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Monday, June 25, 2012

You Had Me at Hello: The Importance of the First Chapter (ConCarolinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

"Pixel Says Hi" Photo © Laura Sheana Taylor. No catnip was involved, I swear.

This set of notes was mostly a round table discussion. Because of how the chat flowed, I've kept it as is, and attributed speakers where possible.

* * *

 You Had Me at Hello
Panelists: Rachel A. Aaron, Jim S. Bernheimer, David B. Coe / D.B. Jackson, 
Gray Rinehart, Faith Hunter, Kalayna Price, Edmund Schubert
Moderator: James Maxey

The first chapter doesn’t have to get you excited if you know the author,  but that’s not usually the case.

By the end of the first chapter, you should have your reader completely hooked.

What’s important?

ES (editor of e-zine Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show): In short stories, first lines are more important, less time to get the attention of a reader. Especially first lines that don’t make sense on first read. Start with something on the surface that doesn’t make sense; that gets his attention.

GR (“Slushmaster General”, in charge of slushpile submissions at Baen Books): The advantage of a published book is that we can pick up the book and read the back of it. That advantage is not available when reading what’s being submitted to the slush pile. So to him, the voice in the opening really matters. Your first line is critical; the one after that almost as much. Same with the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter. Customers often make the decision to buy based on the first page or two.

RA: The primary purpose of the first line is to get the reader to read the second line. To get them to read the rest of the story. Through voice, odd first line, other ways. She gives a writer three sentences – downloads the Kindle first chapter. Then makes her decision whether to read/buy based on that.

JB: Don’t give weather reports. Don’t have a long build up , a slow burn, a meandering prologue. Give it a running start. The reader will catch up as the character does. Give the reader something about the character that they want to know, they want to find out, so they’ll keep reading. Create interest in the character.

DBC: Don’t give it a cinematic start, where you zoom down onto the scene omnisciently. Omniscient is not a good voice; editors frown on it. Establish the voice and the character. Start in someone’s point of view. That’s what matters. E.g. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: two scenes in quick succession (a bank heist, a poker game). At the end of those two scenes, you have an idea of exactly how the two characters will play out.

FH: Don’t open with wakeup, bad news. Start in media res. Find a beginning that grabs voice, character, point of view, setting, and tone, and go with it.

KP:  In your first chapter, something major has to change. The inciting incident should happen by the end of the first chapter.

DBC: Disagrees – establish something with the character and do something to get the story started. You don’t necessarily have to introduce the major conflict.

FH: Yes you do.

GR: Doesn’t have to be the *main* conflict, but something that tells us everything we need to know.

ES: Yes, Indiana Jones does this – the first scene has nothing to do with the conflict, but it sets up his character.

What else?

Be prepared to change your opening:
- You may need to backtrack, may need to introduce character and narrative correctly (balance it)
- When you finish your book, look at that first chapter again.  Be able to go back and look at it again.
- There’s always more than one way to do a scene. Do not be afraid to throw away good words for great words.

RA: At the start of Avengers, there’s two throwaway minutes of Loki doing bad stuff. Then he doesn’t have to go back and show why he’s doing bad stuff.

KP: Starts with a stranger, snarky opening (has been asked to tone it down some)

ES: To work with a story, it’s not so much rewriting as it is restructuring or tightening. It must be really close and he really wants to publish it – he takes great raw material and polishes it. He respects that it’s the writer’s story, not his.

GR: Sometimes you need to restructure the novel to tell a better story.

RA: Best writing came from a blog about writing for comics – Is this moment you’re starting with the most interesting moment in your character’s life? If not, why not? Start with the moment the boulder starts rolling down the hill, when everything’s supposed to start going wrong.

KP: Establish character, establish voice – make it interesting and snappy, establish the tone of the novel.

JB: Bangs out first chapter right away because it’ll be the part he’ll spend most time on, but he won’t know the first word until the last word is written. BUT he dresses first chapter like it’s going out on a date (in revisions). Not much room to slack off in the frist chapter. Entire book should also be treated well

You have a contract with reader in the first chapter – you show that you know how to write, that it’s worth reading, that it’s clear and not confusing and intriguing (doesn’t give it all away)

DBC: Slightly disagrees – Will spend as much time on the first paragraph as he will on the entire rest of the first chapter as he’ll spend on the next four or five chapters. However, this can lead to winding up hating them because those chapters are overworked and not necessarily as flowing. Not that the first chapter shouldn’t be polished, just that you shouldn’t obsess about it too much. There’s a balance between refining it to the point of it shines and editing it too much.

JB: Works on a lot of anthologies. He puts the best story in the second or third slot, and the second-best story in the last slot.

RA: You won’t know the right way to start the book until after you’ve written it. Even if you have to rewrite it five times. You learn as you go.

JB: Each book is a puzzle, has a “right” way of telling it. You won’t know until you start. What works for one book probably won’t apply to the next book. Don’t stress out about the beginning. The last line of the book is where the editor decies whether or not to buy the book. Make sure you get a good story with a good ending because the entire book. Don’t put all of your egs in that one book

RA: Don’t strive for perfection. If you strive to make it perfect,  you’ll be unhappy. Just learn to say when good enough is good enough. We have so many books in us and it’s stupid to waste time.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The First Step (Concarlinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

Aaaand we're back with notes from this year's ConCarolinas. Rather than push myself to release ALL THE NOTES at once, and for the sake of my sanity, I'll be posting these once a week (on Mondays) for the next twelve weeks or so. Hope that's all right with everyone. (If not, um, well, sorry, that's the way it's going to be.)

The first panel of this year's convention? Vital info for beginners, and important reminders for the not-so-newbies.

* * *

The First Step
Panelists: William Hartfeld, Allen Wold, Carrie Ryan, James R. Tuck
Moderator: Stuart Jaffe

On Ego:
WH: You need a healthy ego, but you also need to be able to ask for and accept criticism.
SJ: You need an ego to write it, but you need to check your ego at the door to revise it.
CR: Be an “Insecure Egomaniac”.

Round table: General tips
- Don’t just look for external validation.
- Be stubborn.
- Be able to deal with rejection. A LOT of it. Even after you’ve sold and published.
- You MUST have a thick skin.
- You must have more than one book in you, be aware of being able to let things go if they’re not working and move onto the next thing.
- Revise. Everything. Ask yourself: “Is this scene working?”
- Read everything out loud.
- Have perseverance.
- Research first, too. Hours and hours of it.
- Stick through it, even when you feel like quitting
- You must also be disciplined. TV, Facebook, and social media in general are all ways to be distracted, excuses not to write. You must say to yourself, “At 9:00,” (for example), “this is writing time. No Facebook. No TV.” (etc)

Recommended writing books:
- Thanks, but this isn’t for us – Jessica Page Morelle
- How Not to Write a Novel – Howard Mittelmark
- Story – Robert McKee
- Save the Cat – Blake Snyder (a book on screenwriting, but still *very* useful)
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
- The Hero's 2 Journeys (video) – Vogler & Hague

When reading these books, keep in mind:
- You learn after a while which books are worth reading.
- So much info, especially when you’re starting out, that you won’t review
- Books by authors about how they write
- Work out your own system. No matter what anyone tells you to do, you must find your own way.
- Loosely apply books on screenwriting to your work.
- Don’t necessarily read them cover to cover, just bits and pieces as needed.
- Sometimes even the most basic book or blog post will trigger your brain, give  you a nugget.

Remember to read:
- Read as many of the books in your genre that you like, and write what you read, and learn to tell what each author did poorly or well.
- Often finishing a good book can give you energy and inspiration for your next book.
- Read other books. You internalize what you read. And if you don’t read your genre, you fall prey to tropes and clich├ęs.
- Reading is so important. It never ends.
- Reading is part of your job. Don’t feel guilty taking time to read provided you’re meeting your deadlines.
- Read your genre. Then read widely, expose yourself other stuff.
- Find something that’s related to what you’re writing, to ease yourself into that other genre. You might also find you like those other genres, too. Then branch out from there. These books will add to your internal monologue. But if you hate it, don’t force yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to be judgemental if you pick up a “classic” and think it’s crap, or don’t like it.
- Read poetry, too.

- There are no rules. But be aware of the guidelines so you know which you’re following and which you’re not. i.e. don’t write an 800,000-word novel.
- Bear in mind, the rules change. Headhopping used to be the norm.
Be aware – if one book did something successfully doesn’t mean that you should experiment in.
Must read current books to see what the market is like.
- Have a critique group.
- What "beta group" means: The writer is the alpha, the readers are the betas.

- The value of a critique group isn’t just in getting feedback, it’s in giving feedback. When you critique other stuff, you notice their mistakes and can apply it to your own work.
- Actually, there are 6 rules: Read Read Read, Write Write Write.

- Don’t assume you don’t need editing.
- Be aware it takes a long time, no matter what path you take.
- Get on with it: finish the book. It’s okay to suck. Don’t worry about making it pretty, just get it done and we’ll fix it later. Get it on paper first. Can’t write a second draft without the first. “Can’t fix a blank page.” Also, “The Muse is a Fickle Bitch.” Don’t wait for the muse.
- Be okay with your writing process.
- Don’t spend so much time building your online presence to the point where you don’t get any writing done.
- Be able to recognize bad critiques.
- Be able to develop a desire to be an editor.
- Even crappy critiques can really help. Be able to put them in perspective.

Important Miscellanea:
- Re: self-publishing: It may be faster to get your stuff out, but it takes just as long to get it sold, and still takes many drafts.
- If self-publishing, understand that you have two completely different jobs, being a writer and being a publisher. Be a writer first. Learn that first.
- Collaborations: different systems depending on who you’re working with and how you work it out. Learn to write first, though, so you don’t drown each other out. Be able to trust the person so if you dispute, figure out how it’s resolved. If you both disagree, chances are you’re both wrong. There’s a third path. And have a written collaboration agreement to start with.
- Remember: You’re not Heinlein, and when you're reading his stuff, what you’re reading is his LAST draft. Nothing like his first draft. Neither will
- Perseverance: Don’t rewrite except to editorial direction (Heinlein’s 3rd law) – unless you think a critique is valid, don’t change something that’s good unless you already have an editor telling you to change it.

- Don’t quit your day job. This isn't a get-rich-quick lifestyle by any stretch of the imagination.