Thrown Out For Eating Cookies
Okay, now we come to probably the final top-down session of this very short workshop – if you have any ideas on future workshops, let me know. Plotting? Characters? That is, if I haven’t bored you to death. I’ll be taking a break from these for a few weeks while I finish a couple of books, but I can be back after the school year ends.
Today’s lesson is going to seem odd, but here it is – remember how in the bad old days (and today for those of you trying to break in to traditional) you were told the manuscript had to be absolutely flawless? In a story that covered maybe 475 printed pages, they’d tell you that you couldn’t have a single typo, a single comma out of place, a single misused word. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t tell you that you had to walk on water. As we all know, they DID expect you to convert unpushed midlist books into instant bestsellers, which in the days of push and publisher control over shelf space might have been more difficult than water into wine.
Publishers themselves didn’t believe this, of course. (If they did, newbies would never be assigned copy-editors.) I know why they said it too. It kept the writers going back and fixing their typos, instead of sending them hate mail. Having worked as a small press publisher for a while, I have to say they were probably right at that. I remember the “gifted” guy who found our unlisted phone number and called to ask why we hadn’t bought his story yet – before it arrived. And that was one of the milder ones.
However, there was some truth to what they said and a truth that carries over to the present way of doing business.
You can have typos in your book – I have a friend who is an editor-extraordinaire and who edits my books when his time/my money meet up and he says no matter how many times/people you have going over my book, two or three typos will always escape. – in fact, all of us find them in traditionally published books.
What you can’t have is typos in the first five pages, PARTICULARLY when going indie. Why? Because the first five pages, particularly for a book that’s clearly self-published, is when you convince me/entice me into believing you’re every bit as good as the traditionals, perhaps better. You have to convince me you’re professional, fully in charge of your authorial voice, no slips, no nonsense.
Now, if you’re saying “That’s not just a matter of typos, Sarah” you’ll be absolutely right. (And voice is more than that, too. Voice is something I’m still working on – since Dave Weber [I think inadvertently] gave me a clue to what it was and how to improve it on a panel at Constellation [ I think] five years ago. It is a work in progress and sometimes I hit, sometimes I miss, but if you want a workshop on that too, I can try to share what I’ve learned. I was published for years though when my voice was largely accidental.] Clearly it’s not a sine qua non of selling, since I was selling pretty well long before.
BUT there is, as it were, a magical touch to those first five pages (after which you can relax a little, just don’t go to pieces. But once hooked, the reader will stick around for a while.)
I call it the dance. You bring all your elements in on time: setting, character, problem, (or problem and character), and inciting incident or the beginning of it, all join the dance on time, with the right rhythm. (Kind of like the add for a puppy on craigslist that said the dog would warm up to you after a minuet 😉 )
If you manage that – and I’ve been trying to give you clues to it (and hopefully managed it) – you have a reader for pretty much the rest of the book.
BUT even if you slip up on that one, you can still hook the reader given one of those being strong enough (strong first line, strong character, strong setting) AND – THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART – your not throwing the reader out of the story.
You’re now blinking at the screen and going “but Sarah, I never want to throw the reader out of the story.” Right. I know you don’t. Which is why I’m going to explain the things that throw me out of a story, usually on the first page.
1 – You never let the reader in. – > this usually means you gave me way too little of one of the necessary elements, and in this case usually setting or character, but sometimes problem, too.
Remedy: Make sure you’re not incredibly vague about one or more of these. Your problem, please remember, must be something concrete that we can visualize fixing. (The bigger problem can come in later.) Yes, your character can wish to bring about world peace, but if that’s what’s in her mind in the first five pages, she BEST be a Miss America contestant. To quote Dwight Swain “Make sure what your character wants in the scene is something that can be touched or held or seen right there” – so, an embrace, not ever lasting love; a nice desert, not a balanced diet; to stop that argument that’s giving them a headache, not world peace.
2 –> Your first line, instead of being pithy or hooky is impenetrable. And your second and third lines are the same.
Remedy: There is a time to play with the reader’s mind. Look, I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. Sometimes I fall in love with the way I phrase something. In Thirst for years I had a line that went, “I pushed away his hand, the cup it held” – part of it was that the character is not feeling well, and his sensory impressions are disjointed. So I thought that was great. HOWEVER every first-read and every copyeditor who went over that manuscript flagged that line as “uh?” And reading it after ten years, in a paragraph of otherwise smooth prose, it jarred me out. I changed it to “I pushed away the cup” and the paragraph went much smoother. Yeah, it wasn’t as “clever” and didn’t reflect sensory confusion. On the other hand, does the reader need to be beat over the head with how smart and artistic I can be? Um… no. Most readers don’t care. They just want the story. And while it’s fine to hit them with verbal fireworks now and then, do try to keep them to a minimum and make sure they’re not something that sounds/looks like you just don’t know the language. Also, do try to make sure you’re not going “Oooh, look how many sentences I can write without letting you have an idea what I’m talking about.” Even in the more literary SF/F magazines, you can only do that if you already have a name. Otherwise – again – the reader assumes you’re not doing it because you can’t, not because you’re so sharp you cut yourself.
3 – Don’t push-pull the reader. Don’t start by giving me signals in the first line that this is a romance story, then in the second line hit me with techno-dystopia with no humans. Don’t have your character appear heroic and lovable the first half page, then show him casually munching on a baby for breakfast. Don’t start by describing a marsh, then tell me the landscape is parched. Don’t start with the character’s massive health issue, then cut to his office mates discussing the football poll. This can be visualized, sort of, as your sitting down to watch a movie and after the big screen pan that focuses on a British country house, you’re going “ooh. Regency” and then it pans to the squirrel in the grass and you go “ooh. Comedy.” And then it focuses on a plane in the sky. And then it shows skyscrapers in NYC – all of this without explanation or music to ease/explain the transitions. By this time you’re going “Uh?” And if it keeps up WAY past the credit sequence and the first ten minutes of the book (kind of like the first five pages of the manuscript) you’re going to turn off the TV and go clean litterboxes, right?
In defense of writers who do this, it is very hard to prevent against if you are completely immersed in your story. (My first-created world, which if it ever sees the light of day will be under a DEEP pen name, by book 8 I was so immersed in the world that it seemed perfectly logical to make each of the chapters from a different POV – one not before introduced in the book. While the first few pages were flawless, I guarantee by chapter five the editors were jumping up and down on that thing. And I have the eight page, hand written, coffee-spattered rejections to prove it. They call me everything but a loving daughter. And no, I had NO clue why.) Also, if you’re a pantser and you’re not yet sure what the story is about. The feeling it gives is that the writer is either smirking at the reader and/or making fun of him or a complete incompetent. In either case, you won’t keep readers that way.
Remedy – part of it is that “don’t be so smart you cut yourself.” The other part…
If your problem really is in the first five pages, and you aren’t giving a coherent enough intro to pull the reader in (I’ve both mentored and read for small press. 9 out of 10 rejections are because of this. Even when I love the fledgling I’m trying to give a chance in my magazine or something, if my mind keeps not staying on the page, I’ve learned to look for the tells I’m being push-pulled) it’s going to require line-by-line. If you are capable of dissociating your mind enough to pretend this isn’t yours and you’re reading it for the first time (a skill I recommend you cultivate) try to visualize what’s happening and how you’re being clued to the story. See if it loses you somewhere. If you can’t dissociate yet, then find someone who will be brutally honest and tell you every time you either contradict yourself or introduce non sequitors in those first five pages. Ditto if your problem is that you’re a pantser and when you wrote this you had no idea what the story was about. Go back after you finish the story and know what it’s about and clean up that beginning, line by line. Eliminate the parts where you were groping for story and have characters that never show up again, etc.
If your problem is that you know the world so well you don’t realize how incongruous you’re being, I recommend careful reading for elements that break or interrupt the tension and which are NOT in fact needed for the story, or not at that point. An example of this, in what I call “the world’s worst book” (and it probably isn’t) is where the character stops in the middle of a very tense negotiation with a slaver, to be insulted by an alien who passes by at random (and whose species doesn’t appear again in the book) and to explain that every alien species swears in English.
If your problem is that you’re trying to be fiendishly clever, such as by making every other line a flash back, please realize that it feels like you’re playing keep-away with the reader and unless you’re in fact a master/mistress of writing such as would make Shakespeare kiss your feet, this might fall flat on your face. Ask yourself – do you want to be thought a genius, or do you want to sell? Then proceed accordingly.
Beware the infodumpus – those first five pages, where you’re hooking us in are NOT the place to tell us how the world was funded by cannibals who promised a human in every stew pot, but then the missionaries came, then there was the war with the nearby people who ate missionaries, and then there was the great war of 2098 when the great leader Gnor slayed the insect people, and then… Keep it to the minimal info we must have to understand what’s happening JUST THEN. Save the history lesson for later. You’ll find that what we need to follow an immediate situation is far less than you thought. Running for your life is running for your life, whether the people trying to get you want you for the stew pot or to kill you and bury you, and whether the situation has centuries-old roots or results from your biting your thumb at their leader is immaterial to the pursuit. You can drop slight (few words) hints, usually in the description of the pursuers (“They were heavy and muscular, raised on human flesh.”) without stopping the action. The explanation can come as the character settles high up in a tree, trying to go to sleep without falling, okay?
Beware of too much spareness – it might seem to you that starting with, say, just voices, or just flashes of what the character sees reflects the situation best. Please step back and realize it looks just like any other talking head or disjointed beginning. Then fix accordingly.
Homework – if you have an old story beginning sitting around, go back and optimize it. Then send me both versions of the first two/three paragraphs.
Next week – send me questions – preferably to email in advance of the workshop and I’ll try to answer them.
Your critiques – will trickle in during the day. Trust me on this, you don’t want my last two weeks. I had blocked out yesterday to go over your material again, make sure I didn’t miss anything important, and draft answers… And then the brakes went out on our car. We were incredibly lucky in that we were going slow AND there was an auto repair shop RIGHT there on our right, but still it ate the afternoon and left me unable to work. So… Critiques will trickle out one by one. Be patient. Otherwise, what you’ll get is something like “I think your green alien was over the top” when your story is about nightclub dancers in the twenties.