Tips on First Pages and Effective Author Readings

Last fall, I attended my second Boston book fest. I took a few notes, so I thought I would share them here.

Tips on effective author readings from Steve Almond, author of Rock 'n Roll Will Save Your Life:

1. Don't pretend the room’s not there. If something unexpected happens, it's okay to stop and react. That's why you're reading for an audience. If people are laughing at your jokes and you’re relieved that they did, say so. If you're nervous, it's okay to say that too. If there’s a lot of cussing in your manuscript and the audience looks uncomfortable, stop and say there's going to be a bit of adult content. Calling out awkwardness can help people relax.

2. Eye contact is overrated. A little bit of eye contact goes a long way. You mostly want everybody to be dreaming the same dream.

3. Check and vary your speed when reading. Slow down for the contours of the language and for important lines.

Tips on effective first pages from the Writer Idol session: For more details on Writer Idol, see my post from last year's session. My excerpt didn't get drawn this year, but my critique buddy Peta’s did, and she made it to the top four!

Tips from Caroline Zimmerman, Kneerim Williams Literary Agency:

1. The first page needs something for the reader to hold on to -- either a strong character, voice, or plot (some kind of conflict or question).

2.: A cliché beginning (waking up, etc.) is okay if you can highlight it with a different lens. Otherwise avoid day-to-day stuff.

3: Memoirs need to be something greater than you are. They have to illuminate something more than your life.

4: There's a difference between flowery language that doesn't serve the prose, versus beautiful writing that has meaning. Beautiful writing often has fewer words, not more.

Tips from Ann Collette, Rees Literary Agency

1. If you’re writing genre fiction, be very careful about overwriting. Commercial fiction readers are more interested in the story and don't want the writing to get in the way of it

2. Be careful if you start your novel off describing something mundane. Some authors like to write about a mundane character who changes and therefore spend a lot of time in the beginning elaborating on how boring the character is. Be aware that dwelling too much on something or someone who's boring can make your writing seem mundane.

Typing vs. Longhand: Does it Affect Your Writing?

Do you write longhand or on a computer? How does this affect your writing process? I ran across a study with interesting results.

The researchers wanted to know how computer writing differed from pen and paper writing. They recruited university faculty and graduate students to write two reports, one on a computer and one on pen and paper. The participants were given background information for the reports (about a new system of bank charges and new company regulations) two days beforehand. When they came in for the experiment, they had three hours to write each report, and the researchers used keystroke tracking and video cameras to record their progress.

Ebooks and A New Publishing Model

"Our novelettes are the result of a need that the print market cannot satisfy: e-books create a new market for relatively short fiction. I've always liked this form of fiction because it's more difficult than novels. It's a great challenge for a writer. Novels can have pauses, faults: a long story wins by points. A novelette, as Julio Cortazar wrote, needs to win by knock-out.

Our essays, relatively short and strongly focused, are a solution for another functional limit of paper. With digital books you don't need to fill hundreds of pages with the same concept, and you can better filter the information you give to your readers. It's a matter of value: you can transmit a strong concept while requiring a lower investment from the readers in terms of reading time. Time is always valuable—in many cases, more valuable than the price. Nobody can read everything; we have to choose. So if you can explain a complex concept while requiring a manageable time investment, it's a very good thing."

I'm fascinated by the digitization of publishing -- how it affects not just the distribution of content, but the actual form of the content itself. I recently had a chat with Giuseppe Granieri, editorial director of 40 K Books, about new publishing models. To read the entire interview, see my guest post at Jane Friedman's blog There Are No Rules.

The Blogification of Writing Tips

Note:  Congratulations to Bill for winning the copy of Feels Like Home. I will be contacting you for your information.

It's normal day. You’re wasting time online when you see an article “10 Clichés Your YA Dystopian Alien Pirate Story Should Never Have.” Funny, that‘s exactly what you’re working on! You read the article with bated breath and sigh with relief that you don't have any of those clichés...

Except maybe for cliché #5? “A pink alien who sings karaoke.” Your alien is blue, so does that count as a cliché? You spend the whole afternoon e-mailing your critique group about the post. In the end you're still not sure, but decide to make the alien play the drums instead, just in case.

I love the writing blogosphere. In the year and a half I've been blogging, I've grown both in craft and industry smarts. But I guess I'm entering my terrible twos, where I start skipping naps and refusing to eat my vegetables. More specificially, I've started thinking about the downsides of writing blogs.

There’s a specific writing style for online media. People skim online content, so you make your articles short and to the point. Bolded text is good, bulleted takeaways and numbered lists even better.

All well and good. Content should be crafted for your medium. But what happens when we apply this to writing advice? We end up with pithy, clever, retweetable tips that we skim and pass to all our writer friends: Five Ways to Make Your Characters Pop, Seven Reasons Literary Agents Stop Reading Your First Page, What Is a Hook and How to Have One.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. But I wonder sometimes if there's a danger to so many simplified articles that don't acknowledge the subtleties behind the tips. For one extreme example, Patricia Wrede wrote a while back about taking the “start with a hook” advice out of context.

One of the classic bad examples of a hook-gone-wrong was the slushpile story that opened “Blood spurted!” then dropped into a flashback for several paragraphs, a combination that made it look like the opening of a horror novel…only to reveal on the second page that the viewpoint character had just cut himself shaving, and move from there into a piece of contemporary realism. Making a story look like something it isn’t is not a good way to hook either readers or editors; it is more likely to earn the writer a reputation for being untrustworthy and/or not worth reading. (Read the rest of article)

It's often said that you need to understand a writing rule before you break it.  But given this example, looks like you also need to understand the rule before you even follow it.

In addition, all rules have exceptions. People come up with writing advice by studying pieces of writing and drawing generalizations. The resulting tipsdescribe trends, not commands, but it's sometimes hard to convey that in a five-point list.

I wonder if there’s something about tweeting, re-tweeting, skimming, and sharing that makes it easier to forget all the subtleties behind the advice presented. The risk is that we internalize sound-bytes like “avoid cliché beginnings, “dialogue tags suck,” “and don't use adverbs.” In the meantime, we forget that The Graveyard Book headhops between points of view, The Hunger Games and Newberry Honor Book Princess Academy start with a character getting out of bed, international bestseller Pillars of the Earth starts with a prologue, and Harry Potter contains a whole lot of adverbs.

So that's it folks.  Writing blogs do more harm than good. I hereby announce my retirement from the blogosphere. It was fun while it lasted. Send me an e-mail once in a while to see how things are going.

Um, right. Don't think I fooled anyone there. No, I still likewriting blogs. And hopefully, we all are critical thinkers who can look beyond a single blog post or bullet point.

What do you say folks? Am I overthinking this?

P.S. While I was writing this, I noticed that Simon Larter had a nice post taking an alternate view on novel beginnings. Go check it out.

Build Strong Characters by Having Them Act Out of Character

Prizefighter en Mi Casa

Note: The English version of From Words to Brain is now available for $3.99 from Amazon. It used to be $5.20 (the dollar equivalent for the European price of 3.90 Euros), but my publisher has decided to set dollar prices independently so US customers aren't penalized by the weak dollar. See what kind of interesting issues arise when you sell ebooks internationally?

I've talked before about using first impressions to build strong characters. Suzanne Collins does an excellent job of this in The Hunger Games.

While first impressions are useful, there is a risk of creating two-dimensional characters if you stick only to the first impression. Nobody behaves the same way all the time. Sometimes having a character act completely opposite to a reader’s initial impression can create powerful dramatic effect. I found some great examples of this in Prizefighter en Mi Casa by EE Charlton-Trujillo. (Some spoilers to follow)

The book tells the story of Chula Sanchez, a 12-year-old Mexican girl in a South Texas town. Chula's big brother Richie is a jerk. He makes fun of her and ditches her on the way to school. When another girl beats Chula up in a cafeteria fight, Richie just looks on and shakes his head in disappointment.

But later, Chula and Richie find themselves running from the police. They get to a fence and Richie climbs over, but Chula is too scared. Instead of running away, Ritchie climbs back to help Chula. She escapes, but Richie doesn't make it over in time and gets arrested. It's a very powerful moment, when the older brother who’s been mean to Chula up to this point makes such a big sacrifice.

Charlton-Trujillo takes a similar approach with El Jefe, a prizefighter that comes to live with Chula's family. He's a frightening man -- enormous, strong, with one missing eye. Chula is terrified of him. But then she sees him comfort a disabled man. El Jefe holds the man’s hand as he cries and later prays over the man’s door with a gentleness that goes completely counter to his frightening appearance.

Of course, it won't work to have characters acting counter to a reader’s initial impression just for the heck of it. That would seem contrived. But when you're building your characters, you may want to ask the following questions.

1. What kind of first impression does does the character create? How would casual acquaintances describe him?

2. What type of circumstance would make him act contrary to that first impression? If he is normally even-tempered, what would make him blow up? If he usually loves people, in what circumstance would he withdraw?

The answers may bring both you and your readers closer to that character.

Can you think of any characters that convincingly display behaviors on opposite ends of a spectrum?