Lessons from Big Sur

March 30, 2010

Among the lessons gleaned from the Big Sur Writing Workshop, my biggest “aha” moment came on the topic of first pages.  Prior to this weekend, I didn’t understand the “formula” for these critical beginnings.  But in my very first critique session, I realized (oh, horrors) that my opening didn’t work.  It was obvious when I read my novel’s first pages aloud.  I could feel my face getting hot.  I was going too slow, too long, lost in the minutia of creating my story world.  Oops!  My critique group nailed it, and I knew it too.  I would have to rewrite the opening chapter.  I share my lessons now in hopes of sparing you my embarrassment.

Point 1: You have to hook the reader on the first page!  Just like with a short story that gets off the ground in the first couple of paragraphs, a novel also must have an initial hook.  That hook doesn’t have to be action.  It could be an engaging voice.  But you have to have it there on the FIRST page.

Point 2: You have to get into the action within the first FIVE pages.  For many agents and editors, those five pages are the first – and perhaps the only – glimpse they’ll get of your novel.  This doesn’t mean simply starting the action.  It means that something has to happen by the end of page five, something that will make them want to turn the page to see what happens next.  This is especially true for middle grade and young adult fiction, and maybe even for adult fiction these days.  You get five pages.

From now on, here’s what I’m going to do.  Print out the first five pages of my manuscript.  Not the entire chapter with its exciting cliffhanger ending, but just the first five pages.  Then I will read them out loud, checking for the above.

Big Sur

March 26, 2010

A week ago, I attended the Big Sur Writing Workshop.  This is a workshop, not a conference. In addition to sessions on writing craft, we actually worked on our manuscripts.  Yes, we were expected to write.  Andrea Brown set the tone from the start.  She told us that the faculty had not come to tell us how great our work was, but where we could improve and what we needed to do to get published.

The weekend was divided into four two-hour critique sessions.  Each critique group consisted of five or six writers and a pro (an agent, editor, or author).  In these sessions, each participant read 5-6 pages of their manuscript and received feedback from the other group members.  Throughout the weekend, we were encouraged to rewrite and present our revisions in later sessions.

As promised, my work received its fair share of “filleting.”  But I learned A LOT and met many talented writers along the way.  I returned from the weekend exhausted, but informed and excited about my novel.  I now know what my manuscript needs and feel ready to tackle the revisions necessary.

Lessons from F. Scott Fitzgerald

March 12, 2010

I like to read, but I also like others to read to me.  Therefore, I usually have a book on CD as a travel companion during my never-ending carpool duties.  Of course, my teen daughter punches on her favorite radio station the moment her butt hits the passenger seat, but on my way to get her, it’s just my book and me.  Often times I choose a classic or some other off-the-wall book that I would never get around to reading otherwise.  Recently, I picked up The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

I had read this book while in high school.   Yet, I must say I appreciated this book more as a fully-fledged adult.  To my delight, after the closing scene, there was bonus material that included correspondence letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald and various people such as Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s. 

One letter in particular piqued my interest as a writer.  It would seem F. Scott Fitzgerald, one the great writers of his time, struggled with capturing his main character, Gatsby, on the page.  It’s true.  In a letter, he confessed that he hadn’t fully envisioned his key character and had loosely tailored Gatsby around a person he knew that was much older.  So what did Fitzgerald do?  He enlisted his wife to draw pictures of the younger man, until he knew Gatsby’s face, as he said, “better than his own children.”  What fascinated me most about the contents of this letter was that despite Fitzgerald’s rewrite, I still had the impression that Gatsby was much older.  Interesting, isn’t it? 

Other fascinating tidbits gleaned from the letters included that Gatsby knew Hemingway, he lived in Rome, and that he did not like the publisher’s chosen book title, The Great Gatsby, because he felt there was nothing “great” about this character.  The wealth of correspondence offered a fascinating look into this author’s life.  Fitzgerald’s predictions of the book’s success, in terms of copies sold, were not realized during his lifetime.  Fitzgerald, like many writers, also struggled with debt.  He did not like to write short stories, and he apparently held great affection for his wife.   Also, of interest, was a letter that he sent to Willa Cather about an apparent issue of plagiarism. 

I have to say these letters from the 1920s held some interesting lessons learned for aspiring authors.  It would seem writers, even good ones, have a hard time making a living at their craft, that if you don’t know your character it will show on the page, and that publishers will almost always want to change a book title.  Also of note, is that an artist’s greatness is often not realized until after they die.