Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Elements of successful novels: the first two pages

I've just returned from two glorious weeks at the University of Iowa Writing Festival in Iowa City. It's always a little like drinking through a fire hose; as usual a great deal of useful information on writing was exchanged. I have a fun and useful tip to share.

We all know the first few pages are crucial to keep the agent or editor reading, so I signed up for the week-long course, "Beginning the Novel." The tone of the workshops tends to be literary rather than commercial, so our wonderful workshop professor, Gordon Mennenga of Coe College, apologized for coming dangerously close to being formulaic before sharing this. He'd gone into a bookstore, the classic Prairie Lights (Iowa City's Tattered Cover), and picked up all of the bestselling and otherwise successful novels of the past year or two. Each of them had all of the following on the first two pages (brace yourself!):

a sentence containing three commas

a one-word sentence


food (the universal ritual)

body fluid--sweat, blood, tears, urine

reference to sex or death

something sinful or painful

a color

a physical feature

a personality trait

question mark

mention of nature

anything with a brand name


body part or parts


metaphor, each of which saves five pages of description

city, state or street


He had us go through our first two pages and check off how many of these we had included. Most of us had two or three; one of us had ten or so (way to go Alan!). As far as evoking sensations in the reader, we realized we were writing at about 1/10 power. You might enjoy going through your first two pages and seeing how many you instinctively included...and then add the rest! You can always take them out again if it feels too much, or too contrived, but it's a useful exercise in writing vividly with all the senses.

Happy writing.

Storm Petrel

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Point of View - Rules and Breaking the Rules

Point of View is a tricky thing. The popularity of each approach varies over time. 1st person (especially in Young Adult books) and deep 3rd person have the benefits of connecting directly to the reader and drawing on empathy early to maintain that sense of personal-stakes-in-the-conflict (when done well with a fascinating character). In the current reading climate I vote for a novel limited to one POV in a scene, if not chapter, if not entire book.

In my own books, I've mixed it up. I've used a single 3rd person POV in an entire book, 3rd person alternating (every other chapter) between two characters, and a more complicated method of three POVs - two of them 3rd person protagonists and one 1st person serial killer.

I tend to have a personal theme running through my books that is essentially: "The bad guy is a misunderstood good guy." That requires that I paint skin-crawling, dangerous bad guys that have motivations that can be understood and even sympathetic to the good guy and reader by the end. This is particularly tough to pull off with a character that kills, but being deep inside the antagonist and slowly revealing the cause of his/her behavior is easier to pull off using very deep 3rd person or 1st person. It is a challenge, for sure, the reason I didn't attempt it until my forth book.

If we decide to change Points of View within a scene, each change in POV needs to be handled so deftly that it is a huge challenge (or more simply handled with a drop down as a signal) Rarely can a writer pull off abrupt changes in POV with no signal.

Omniscent is still used, as is 2nd person and present and future tense; but they often fall into the experimental category now rather than popular fiction. I frequently catch slips of POV in popular fiction, but in the context of deep 3rd person POV it is often ignored, forgiven, or missed by readers (unless they are also writers or editors who are trained to flag the slips - you should see me putting sticky notes into novels - sometimes it is a curse to be an editor) It isn't a cardinal sin, just head-bouncing if done frequently. And editors give less leeway to new writers - thus my seeming obsession over it.

In the spirit of "exceptions proving rules," if you'd like to see every writing guideline broken in an amazing, magnetic and shocking way, capturing even the Pulitzer Prize, take a luxury dip into TINKERS by Paul Harding. If I tried my entire life, I couldn't do what he did. I believe devoted writers, on the other hand, could do something off the beaten track after 100% mastering the more accessible POVs. A strong writing voice would carry the reader over the waves of atypical craft - not because it is easy to read, but because it is poetry to the heart. TINKERS may have still worked and had a wider readership if Harding had stayed within today's expectations. We can't know for sure.

Do you have any favorite books that break POV "rules" successfully?

I'd love to hear about them - Inkpot

Friday, July 1, 2011

Reflections on Time (Spent Writing)

I’ve spent thousands of hours writing, perhaps even tens of thousands of hours, and the very magnitude of that number made me pause to consider how I might otherwise have spent that time. My house might be less dusty, though I should emphasize “might” since I dislike housecleaning and avoid it as much as is possible. I would definitely have read more books, many, many more books, and my garden would be much larger. What else? Ah yes, I would have taken more classes…

Despite working full-time I used to regularly register for classes to study all sorts of things: how to ride a motorcycle, throw and fire clay pottery, knitting, beginning ballet, and though raised in Colorado, rock-climbing and mountaineering. I climbed two dozen Fourteeners, some dangerous, some not. In the midst of all that I also decided to write a novel, high-fantasy, no less. I completed that first draft oh so many years ago, and back to Lifelong Learning I went to learn how to get published.

How to get published; now there’s a challenge. Semi-annual writer’s conferences soon usurped Lifelong Learning classes and critique meetings decorated my calendar. Writing, writing, writing and new, cherished friends. And so the years passed.

Would I have ever met such dear friends, my sisters and brothers of the quill, without penning that first manuscript and attending that class? The odds are poor and quite sad to contemplate.

What of that book on the shelf, with my name on the spine? And soon there will be another, penned with my dear husband. Oh my. Yes, oh my.

Writing books. All those hours of anguish and hope, of deliberation and delight. All those words. All those worlds.

Time well spent, don’t you think?

~ Folio