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.