Months ago, my fourteen-year-old son saw the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy II, and insisted we see it in the theater. We all liked the original movie and the trailer looked good, so on a cloudy, not-too-promising Saturday morning, we planned it as a family outing. By the time we arrived at the theater, my son, my daughter and I were still excited, but my husband looked up at the now-clear sky and said, “If I’d known, I’d have planned a hike.” This was prescient of further differences of opinion.
The movie started out strong, with well-loved characters fighting off an enormous and seemingly invincible alien. The plot moved swiftly, with all the dashing, diving and blasting you’d expect from a science fiction blockbuster. And then, after the first plot point in the story structure was hit, things slowed down for character development. This slowdown was the source of the diverging opinions.
The first movie in franchise, fans among you know, had five beloved characters: Peter, an adventurer who lost his mother to cancer when he was young and has never known his father, Gamora, raised to be the perfect weapon by the antagonist of the first movie, Drax, who lost his entire family to that antagonist, Rocket, a genetically engineered racoon who has never known any more family than Groot, the sentient tree who is his constant companion. To these characters, GOTG II adds Gamora’s sister, Nebula, and Yondu, bandit and father-figure to Peter.
If you are not a GOTG fan, you may have found yourself skimming through that long list of characters, so imagine what happens when the script writers slow down the sci fi special effects and bad-guy bashing to explore the wounds of each of these characters. All seven. In most cases, the characters are paired off so that their wounds could be explored in duos as opposed to seven separate scenes. Still, by the second of these scenes, I leaned over to my husband to whisper, “and now we will pause for character development so that at the end of the movie, we’re satisfied everyone’s issue has been resolved.”
I’m revising manuscript number five of my not-yet-illustrious writing career. The story is complete, has been read one critique partner and revised, and is ready to go to beta readers. This story has heists, fight scenes and even kissing (new for me since my prior stories were middle grade), and I’m very excited about it. I dream of agents begging me for this manuscript…if they get past the first five pages.
The story’s good, but the start…meh.
With past manuscripts, I’ve polished my first pages. Changed my start from the bus on the way to summer camp (which apparently rates as low as waking up in bed for interest level), to something more active. But I wasn’t looking for small improvements here. I’d really like manuscript five to be “the one,” so I pulled out all the stops on rethinking my first pages. I don’t want okay first pages. I’d settle for good, but not before trying for great.
Can I get to great?
Not sure. I hope so. (The gremlins are whispering probably not even as I write this). But I thought I’d share what I learned by trying.
What had me worried about my opening pages? Critique partners said they were “really close” but not quite there. I tried:
starting just before my main character’s life changed (two different ways),
just after her life changed,
a flash forward to near the climax for the “How did I get here?” effect,
a flashback to the incident that set the chain of events in motion,
the first confrontation with the bully, and
the first confrontation with the other main character/love interest.
I was pretty desperate for a set of first pages that would draw cries of “YES! THIS!” from critique partners and propel the reader into the manuscript. But kept getting the same very kind, sympathetic response. “Really close.”
What did I do wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that some of my starts were destined to fail.
“No action,” said the critique partners.
“Scene 1 is too disconnected to scene 2.”
“What does this scene have to do with the story you pitched in your query?”
I felt in my gut that there was a set of great first pages for this story out there somewhere. There was this one scene, the scene the 2nd or 3rd in the manuscript depending on which first chapter option I was trying at the time, that worked. Critique partners said, “Things really started happening here.” I knew if I could just introduce the main character enough to set up this scene, that I could pull the reader in. But what words would do that, without getting my query slotted into the form reject pile before an agent ever got to that great scene?
I complained to the Pennies, because that’s why you have a writing group, so someone can pat you on the shoulder when you need it, and I found out something interesting. Julie Artz, whose lovely, heartfelt middle grade story I’d read months before, said she’d been through five versions of her first chapter. In fact, each of the first four chapters of her story had at one point been her first chapter. What? I felt like slightly less of a loser for sweating version after version of my first pages after that. Tara Lundmark, who I met at WriteOnCon when looking for more feedback on my pages, said she’d written ten different first pages for one of her stories. Armed with this knowledge, I dropped the angst and decided to just give in to as many rewrites as it took to get it right.
At this point, I’ve written 8 different versions of the start of my story, as well as polishing several versions, including the one currently titled “Chapter 1” in Scrivener. This is what I learned through the process of trying to make the start of my story unputdownable.
1. Don’t Fall in Love with One Set of First Pages.
I was stuck on Version 1 of my first pages for hours even after being told by trusted CP’s they weren’t right. I was stuck on Verion 2 for weeks. I loved the setting and how those pages developed my character. Allowing myself to get stuck on that idea blocked other ideas for how to start the story from flowing. Once I decided to not settle for meh, the ideas flooded in, as demonstrated by the fact that I ended up with 8 different starts. And, really, what’s the harm of trying something different? I wasn’t going to delete those words I loved, just tuck them out of the way. I could always go back to them if my new start wasn’t better.
2. Look to Master Books for Ideas.
Okay, admit it, you laughed at that flashback start. Everyone knows not to start with flashbacks. Except when they work. I was pulling ideas from master books. Both Harry Potter and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo start years earlier in their main characters’ lives. The idea for trying a flash forward came from Twilight and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Flashbacks and flash forwards can be done well, just not by me, at least not for this manuscript. But turning to master texts for ideas is great prep for brainstorming the start of your story.
3. Get Fresh Eyes.
I am blessed with wonderful critique partners who love me even when my words aren’t working. My closest critique partners had been hacking at this story idea with me from the idea stage, seven months before I hit my first pages wall. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t the only one too close to the story to see the pages clearly, they were too. That was stressful! Who do you turn to when that happens?
I found a couple great options: Adventures in YA Publishing holds a monthly first five pages workshop that is fabulous. (We also host our 4 on 400 contest monthly, but I can’t sub to that one!) WriteOnCon hosts an online writing conference with forums for posting your work and exchanging critiques with other writers. If all else fails, you can find a new critique partner. Someone I met on the WriteOnCon Forums asked if I wanted to exchange chapters, and since we’d already critiqued each others’ first five page and her comments were helpful, it was an easy decision. Just what I needed! A new reader who knew nothing about my story and had no worries about disappointing me.
4. Remember that Your First Pages Aren’t Your Only Pages.
I was jealous of Gita Trelease’s gorgeous first pages. They’d been right from soooo early in her revision process. Then, I was reminded that she was sweating her climax. The grass may look greener over by your critique partner’s writing desk, but there are weeds in everyone’s lawn.
Also, eventually you need to let those first pages rest so you can fix up the all the other pages in your manuscript. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there for you to take another look at later.
So, after writing 8 versions of my first pages, workshopping at Adventures in YA Publishing and WriteOnCon, and polishing the final pick, are my first pages unputdownable? Sigh. No. But they’re pretty good. Good enough that I’m going to take my own advice and move onto revising the rest of the story.
Maybe version 9 of my first pages will come to me while I revise.
Or maybe I’ll figure out how to polish this version until it’s unputdownable.
DON’T STOP HERE! If you made it through this post, I bet you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’ve written some first pages and have something to say on this topic. HOW MANY VERSIONS OF FIRST PAGES DID YOU WRITE FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS? WHAT HELPED YOU FIND THE RIGHT START FOR YOUR STORY? I’m no expert! Let’s learn together. Leave comments below!
REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and writes for The Winged Pen here.
When was the last time you did wrote just for fun? I have to admit I haven’t for a long time. It’s hard to squeeze writing time in around the rest of life, so when I get it, I feel pressure to be productive: write the next chapter, deepen a character arc, start on revisions. Something needs to get checked off the list.
So when I saw that Jo Knowles was leading two workshops at the New England SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference, I let out a SQUEE, put the workshop on creating memorable characters down as a must-have, and eyed suspiciously her second one titled Improv for Writers: Reinventing Your Approach to Writing “Just for Fun.” Jo writes “feel all the feels” books, like See You at Harry’s and Read Between the Lines, so part of me wanted to take the workshop, whatever it was. Another part of me wasn’t sure. I signed up anyway.
This was a Sunday afternoon workshop, the last time slot in a three-day conference. I was exhausted and my mind buzzed with overstimulation, so I couldn’t imagine being able to sit and focus on writing. But Jo, over two hours, challenged us with writing prompts on settings, characters and conflict, pushing us deeper as we transitioned from one topic to the next. She asked for volunteers to read their pieces, all words dashed off in five minutes or ten, and always found something special to highlight.
Two things struck me about “writing for fun.” First, it was easy. I’d been entirely prepared to forgive myself for not coming up with much from the workshop except for brilliant insights collected from Jo. But spending just a few brief minutes envisioning a character or a setting let me take them farther than I would have imagined. I realized that this would be a great exercise for getting to know settings or characters when I got ready to draft a new story. Thinking about them freely before they needed to be fit carefully into a scene could make them deeper and more real.
Second, I realized everyone in the room was very inspired by the exercise. By just the act of writing for fun, writing something that they may never use in a project. Jo always had several volunteers willing to share their response. At the end of the workshop, she made a recording of everyone in the class saying, in just a sentence, why they write. If you listen to it here, you’ll hear the inspiration in the voices.
Coming out of the workshop I felt “writing for fun” was something I should fit into my everyday routine. I can afford to spend ten minutes on a writing prompt before I dive into the revision list, or on the weekend when I’m not doing “serious writing.” Since, in the back of my mind, I’m still thinking about the “to do” list, I plan to start by directing my “writing for fun” to pieces that I may use in future stories.
When I asked the Pennies if they write just for fun, I found that most want to, but seldom have time. I did find a couple free writers. Julie Artz said, “I love free writing and would like to do more! I almost always start a new story by free writing everything I can think of about the story idea (this grows into my long form synopsis). I also free write when I get stuck (often poetry).”
Laurel Decher said, “Freewriting helps me to process life and catch funny incidents. It’s like Dumbledore’s Pensieve. In my Scrivener ‘spare parts’ file I have a folder for free writes so that I can easily move pieces to a project or a blog post.”
I’d love to hear how you fit writing for fun into your routine in the comments! Do you do it never? Sometimes? Always? Do you focus it on things that might be useful on a future project or just write about whatever’s in front of your eyes or on your mind?
REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids.
Unlike many writers, Rebecca did not write her first story at age eight…at least not fiction. She was the editor of her high school yearbook and wrote for her college newspaper. But her first fiction course scared the bejeezus out of her! Having overcome her fear of fiction, Rebecca loves see how much trouble she can get her characters into, and sometimes back out of. She’s on Twitter and is also a contributor at The Winged Pen.