Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Common Problems With Beginnings

As you know, Jodi Meadows and I have been wrangling our way through the YA/MG slush for the Baker's Dozen.  Our reasons for saying "no" each year are pretty much the same, and Jodi has done a great job outlining these Problems With Beginnings in this post at PUB CRAWL.

Go there and read it.  Then, if you feel the need to chat about it, feel free to come here and...well, chat about it.

Always learning, always growing.  All of us, together.

Right?  Yes!

(And thank you, dearest Jodi, for this wonderful blog post.)

33 comments:

  1. Confession time? I got the idea for how to open my ms from reading the opening pages of a bunch of different novels I liked, and a few I had on my to-read pile but hadn't gotten to yet. Anything that seemed too derivative was out, but any trend (conversations with enough context to ground, and intrigue; the moment before a conflict is settled; etc) became instant fodder for obsession, study, and eventually several first drafts. I don't think I could have written chapter one at all if I hadn't done that little bit of homework first.

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  2. Just a thought, both Virgil and Homer start their great works ‘in medias res’ , aka in the middle of action. And it must have worked, considering that over 2000 years later we are still reading them! Giving you more mundane examples, all James Patterson books start with action and, again, it surely works, he being the most commercially popular author of the last century. Even a popular movie such a Star Wars not only starts with action, but with action that doesn’t involve the MC, since we are going to meet Luke much later in the story. I honestly do not think there’s a fixed rule according to which you shouldn’t start with action, quite the opposite. Sure, there’s plenty of brilliant literary fiction which of course doesn’t start with action but that is, as said, literary fiction which is beyond most of us. I mean, I have been following Authoress for years now and writers who manage to take part to the BD are usually mainstream authors, writers whose only or, at least, most important goal is to entertain. And action is entertaining. At least according to most readers, considering the popularity of Virgil and James Patterson.

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  3. Here's the thing, louisaklein -- If you're going to start with action, you need to do it WELL. You need to ground the reader (i.e., give us a sense immediately of the setting) and draw us in so that we understand what's going on--and care about it. The vast majority of "car crash" openings that Jodi and I read are not grounded. They are confusing, or detached, or overwhelming. Like Jodi said in her blog post, sometimes we will say, "Wow, this is a car crash, but it's working for me!" That's because the author had a strong grasp on what he was doing. I would venture to guess that most of the writers we're reading don't (yet) have the skills of Homer.

    I am also not sure I agree with the "most important goal is to entertain". I don't think that's the goal of most writers. Of COURSE we want people to be engaged with/entertained by our stories, but I know that's certainly not MY main goal as a writer. I believe the preponderance of "action" openings is a direct result of the repeated advice given out there to "start with action!" in order to engage the reader. This is faulty advice, though. The REAL thing that engages a reader in the opening pages of a novel is CONFLICT. And conflict may or may not involve ACTION.

    Give a reader good, solid conflict -- even subtly -- in the opening pages, and it's going to scream, "READ MORE OF ME!"

    As it stands, the vast majority of action openings are not even coming close to working.

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  4. One more thought: "In media res" actually means, "In the midst of things." It does NOT mean "in the midst of ACTION". When you think about it, ALL stories begin "in the midst of things", because you're not starting at the moment of the protagonist's birth, yes? But it's a skill to draw us INTO the "midst of things" while keeping us grounded.

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  5. This is a very interesting conversation! Well, your is an extremely literal traslation. In fact, 'res' has a very general meaning in Latin, sometimes you can even translate it with 'stuff', to give you the idea. 'In medias res' is conventionally translated with 'in the middle of action', since this is what classic authors meant with the term. Always using Virgil as a paradigm, you know that he starts his Aeneid with a storm. Aeneas's ship is about to sink, when Neptune comes to the rescue. Aeneas and a bunch of his men managed to escape from Troy,coquered and destroyed by the Greeks. At this point, we know nothing about the MC and his companions. If one hasn't read the Iliad, one doesn't even know what the war of Troy was about. Still, it works. The reader is immediately sucked in. Of course, this is Virgil we are talking about, one of the greatest authors of all times. Not everyone can pull such a stunt! :) As for entertaining, I know that it's not every writer's purpose, but my impression is that it's the purpose of the majority of writers following your blog (I might be wrong, of course). I have been reading you for 3 years now and read I don't know how many SA excerpt and logline critiques. Thw will to entertain seems to prevail. And I don't think it should be underestimated. I mean, being funny and engaging is not that simple (at least, not for me!). One has to be really skilled to find the right pace, throw in the right joke at the right moment, if oyu know what I mean. That's my thought. The ball's yours.

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  6. I loved Jodi's post - they're great reminders to all of us! All things we know, and easily forget when we're writing (which is why we edit. Hopefully). I think the key, as you and Jodi pointed out, is that all of these 'no-no's' can actually work and be great, AS LONG AS they're well-written. Again, this is why we edit ;)

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  7. To be fair to myself, I must confess that my first page may be one that has been eluded to here, but I entered it based on positive agent feedback from 3 different agents in different critique settings (one being here in a Secret Agent arena). I also consulted my editor and she encouraged me to enter what I did. All I can do is stand by my work and take a chance, right? I appreciate just the opportunity to be considered; so thank you, Authoress and Jodi, for all you're doing! <3

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  8. I just realized (in a sleep deprived state) I sent in the wrong info.! It was a query NOT my manuscript! I just emailed you my 250 words and hopefully it won't be too late!

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  9. Huh, I think I must have seen a different Star Wars than the rest of you because I recall a bunch of words scrolling up the screen in the worlds biggest PROLOGUE ever (set to inspiring music, as you will no doubt recall).

    Star Wars STARTS with words to give us grounding, the gun battle in space only makes sense because we'd already been told about conflict.

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  10. Rena makes a good point about Star Wars grounding us. Though I wouldn't recommend that sort of infodumping prologue to burgeoning authors. Our novels lack the advantages of (1) John William's music and (2) theater-goers having paid for an unredeemable ticket ;-)

    It's all a balance, isn't it? :-)

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  11. Seems to me that putting this much pressure on the first 250 words is the major Achilles’ heel of contests and why there are so many authors cramming too much into the first page. I read another guy’s blog recently that provides a great counterpoint to most of these guidelines about openings. Fascinating to wonder how his examples would fare in these first 250-word contests.
    http://tomalanbrosz.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/the-first-250-words/#more-1124

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  12. Fargo Jones,

    That's a great post! Thanks for linking it! The thing about those examples is that they're compelling. The writing is there. They make you want to read more.

    The first 250 words don't need to have everything in them. They really shouldn't, honestly! And indeed, Authoress and I do see a lot of submissions that try to cram everything in immediately.

    But we're attracted to good writing, and voice, and that secure feeling you get when you know the author knows what s/he is doing. Can you get all of that from the first 250 words of a story? In most cases, yes. Especially with experience. This is our third year doing the Baker's Dozen contest, (I think. Time is confusing), I have a year and a half of experience reading slush for an agent, and Authoress has been running contests on this blog for years. We're certainly not experts, but I think we're pretty good at identifying what the participating agents will like to bid on.

    I think most of those examples would do pretty well in this contest, actually. We're not after a set list of criteria; we're after the beginning of a good story.

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  13. KT Crowley,

    Fear not! I had no specific submissions in mind while I was writing that post. I don't know which one was yours (they don't have names attached), but I'm glad you entered. It was a brave move. Letting someone else look at your work is always a little (a lot) scary!

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  14. Thanks, Rena and Adam. Now I have the STAR WARS theme stuck in my head.

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  15. KT -- Since you submitted on the 2nd day, there's a good chance we haven't even gotten to yours yet. For real. :)

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  16. And that's how it came to be: The Great Car-Crash Scene Fiction Contest.
    I'm in.
    ~Just Jill

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  17. louisaklein -- Really, it's not the best idea to compare modern literature to a work that is so old. Art is a reflection of the society in which it resides, and the novel is an evolving art form, like all art forms. (Hence the difference between Baroque and Romantic music, or between Monet and Picasso).

    The bottom line is, a reader will not be "immediately sucked in" unless the writing is compelling. Yes, there is a measure of subjectivity here, as in all the arts. But trust me when I say that the vast majority of jump-into-action scenes we've read don't work. Not even a little bit. We can throw around all the literary terminology we'd like, but in the end, strong writing trumps all.

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  18. Well then, you ladies are in for a treat! Haha all kidding aside, this was a very informative post by Jodi, and the conversation here in response has been interesting to read. The beauty of our craft is the ability to learn from these experiences and the advice so graciously offered by the writers with experience, especially experience in specific areas such as this, and grow as writers. But as Authoress and Jodi have said, well written pieces stand out, plain and simple. As subjective as readers are, this fact will never change. We just have to do our best to polish our work to this kind of shine, believe in it and take a chance. Should we fail, well brush it off, find the issue, fix it and try again. It's all part of the journey.

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  19. The other thing about Homer is that what we have are written records of poems that were performed aloud (which is a different experience than reading), and his work was based on stories that were already familiar to his audiences. They knew the characters he was talking about. When we begin our stories, the best we can hope for is that the reader has read a query letter or book jacket (or in the case of Baker's Dozen, a logline). The characters are new people for the reader to get to know and care about. We don't have the advantages Homer had, and we have to adjust our techniques accordingly.

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  20. Re: "in media res"

    Oliver Twist starts with his birth. :)

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  21. Interesting stuff, thank you - I was mentally checking the list against my current book as I read. Pretty sure I'm not the only one doing that. @_@ But beginnings are rough, I've already rewritten mine once and I know I'll still have to do some heavy revising.

    Worth it in the end, though, if it gets people to read the rest of the story.

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  22. Great post!

    I think people should stop comparing their MS to a) books that were written decades ago and b) books by established authors.

    Established authors get away with much more than an author trying to "break in" to the biz. I've read books with outrageous dialogue tags, adverbs out the wazoo, and MCs waking up and describing the most beautiful, meaningless sunrise.

    There are rules for a reason, and of course, those rules can be broken, but unless you're pretty sure you're breaking them in a way that works, it might be smart to err on the side of caution. These ladies know their stuff and know what agents generally like and don't like.

    I've rewritten my beginning dozens of times and still, I think I landed myself on that list! lol Maybe next time I'll just start off with my MC being chased in an undisclosed location while she's having a flashback about pushing her grandmother down the stairs. :D

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  23. I'm one of those people who prefers a slower start. But when I write a story that way, my readers comment they find the beginning too slow. It's a tough balance.

    I've learned a lot by critiquing as many of the entries as possible on this and other blogs. Analyzing another writer's material, helps me learn what works and why it works.



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  24. I do agree that established authors can get away with much more than authors trying to break in. S true. Plus, very often the publishing industry seems to think that, once you're a best selling author, you can put out whatever crap you want, people will buy it anyway. Of course readers are much smarter than that. I also agree with MargotG : readers tend to say your beginning is slow, if you set the scene too much, for example. My first started with atmosphere, not action. Well, 3 agents (including one here on the SA contest, inn2010) praised the writing but told me it was too slow. Finally, I don't see why we shouldn't take the classics as our guide to be better writers. As much as I respect and trust this wonderful online community, I'm afraid I have more trust an respect for Oscar Wlde or Homer. Or Goethe. If people still read them and enjoy them after so long, there must be a reason. I seriously doubt that in 2000 years (or even 200) people will still read my books.

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  25. It's one thing to draw inspiration from the writers of old, it's another to try to emulate them.

    We write for all different reasons, but if our goal is to be published, we have to look at this as a business.

    I love the Iliad, but if I wrote something similar(as if I could), the only thing it would do is sit and collect dust. Oh, and prove how badass I am.

    To know what sells in today's market, I'd place my chips on Authoress and Jodi before I'd bet on Wilde or Homer. :) Just sayin...

    Tomorrow's the big day. Lots of luck to the adult subs!

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  26. Part of what's cool about being a regular reader to this blog and others that post contests is by reading so many first pages, you begin to develop an idea for what works and what doesn't. I remember tearing my first page apart to incorporate EVERYBODY'S feedback after I posted it to a conference's web forum. It was a hot mess because you can't please everyone. Also, as with any open-to-anyone website, sometimes you get bad advice. I think it just takes time and eventually skill to weed out what will never work for you and your story, and what is tangible advice that is helpful. Reading a mix of writing advice from books, conference materials etc. can kind of balance it out. Beginnings are tough, but it's also not everything. You could have a killer opening and lose steam after that. That's why these contests can provide direction and insight, but hopefully people understand they are not the end-all, be-all on writing. One page is a really small sample to judge from.

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  27. The best advice I ever received about beginnings - start on the day that is different, and include who, what, where, and when. Save the how, why, and what used to be for later.

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