Thursday, September 15, 2011


I returned from the CO Gold Conference on Sunday with a head full of inspiration and a heart filled with gratitude for our amazing Colorado writing community.

One of several workshops I attended stood out because it addressed head-on a difficulty I’ve been having with the beginning of my book. Sara Megibow (from the Nelson Literary Agency) taught a workshop entitled:

Bang! Zoom! Pow! Those First 30 Pages and Why They are so Important and How to Make Them POP.

I’ve been to many similarly titled workshops and have found most impart the same information. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to have it all reinforced again -- especially in light of the feedback I’ve been receiving about my book, Mu Shu Mac-N-Cheese. It works extremely well except the very beginning.

My query letter is effective; I’m usually asked to send full manuscripts. My voice, I’m told, is courageous and works well with the characters and storyline. I’ve even been told by agents that it is a marketable, commercial novel. So what about the beginning is holding it back from earning representation in this tough market?

I have a lot in my first chapter, clearly too much. Mario Puzo got away with it, and one agent suggested I study the beginning of The Godfather. Puzo detailed the back-story of the various characters who sought the aid of the powerful Godfather. The lesson seemed to be that I needed to give the reader more to latch onto about the motivation of the few characters I introduce in the beginning of the book. I was also advised that my voice was so strong that it “overwhelmed the narrative.” That was more difficult to decipher. My critique groups helped me interpret this. I have a rather unusual way with language sometimes. Maybe it is the poet in me. Maybe it is my twisted sense of metaphor. Maybe I try too hard to have an atypical approach to word play. I think it is all of the above.

Back to Sara’s helpful advice. She explained four things that automatically earn rejections from their agency.
1) Data dump
2) Work not written with genre requirements
3) Awkward dialogue
4) Weak character or voice

Great advice. But none of these seemed to address the dissatisfaction over MY beginning. I’d pretty much pounded out the above common problems working over the years with my critique partners and taking a long detour writing screenplays.

Then Sara talked about what makes a beginning POP. First:


She emphasized that the inciting incident shouldn’t be in a prologue, and, in fact, “mainstream fiction shouldn’t even have a prologue.” My book is mainstream women’s fiction and the story takes place twenty years after my Midwest-raised protagonist marries into a traditional and dominating Chinese family. In the PROLOGUE, my protagonist meets her future husband on the dance floor, beginning the dance of their marriage. It’s only one page long. One page. One page! ONE page!!! It sets up the marriage! Right?

It seems I’ve started my book with one of those gnarly, dreaded darlings. And that I should work the information in, as needed, later in the book. Ironically, I taught a workshop at the conference about back-story in its various forms and specifically about writing flashbacks. I warned against flashbacks that come too early. Guess I’ll have to review my own notes.

Chop off my prologue, and luckily I still have a strong inciting incident. That is not the problem. Sara’s last observation about beginnings that POP was less straight forward than items of craft and as elusive as voice.


We’ve all experienced it. We open a book and force our way through the first few pages, slogging along, debating whether or not to take more of our precious time to unravel a tangle of too many ideas, dense prose, flowery overkill, or a mess of complicated sentences. Hers was not a surprising suggestion. But somehow, the way she stated it became an aha moment for me. I and my critique partners know my book so well that we don’t recognize the introduction of too many conflicts, each on the heel of the other, and the story promise with too many angles. The morass of too-tight writing.

I cared too much about getting it right, about dragging the reader in with so many questions to be answered, and not one spare word. I’ve over edited the beginning of Mu Shu Mac-N-Cheese to the point of being dense compared to the rest of the book that manages to breathe. It wouldn’t be too far off to call the beginning constipated while the rest is…well… smooth moving.

I now have a plan of attack. Not an easy plan, especially for this freelance editor who usually deals with tightening chubby prose. But what in a writing career is easy? I am going to make my entire book breathe.

Make it an effortless read.

Thank you Sara.

From the InkPot


  1. I was so sorry to miss that one, but your wrap up helps alot. Thanks Karen. I have no doubt that Mu Shu Mac-N-Cheese will be picked up very soon.

  2. Thank you Julie. I have to get past my fear of not doing it justice. I need to just fix it and worry over it later.

  3. You can do it, Inky! We have faith in ya! Wishing you the best in your rework!

    Mmmmm...mac n cheese...hungry again....

  4. Those dratted first chapters! Like the perfect dinner party, so many elements need to come together--the food, the atmosphere, the party guests--and it all has to appear effortless! You throw wonderful parties so I've no doubt you can write the perfectly balanced first chapter.

  5. Thanks for that recap Karen. It's hard to see problems in your own work. Glad to hear you found the fix. And thanks again for the mention of my pitching workshop in your pitching workshop. You're a generous woman. Sure appreciate that about you.

  6. Fascinating to read your fresh take on first pages and the pitfalls for seasoned writers. Thanks, Karen, and your blog posts are so lively and well written that I'm eager to read your books!

  7. I wanted to attend this workshop but couldn't work it into my schedule. Thanks for this great summary. I may have to make one more pass at that first 30 pages before I send it off. :)

  8. Such common sense, so hard to execute. Thanks for sharing your challenges with us and the invaluable advice from the conference presenter. Back to the first 30 pages.

  9. Sara's spiel was definitely enlightening. Between her and Margie Lawson I've spent the last 4 days revising and reworking my opening pages as well. (I'll be moving on to the rest of the book soon!)

    Glad you go your ah-ha! Those rare flashes are what bring me back to the page when I'm discouraged or doubting!

    Can't wait to see Mu-Shu Mac-N-Cheese on the shelves soon!

  10. Inkpot, this was very helpful--thank you! Now working on effortlessness...

    Storm Petrel

  11. Oh, yes, i attended this one and it was awesome. I got a lot out of it and will be going over & revising the beginning pages of MYSTIC TAXI to make sure i hit all key points. Thanks, Karen, for sharing how this great workshop worked for you.

  12. Great to hear about these wonderful tips...and how even pros like you have to rewrite, reexamine, revise.

  13. Ironically, Sara Megibow's workshop made me see that the first draft of my novel's Chapter One (written in omniscient POV) was much more consistent with what major publishing houses want from a first chapter than my newer "first person" version.

    The reason why: My first draft was an "action" scene directly showing the inciting incident happening to the protagonist. My later version started with the antagonist's POV "reaction" to the incident. The key here is that action is preferred to reaction, even if the reaction is immediate. A relatively easy fix here is to rewrite the original Ch. One in first person, then move the antagonist's POV reaction to Ch. Two.

  14. Karen, thanks for posting this, and even more for posting it to the PPW list. I recently taught a 3-hour seminar entitled "Writing Great Beginnings." This is an excellent addendum to that seminar, so I immediately sent an email to my Writing the World (WTW) list (about 200 folks) to recommend this post and the Sisters of the Quill blog. I've also added it to my Blogroll, a position populated by very few. Thanks again.