Sunday, October 9, 2011

First Pages critiques

It seems appropriate, after gushing over how useful the final event at the conference was, to spin around chronologically and gush over the first event.  The chronology adds an irony to it, certainly, but the first event was quite similar to the last, and it had almost as profound an influence on my writing efforts going forward.  I remember walking out of the beginning session, coffee-deprived (if you followed my Tweets, you know they banned food and drink as well as *gasp* coffee in the main lecture hall), thinking that I'd learned enough that if the entire rest of the conference taught me nothing, it was worth what I'd paid for it.

We launched the conference, after a brief but hysterically funny monologue by Mike Albo, with a session called, simply, First Pages.  It was moderated by David Robbins, an accomplished author and playwright and professor as well as a leader within the writing group, and had as its panel of "judges" three agents: Michelle Brower, April Eberhardt, and Becca Stumpf.  It progressed in a straightforward format; one of two prominent members of JRW read a submitted first page of an anonymous manuscript aloud, and then the judges and moderator critiqued it.

Had the panel been made up of readers or, say, English professors, it would've been valuable, but the choice of agents on the panel was brilliant.  These are the folks who read tens of thousands of pitches and first pages each year searching for the diamond among the dust, and the audience was comprised of a couple hundred of us who'd submitted to people just like the judges hoping to be that diamond.  You could feel the crowd hanging on every word.  Well, nearly every word, anyway.

I'm not sure there's anything more entertainingly educational, or educationally entertaining, as seeing someone else's work torn apart (in a constructive and very non-mean manner, I should add).  Yes, having my own work gutted at Pitchapalooza was more educational, but hardly as entertaining.  To me, that is.  I know others found it entertaining, but that falls under the first category, yes?  In any event, this is the type of activity I would happily spend days observing, except that I'm not sure I'd learn much new after the first couple of hours.

Why do I predict a plateau in learning?  Because of what I saw at the session.  After a while, the agents began repeating themselves.  There was always something new to praise, as well as something new to pummel, with each new work, but the core problems got repetitious after a while.  Then again, I needed that, I think.  Sometimes repetitive pummeling makes for the sharpest recall. 

Speaking of lessons--on to the meat of the critiques.

  • "No stakes at first."

There were several first-pages that received this comment.  Is a novel just as beautiful a creation if the first page merely paints a scene using the perfect language?  Probably.  But it's not going to grab an agent's attention, and with the reading public's short attention spans, it's probably not going to get a lot of readership.  Those are my thoughts, anyway.  It's clear that the first assertion is correct, since this was something every agent objected to several times.  Bottom line: in the very first page, in the very first scene, somebody has to have something at stake, and the reader has to be made to care about it.

  • "Too much telling, not enough showing / Too many stage directions."

Heard the former comment a bunch.  Heard the latter once or twice, and decided to group them together since the latter is, to my mind, a subcategory of the former.  One first page told of a recent college graduate sitting and waiting on an interview.  The point of the one who made the comment there was that a recent college graduate thinks and acts a certain distinctive way, right?  (if not, why do we care that he is one?)  Telling us that he's a recent college graduate gathers far less emotional force than showing us that he is one through his nervousness, his somewhat awkward actions, etc.

Another example was in a scene set in a kitchen of a house overlooking a river.  Most of the first page contained "stage directions"--the table was over there, the coffee pot was here, she walked around the table stage left to get to the....  You get the idea?  Some of this is important for describing the scene, but too much takes away from the emotional investment the author is trying to force the reader to make.  The only reason it would matter which side of the table she comes around is if one direction has a zombie in its path, and that didn't come out of the writing at all.

  • "Don't slug a nun and then say 'be right back.'"

That's only directly applicable to one of the first pages, but it's my favorite quote of the day.  The first line of the page had the character who owned the POV slug a nun, in those specific words, and then it drifted off into a discussion of--something.  I don't remember what it said, though I'm pretty sure it mentioned "Catholic school" somewhere in it.  I wasn't paying attention; I kept waiting to hear what happened after the fist made contact with the one in the habit.

Emotional investment gets people to read the book.  Frustrated, half-ass emotional investment makes me throw the book across the room.  Hey, the author gets a royalty either way, but only one of them gets the author a royalty on Book 2.

  • "Let readers meet your characters like we meet each other.  We don't hand out brochures that give our full names, our waist sizes, etc."

I saw several of these, and this was a comment that prompted me to rewrite my own first paragraph as soon as I got home.  It's a subtle point, but introducing a character by first and last name is an example of what not to do.  My own work's first line, "Crystal Vincent bustled about getting breakfast and lunches ready for the day," is now, "Crystal bustled about getting breakfast and lunches ready for the day," and the paragraph that contained it is now two lines, down from five.  There was stuff in there that, frankly, the reader didn't need to know, and anything on the first page that the reader doesn't need to know needs to be shucked.  Speaking of that:

  • "Kill your darling."

We've all written beautiful sections of prose that either didn't work in a scene or weren't needed in the scene.  I've got some of those I've already ripped out of my heart along with the book, but it's a requirement of writing.  If telling a story were merely a matter of delivering beautiful prose, it would be much easier.  

Incidentally, I have two words written and highlighted with my funky circled asterisks under that line: "shrink prologue."  I loved my prologue, I really did.  I still love it, a page and a half shorter though it may be.  And, thanks to another comment, it's now no longer titled "Prologue" but rather "Chapter 1." 

  • "Third person present tense is tough.  It's stage direction voice."

That comment was interesting, especially since person and tense are two things I've studied at some length.  I'd never really thought of using third person present ("Michael is a boy.  He goes to school and learns to read.") versus third person past ("Michael was at school learning to read when the building was attacked by zombies.").  The guy who made the comment, David Robbins, taught me something.  It's not applicable to what I'm doing, but it was still very interesting since I'd never thought of it that way.  Third person present tense is what we expect in screenplay voice, and since stage directions aren't what the reader wants out of a novel, it's probably not a good choice there.  

  • "Avoid cliches, like 'his hands and knees trembled.'"

Readers sometimes pick up on cliches, I guess, but it makes sense that agents reading tens of thousands of pitches would, and given their vocation, I can see where it would annoy them.  In a later session we heard the truism that a writer is really writing for an audience of one, and in this case, that one is the agent.  Avoid, then, the easy way out, and find a less often used method for showing the reader that your character is frightened.  

  • "Somebody's gotta represent the reader on the page."

God, I wish I could recall which panel member uttered this little gem.  It's a brilliant way of explaining the importance of POV.  In my own earlier writings, I had the same troubles as the person whose first page had just been read, in which the POV, or character/narrator whose eyes are absorbing the tale that is being spun, flits around through the scene like a butterfly of bad similes.  *ahem*  I've said before that switching up POV is required sometimes, but too much of it confuses the reader.  The reader is confused because we don't know whom to settle in on, who's going to tell us the story, who's going to, as the panel member eloquently described, represent us. 

  • "Start near an ending.  Never start with an awakening or a door opening."

This bit was counter-intuitive at first, but the speaker is correct.  We see awakenings and door openings all the time.  Big friggin' deal.  The big deal is that there's zombies already in the house, so start there and, if you must, tell of the door opening later.  Start with what will grab the reader's attention.  Start with the big deal. 

  • "Asides confuse things - avoid them on your first page."
  • "Resolution is your enemy.  Tension is your friend."
  • "Mood-setting must be organic, not forced."
  • "Move the best line to the front."
  • "I don't like Prologues."

Above were some other comments I felt worth writing down.  All good advice, but nothing new to me.  Even the Prologue one wasn't new; I just decided I'd heard it enough to finally believe it.  Hell, it doesn't matter to me whether the first few pages of my book are named Prologue or Chapter 1, or even Bob, as long as you read them.

Hope you learned a bit from this too.  Come back next blog post for more! 


  1. Thanks for all these great notes! It's hard to tweet, listen, and get down everything you really want to remember, and I think you did a great job here of summarizing many critical bits.

  2. Thank you, KathArine! It was great to be there. What I did was taken notes in my folio, a practice I honed over the many years as a student, and when something needed Tweeting I'd wait for a slower moment.

  3. Never cut anything blindly - would be a caveat I'd add, and something I learned the hard way. Prologue is often back story, and might be useful at some time. In fact, the prologue from one of my stories laid out the bones of another story - one of my most popular stories.

  4. Valerie - a VERY good point! I've got a document named Cuttings, and whenever I cut something I paste it into there for possible later use. My Book 3, in fact, will start with a scene I cut out of Book 2. I'm also keeping each copy of the revisions as I progress, in part for the backup and in part for the later reminiscences. Thank you!

  5. Great post! I love how you offer your own commentary to the agents' and David's comments. Very nicely laid out and well done.

  6. Great post, Thank You!
    Hard to take notes and get everything done this year so this was great.