Friday, February 22, 2013

First Page Friday

This week there was an article published about what agents are looking for in a novel opening/first page. If there was any clearer reason why First Page Friday is needed for writers, then I don't know what it is.  Several agents mentioned what Ms. Shreditor and Angela Eschler have been telling us for over a year and a half---have an opening that immediately draw you in, an opening that has clean copy, one with beautiful writing and a great voice to name a few things.  (If you'd like to read for yourselves more of what agents said they were looking for in novel openings, you can go here.)

I'm so glad to be able to offer the expertise of these editors to you every week.  As you know we've had success stories in people who have submitted here, taken the suggestions and gotten requests for partials and fulls and that makes all the effort of these editors worth it.  I hope you will tell your friends about First Page Friday and take advantage of the help offered in polishing your novel opening.

As always, thank you to Angela and Heidi and to our author for today's submission and critique.  See you next week!

The Entry

Onion Layers
by Chris van Soolen

I stared at the platter of food being offered and wondered what I had just ordered. Ignoring the twitchy bits, I nodded my thanks to the vendor and added an extra couple of credits to the tab. Cocking her head to the side, the attendant’s large sapphire eyes glittered as she handed me the tray of food. I forced a smile and hoped some of the food would be edible as I made my way through the crowds looking for Ethan and Hannah.

Ethan had chosen this moon and this market for our first shore-leave because it was open-air. There was nothing like real dirt on a real planet with real fresh air. The view of the planet, which hung in the sky like an oversized orange gumball, was spectacular. I hadn’t seen a sky in so long, I got homesick just looking up. There was so much new and vibrant that the old longing was tempered by my curiosity and interest.

Scents of foreign spices and musk filled the air, made even more pronounced every time one of the Truani preened their feathers. I made my way through the flock of bird-like life forms to find Ethan and Hannah. 

Two humans shouldn’t be hard to spot amid all the color and plumage in the market. I watched for Ethan’s short blond hair and Hannah’s curly golden locks as I navigated through the Truani life forms. An occasional hoot or screech would punctuate conversation. Everything from the nest-like architecture to the planet in the sky was so different from home, I found myself staring and grinning as I took it all in.

Tish! Over here!” Ethan waved, his head tilting toward his seated sister.

I plunked myself down onto the bench next to Hannah and elbowed her, “Plumage! Hannah, did you see the feathers around their eyes? I think these are the prettiest species we’ve encountered so far!”

Eschler Editing---Angela and Heidi's Comments

Not in Kansas

Right off, an exotic location is presented. There are plenty of clues for the reader to start building an image of the world. A moon with a breathable atmosphere, populated by an avian species, the planet the moon orbits visually prominent in the sky. And of course, the food and the waitress are just unusual enough that we know we’re not in Kansas anymore.

The blend of blond-haired humans with avian aliens presents a vivid contrast, and is coupled with some interesting hints about those characters: it sounds like they haven’t set foot on terra firma (or any other planet, for that matter) recently. They are apparently voyagers, but of what variety, we have yet to discover. Shore-leave suggests that they may be in some military or space equivalent of merchant marines. On the other hand, they may be a private group, space gypsies or privateers or common folk lost in space. At this point, we have no idea, but you’ve got our imaginations fired up, and that’s a great way to start.

Alien Gastronomy

The food squirmed. How about trying an opening line like this on for size? Your opening isn’t bad, but playing around with it a bit could spice things up. In three words, you could establish that the reader is in for a real adventure. The first line of a story, the first paragraph, may be all you’ve got to grab the attention of the reader (or agent or publisher) and hold it, so you want it to give the most bang for your buck. Currently your opening paragraph is a little unclear to the reader—in terms of grounding us in the setting—until we’ve finished it and put all the pieces together. And it’s just a bit lacking in pizzazz—with the focus on just finding friends. Mess around with how you can make it more flashy and focused.

A Fatal Flaw

In spite of interesting details and a solid start to creative world-building, your opening has a potentially fatal flaw: it’s pleasant, but there is no conflict, no hint of danger, no presentation of high stakes, no sense of trouble on the horizon. Author Craig Nybo recently gave some excellent writing lectures at the annual Life, the Universe, and Everything Science-fiction and Fantasy Symposium. He said that every scene must have a conflict, and if it doesn’t have a conflict, you can either add a conflict or get rid of the scene. Now, writing is more an art than a science (although there are definitely rules and formulas that tend to produce quantifiable results), so you can find an exception to just about every writing rule that’s ever been presented to struggling writers everywhere; but I think Mr. Nybo has nailed this one on the head, and you can find books, articles, and a plethora of evidence to support this idea: stories are about conflict, and if you don’t drop conflict in the reader’s lap on page one, at the very least, you need to hint that the storm is coming. A quick look at first page of a few books in my personal library shows:

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert A. Heinlein): Sons of Revolution meeting is mentioned in first paragraph.

Elantris (Brandon Sanderson): Prince Raoden awakens unaware that he has been damned for all eternity—in the first line.

Dogsbody (Diana Wynne Jones): Sirius, the Dog Star, is on trial by a jury of his peers (first page) and will be exiled to a mortal body by page five.

The Silicon Mage (Barbara Hambly): “The worst thing about knowing that Gary Fairchild had been dead for a month was seeing him every day at work.” (Opening line.)

Quest for a Maid (Frances Mary Hendry): Main character witnesses her sister involved in a murder (first line.)

Treasure Box (Orson Scott Card): Quentin Fears never told his parents the last thing that his sister Lizzy said to him before they pulled the plug on her and let her die.

I could go on and on. Children’s books, westerns, romances, hard-boiled detective novels, thrillers and suspense and murder mysteries, fantasy and sci-fi – it holds true across all genres. I bet that a majority of the books you pick up are going to start with conflict, with trouble, or at least the promise of trouble down the road. (That’s important to remember: your first page doesn’t have to give the main conflict, although it can if you want to structure the story that way), but it needs some problem to begin working with. For example, Orson Scott Card’s novel Enchantment begins in the middle of a family argument. That’s a “little problem” that we can all relate to. The argument about their sudden commitment to Judaism in turn leads to why (the father wants the family to be eligible to immigrate from Russia to Israel) and to surprises (in reality, he wants to get his son to America for the chance of a brighter future) and all this leads to the initial mysterious encounter with fearsome powers.

In each of the examples I give above, the author establishes trouble, often in the first sentence, almost always by end of the first page. And this isn’t just a new phenomenon, although it is getting increasingly insistent in our fast-paced instant-everything age. Several of the examples are older classics, but pick up any book published in the last year or two, and you’ll get the same message. As author, you have the advantage of knowing what your story is about and what your characters are going to face. It’s pretty essential to let the reader have a taste of that on page one in order to whet their appetite for the rest of the book.

Putting it in Context

Once you’ve established some trouble for your characters, you need to give the reader some context to put that in. Specifically: you need to show a little more about who your characters are and what their relationship is, both to other characters and to their setting. Your first page isn’t necessarily the best place to explore this in depth (in fact, given all the tasks your first page is expected to accomplish in just a few inches, it isn’t generally even possible.) But you can present enough relative information that the reader can start piecing together a framework for reference.

At this point, we have no idea of who or what the main character is, and what her (I’m guessing based on the name, but this is sci-fi/fantasy, so sometimes naming conventions are unexpected) relationship is to the other characters. It seems like they may be shipmates. Are they friends? Colleagues? Soldiers of fortune? Scientists? Are they old, young, adult, teens? Are they children of long-range explorers down planet-side for a field trip? It seems like they may be teens (Trish calls the natives “pretty” and her enthusiasm for everything has a youthful energy, but I really have no idea.)

Yes, you don’t want to hand-feed everything to the reader. You want to respect their intelligence and allow them the privilege of reading between the lines and drawing their own conclusions. You want them to have the pleasure of having their curiosity piqued by not being told every last detail about characters, setting, and situation. But you need to judiciously insert enough information in the right amount and place to make sure that they don’t draw erroneous conclusions, enough information to guide them along the path you are taking them down. The great fun of being the writer is that you get to pick and choose and mold the story the way you’d like it to go (at least as much as any story lets you mold it; stories can definitely have a mind of their own).

Summing it Up

Writers really live in the best of all possible worlds. We get to play around in any time, culture, era, country, biosphere, galaxy, or parallel universe that we desire. The start of your story is proof. Now pull it all together by adding a problem and enough story-heart/conflict-related details about characters, setting, and situation that the reader can start adding it up, and you’ll be off and running. Happy writing!


Chris van Soolen said...

Thank you so much for the feedback!! I really appreciate your taking the time. I attended that very panel by Craig Nybo, and am planning on going through all of my scenes to revise based on his points. Thank you for pointing out how to apply the tools, as well as for all of the other suggestions.

Again, thank you so very, very much. I will get in there with my scalpel and refine, refine, refine.

Jon Spell said...

My favorite part of this was the whimsical nature of it. The food and the feathers and the atmosphere all combined to present a scene that I thought was very fun.

The MC is clearly not frightened by the weirdness, but delighted. =)

Debra Allen Erfert said...

I love the colorful bird-like creatures the humans mingle with. Wild and wonderful. It will take a while to build this world.

Great first page.

Jane McBride said...

I liked the "twitchy bits" line, actually. It allowed my imnagination to take over and I drew my own conclusions about what was on the plate.