Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Red Ink Blues, or, Revising Your Novel Without Pulling Your Hair Out, Part II

Found some great revision tips at Fiction Notes, author/teacher Darcy Pattison's helpful and informative site. Here you'll find advice for writing picture books as well as novels. Though she writes for kids, I think her comments about novel writing are useful to novelists in any genre.

Darcy Pattison is an Arkansas children’s book author and writing teacher. In 1999, she created the Novel Revision Retreat, which she now teaches across the nation. Translated into eight languages, her four picture books and one middle grade novel (listed below), have been recognized for excellence by starred reviews, Book of the Year awards, state award lists and more. She is the 2007 recipient of the Arkansas Governor’s Arts Award for Individual Artist for her work in children’s literature.

Today I'd like to talk about first chapters. Don't run away in fear, it'll be okay.

I tend not to stress about the novel opening until after the first draft is finished. In my mind, beginnings and endings are inherently connected. I like stories that come full circle, and love the sense of closure they provide.

Of course, as we all know, the opening is no place for backstory. And it's probably not the best place for setting a stage devoid of players. No dark and stormy nights, and no endless introspection. There are a number of DON'T's to consider for your opening, but what are some of the Do's?

Well, you could start by setting up a problem:
"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
~ The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Holy crap! Murdered? I'd say that's a problem. (OT, but FYI, AFAIK TLB is still being given away at OPWFT. NISM?)

Or raise a question:
"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
~The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis
What? What did he do to deserve it? Was he always a naughty child, or did he recently do something very bad? I must know!

Or introduce a WTF? moment.

“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”
~Geek Love
by Katherine Dunn
Uh, WTF? I'm going to keep reading to figure out exactly how the mother came to be a geek, and what that has to do with the title.

Of course, if these openings are just a way to hook the reader, and don't relate to the rest of the story, that's just as bad as a dull opening. Your first paragraph needs to have a seed of the larger problem in it somewhere, a sense of the greater plot that will be making everyone's lives miserable.

Fun, huh? ;)

Getting back to Darcy Pattinson's Fiction Notes tips, she suggests 4 Goals for a Novel's Opening that are somewhat similar to those listed above. In her article, partially quoted below, she discusses these goals in greater detail than I have. Hope this helps!

Opening Chapters of Novels MUST Accomplish

These Goals

Grab your readers attention. Something must grab the reader’s attention immediately. This can be an unusual use of language, a unique voice, a startling action, a bit of dialogue, an active description of setting (be careful on this one to keep it active!), or a mood that is set up. Get attention fast. You may only have three or four seconds before the reader closes your book and reaches for the next one.
Ground the reader in the setting. The reader needs to know immediately WHEN and WHERE the story is taking place. Please use specifics here: Is this 1825 or 1977? Are we in Manitoba, Canada, or one of the Florida Keys? Specific sensory details should cue the reader to the exact location, even if you don’t specifically say where we are in the first couple paragraphs.
Intrigue the reader with a character. Here’s a quick test of character. Read the first five pages of your manuscript, then stop. Turn over page five and on the back, write everything you know about your character, JUST FROM THOSE FIVE PAGES! Don’t cheat and throw in things you know as the author. It must be ON those five pages to count. If you can only list one or two things, revise. If you can list 8-10 things, you’re doing great! In between? Consider carefully if you might do even more to characterize better.
Give the reader a puzzle to solve. The plot, the events of the novel, should give the reader an immediate puzzle to solve, something to worry about, something to read on to find out what happens next. It must start on page one! Not page 3 and certainly not page 25.
Thanks, Darcy! Now I'd like to leave you with a classic explanation of how NOT to start your novel, broken down into fairly simple terms. Enjoy!

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