The Perfect First Page

This post originally appeared at Spellbound Scribes.

No pictures???

As I once more begin the arduous process of drafting a new manuscript, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the mechanics and architecture of story-telling. Of course there’s no right way to tell a story, but there are certain elements that must be in place for a story to be effective. And–if we’re starting at the beginning–the first thing we have to think about is, well, the beginning.

It’s no secret in the publishing industry that the beginning of a manuscript is of the utmost importance. To agents, to editors, and to potential readers alike. The first 250 words…the first page…the first chapter. The opening of a book is what introduces your work to your reader, and, if all goes well, draws them in and makes them keep reading. But what exactly is supposed to be going on in this crucial stage, and how do we as writers make that happen? While there’s no perfect way to do it, here are some of the things I think are absolutely necessary to nailing the perfect first page. read more…

To the Dump

Here's some necessary information!

Here’s some necessary information for ya!

Mention the words “info dump” to any self-respecting writer and they’re bound to go a bit green around the gills. The two dreaded words refer to exposition in a story or novel that, rather than being doled out sparingly throughout the manuscript, happens all at once. The action is moving along, the characters are doing their thing, and then all of a sudden–BAM! The author drops a big dump-truck full of information on the unsuspecting reader.

As you have probably inferred from my description, info-dumping is not a good thing. Even if the information is crucial to the reader’s understanding of what’s happening in the book, exposition done poorly is usually bad news for a story. The most rip-roaringest of adventures will screech to a grinding halt when faced with an info-dump. The swooniest romance will suddenly feel dry and boring. Mysteries heave a last gasp and then die.

But the problem is, exposition is hard. An author, who is intimately familiar with her setting, her plot, and her characters (having, um, created the whole thing), must find a way to give her readers enough information to understand the story without smothering them under a pile of history, backstory, and unnecessary detail. She must avoid info-dumping at all costs. But, to make her job even harder, she must also avoid the opposite problem–not providing enough exposition in crucial points, leaving her readers confused and frustrated because they don’t know what’s going on.

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The Importance of Reading

“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”               — Philip Pullman

Marilyn Monroe, pretty and smart.

Marilyn Monroe, pretty and smart.

I was that kid. The kid who read all the time. The kid who brought a book with her wherever she went. The kid who had to be told to stop reading so much and go outside and play with my friends. I could be found reading under the table at family dinners. Reading on the way to school, reading during lunch, and reading on the way home. Reading under the sheets after my mom had told me–repeatedly–to turn the light off, I could finish the damn book tomorrow. Later, I was the girl who read all her summer reading in the first two weeks of summer break, and then spent the rest of summer at the library. I was the girl who threw silent hissy fits whenever she was assigned a book she didn’t like; not because it was a pain to read but because there was nothing–NOTHING–she hated more than disliking a book.

Long before the thought of being a writer ever crossed my mind, I was a reader.

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A Million Bad Words

You better get a-clickety-clacking.

You better get a-clickety-clacking.
Image via

This week, as I prepare to dig deep in order to revise my recently completed novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about craft. A writer’s craft, to be precise. I’ve read so many books and blogs and articles that all essentially say the same thing: to become a better writer, you must simply write. And write. And write some more.

The iterations on this conventional wisdom are endless. They say (whoever ‘they’ are) that all writers have one million bads words inside them, and only once they’ve all been written can true quality pour forth. In his book On Writing Stephen King states that ‘Writing equals ass in chair.’ Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers famously posits that everyone must spend ten thousand hours in practice of any given skill before they can reach excellence. But is that all it takes? Time and practice?

Like this...but not this. Image via Bill Watterson.

Like this…but not this.
Image via Bill Watterson.

Yes, I think that to be a writer, one must write. And write. And write. But I’m not sure that just setting down mediocre words on paper in the hopes that they will eventually transform into words of beauty is necessarily enough. Without the intention and the desire to improve, that metamorphosis will never happen. Our words are not caterpillars, destined to magically transmogrify into beautiful butterflies. No–as writers we must not only write, and practice, but also envision the change within ourselves, and manifest it in our actions.

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