get by without a huge hook because they are known quantities. This has to be tough. If you’re already published you can get by with more than a new author.
DBC: Disagrees, because he thinks that editors understand your first 5 pages aren’t going to be as polished, clean, etc. as a writer who’s experienced. They want to see that you have potential, an understanding of how to write, and that you’re capable of taking a good idea and turning it into something that will last over the entire arc of a book. They might not see the same quality because they see the potential. Yes, your first five pages should be kickass.
FH: Editors are looking for a reason to stop reading, to throw out the manuscript, because they have a huge stack on their desk.
MM: Even for short stories. 14 stories were chosen out of 200+ submissions for The Big Bad anthology.
FH: The professional editor at a big house gets hundreds and hundreds. FH and DBC were lucky slush pile pickups.
Every manuscript needs a good beginning, character development, good conflict, resolution of conflict.
Your opening needs to contain a bait and hook. Something that will prove pivotal later in the book. Also: engaging characters, immediacy, conflict, strong active word use. And voice.
Focus on the event you see on the first page. Don’t open with an island and twelve monkeys unless they need to be there in the book. What the book’s about. Whatever’s there on the opening page is what you want to carry through in the rest of the book.
MM: Mad Kestrel opens on a ship in a storm, with another ship bearing down on it that suddenly vanishes.
- Have an event, use a writing style that sets the tone, sets the genre, and hints at conflict
- Immediacy: it has to be important
- Time limit: e.g. the ship that’s bearing down on the main character’s ship.
DBC: He believes book begins where it needs to begin. At the moment when the events leading to the climax start to matter. It sets up the things that the book is about. The opening needs conflict, voice, all the above, but there are as many ways to get to those elements as there are writers trying to write a story.
Example: Thieftaker opens without a body. It begins with the main character, Ethan, chasing a thief. (This sets up that he’s a thieftaker, the original Private Investigator.) Ethan can smell smoke because there are riots happening in the city (the Stamp Act riots), confrontation with the thief leads to his use of magic, and the kid he arrests assumes he’s working for his rival. Lone wolf using magic. The mystery doesn’t begin until the third chapter. DBC likens the main character to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: there are two opening scenes, one for Robert Redford’s character, and one with Butch Cassidy. Ten minutes into the movie, we’re rooting for the characters already. He wants his readers to know Ethan isn’t someone to be taken lightly.
FH: Research is key. Lots of research on pirates and dance. David has a PhD in history.
“because with a PhD in History you can get an exciting job writing Fantasy novels!”
FH: There are several basic types of opening – the narrative, the dialogue, and the action. Old ones include journal entries, someone waking up, news article, dream. We want those first five pages to be unique and exciting. She’s opened a story with a character waking up, but not in her first novel.
Where do you go to research your first 5 pages?
MM: Read everything. What works and what doesn’t. Learn what other people have done and why it worked or didn’t work. If not, make notes and figure out why it didn’t work. Remember why they worked and why they didn’t. Avoid tropes: something that has been done to death. Not quite a cliché, tropes are done to death but keep being done. E.g. the magic baby trope – conceived, born, grows to adulthood in a week. Has been done and overdone but is still done because someone likes to read that.
DBC: Another example: the young person who doesn’t know they’re destined for greatness. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, King Arthur. Not done to death, but narrative touchstones that we come to again and again.
MM: It becomes a cliché when you misuse the trope, because you don’t understand the trope. E.g. if you use it “because everyone else did it”. For example, using the reasoning “Tolkien did it” isn’t enough to understand why it was used.
FH: Find your own story, your own opening, something that weary editor cannot put down.
DBC: Agrees with MM. Read, read, read. Fionavar Tapestry. Ender’s Game.
FH: It’s about reading analytically. When you learn how to write, you’re often self-study. Figured out that since she couldn’t go to college, in order to make a living she’d learn how to write herself. Taught herself how to write with coloured pencils in books she’d read and marked great pieces of dialogue. Wrote what was good about something. Or why something didn’t work. Learned to read analytically. Read blockbusters, things that resonate with the world. Even if it doesn’t resonate with you. Find what resonates with you and understand it. There is a trend for faster openings these days.
FH: Conflict is where so or something is struggling with something and the outcome is in doubt. Man vs. Nature, Man, himself. Introduce with some form of conflict. Doesn’t have to be the main conflict, but it’s got to be something to do with your book.
Authors who write great hooks: Rachel Aaron, Jim Butcher.
What about internal conflict?
FH: I has a lot to do with voice. In Skinwalker, Jane Yellowrock walks into a new city, into the business of a woman whose type she usually kills.
MM: Kestel’s internal conflict is a secret she has to keep. Something that would change her life completely if the rest of the world found out. There are moments when she missteps/misspeaks, and she’s terrified of that getting out. Don’t just have one type of conflict for your character. Not just one. There has to be other conflict, internal and external, different ones that you encounter as you go along.
DBC: The secret to making it work: start off by knowing your character as well as you can, the emotional basis of their personalities. E.g. Ethan was a prisoner, and now he’s getting his life back. Know your characters well enough that you understand what sets them off. In the narrative, put the things that make them crazy, sets them off, in their path. This makes for compelling, interesting characters.
FH: It’s different from journalism, not the 5W’s and an H. Introduce with the tension of all these questions to be asked when the reader starts reading, but answer them throughout. This makes for a compelling story. You have to answer those questions by the story’s last word.
Audience comment: the First 5 pages are for the reader to decide whether they’ll keep reading.
FH: The opening has to be the best work you can do. It has to be the right opening for that book.
Audience comment: if things aren’t happening quickly enough, you’ve either started too early or too late.
DBC: The start has to be where the narrative that leads to your climax begins. Knowing what events set in motion the story that drives the narrative for the next X-hundred pages.
MM: Avoid the infodump (spilling everything in the first 5 pages).
FH: Start where it first makes sense. For Jane Yellowrock, there’s tension building up to meeting Katie (the vampire seeking to hire her).
MM: “Start the moment where things begin to go wrong.” —Marion Zimmer Bradley
FH: Sometimes it’s luck. Sometimes the editor will say, “Unfortunately, we bought a book just like this.”
DBC: Write the book you want to write. Don’t try to anticipate the market.
Audience question: How much backstory’s acceptable in first 5 pages?
FH: Not wise for a first novel. Introduced in the second third of the book. Unless you’re Stephen King, but you’re not. Set the backstory in the second third of the book. Lasagne analogy: don’t throw the ground beef into one corner of the pot and the onion and noodles in the other – set it instead to layers. Chopped into small pieces. Give it as needed for the story. Should evolve with the cahr. Answering those questions is what the book’s about.
Audience question: Instead of backstory, what about hinting at backstory?
FH/DBC: There’s nothing wrong with that. Immediacy’s good. Little hints are awesome.
Audience question: How often does it happen that the first five pages need to be rewritten?
Everyone: ALL THE TIME.
Faith: Mostly through revisions. Rarely ever does she have to tear it up and rewrite completely.
MM: Don’t look at first 5 pages and keep tweaking. Only tweak because the book needs it. Don’t fiddle. Be aware of why you’re looking at your first five pages and want to fix it, don’t just fiddle.
FH: Do you have a last great bit of advice to writers before they send their work to an editor?
MM: Move onto the next thing. Don’t sit and wait. Publishing is the slowest business. You’re used to sending in and getting response right away. You’re wasting our own time if you do. Work on something else.
DBC: When he finishes a manuscript he puts it away 4-6 weeks then goes back to revise. He tries to create as much distance between editing and writing experience. That helps him catch as many flaws in the book as possible, both before and after beta readers.