An Interview with Eric Elfman

April 4, 2015

ericcoverBloggers Note: Eric Elfman will be speaking on the topic of How to Hook Them From The First Page  at the April 11th meeting of the Mt. Diablo branch of the California Writers Club.  The meeting will be at Zio Fraedo’s Restaurant at 611 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill.  Cost is $20 members and $25 for guests.  Sign-in is at 11:15 am–12 pm, luncheon at 12–12:45, and program at 1:00 –2:00 pm.  Reservations required: Reservations are required, and must be received no later than noon on Wednesday, April 8. Contact Barbara Bentley at barbara@barbarabentley.net, or by phone at (925) 212-4727.

1. Can you give us some highlights from your new book: Edison Alley?

Neal Shusterman and I are having a lot of fun writing this series of novels about Nick and his friends trying to retrieve the last inventions of Nikola Tesla, which our protagonist inadvertently sold at a garage sale in Tesla’s Attic (the first book of our series). Each of Tesla’s objects has a power that, in the wrong hands, could destroy the world. And, as it happens, the wrong hands are trying to get ahold of the inventions: the Accelerati, a secret society of sinister scientists founded a hundred years ago by Thomas Edison.

Our goal was to fill the books with laughter along with the fantasy and fast-paced action. One of my favorite moments in the second novel, Edison’s Alley, is the scene illustrated on the cover. A small team of Accelerati agents, led by Dr. Jorgenson, raids Nick’s house to steal the objects he has recovered so far. To stop them, Nick grabs something that looks like an ordinary household fan—but actually has the power to generate an ice storm. Nick points the fan at Dr. Jorgenson and shouts “Freeze!” But the scientist doesn’t listen to him because he doesn’t know that Nick means it literally!

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a writing partner?

As every writer knows, writing can be a solitary pursuit—many hours spent alone in a room with nothing but the blank page (or screen) and your thoughts. So the first advantage: it’s simply more fun to write with a partner! (Of course, it has to be the right partner!) Neal and I have a similar sense of story, and a similar sense of humor, too. We will toss ideas and lines back and forth, trying to make each other laugh, and sometimes at the end of the day it feels like we’ve just spent six hours goofing off, then we look down and twelve pages have been written.

Another advantage is being able to find out right away if something is funny or not. When I’m working on a project alone and I write something that I think is funny, well, it might only be me who thinks it’s funny! But if I say something that makes Neal laugh, I can extrapolate outward that if one other person laughed then it’s likely many other people will find it funny too!

Unlike some writing partners who exchange and edit each other’s chapters, Neal and I usually try to get in the same room together to write. And that’s another advantage: it keeps us working! If one of us doesn’t feel like writing that day, but the other has made the effort to get there, we feel a powerful obligation to write.

As far as potential disadvantages, one thing I’m often asked is what happens when we disagree. This can be a major downside in a writing partnership, and is the reason many dissolve. Neal and I sidestep this problem because each of us has total veto power over any idea or element the other comes up with, and so we never argue. If I come up with an idea that I love and Neal hates it, or vice versa, we don’t argue. We simply let that idea go, and say, “Let’s come up with something better.” And we always do!

3. What are the biggest mistakes you see in an author’s first pages?

Many new authors don’t appreciate the importance of the first page. As a writing coach, I have read manuscripts by good writers that begin with lengthy scenic description, or obscure backstory, or a random conversation that leads nowhere. Sometimes I get the feeling that these writers are, in effect, treading water before their story begins.
By the bottom of the first page the reader should have a sense of where the story is going, and the tension that comes from knowing that something is about to happen or be revealed. Many first pages simply provide information when the opening page needs to be compelling. There has to be a reason for the reader to turn the page. Put another way, the author has one page to grab the reader by creating a living, breathing, three-dimensional character we care about, with a hint of the story to come, and a narrative voice the reader connects to. That’s all!

4. Do you think a social media presence is necessary for authors?

While a social media presence seems, increasingly, to be a requirement for an established writer (and I have to admit that my own is woefully inadequate!), I don’t feel it’s as important for writers at or near the beginning of their careers.
While a “platform” of some kind can’t hurt a writer hoping to sell their first book to a publisher (and having tens of thousands of followers will certainly help!), the one thing a new writer needs more than anything is an incredibly good, page-turner of a manuscript. The advice I heard an agent at a conference give to a room full of first time writers still rings true: instead of spending time on Twitter or Facebook or your website, devote that time to polishing your manuscript.

5. Describe your most memorable moment as an author.

The thing I get the most joy from, on an on-going basis, is speaking at schools. When I appear in front of a group of youngsters—whether a small gathering or several classes in an auditorium—and I get to see their enthusiasm about reading and writing, and they get to see that writers are real people, it helps remind me why I am doing this. And kids are honest, too—they will ask you anything and really tell you what they think! I occasionally lead writing workshops for small groups of students at the schools I visit, and I feel privileged to see the passion and energy and talent they bring to their work.

But the single moment from my career that meant the most to me came shortly after my first book was published — The Very Scary Almanac, an offbeat almanac from Random House. I can still vividly remember the first time I walked into a bookstore and there it was, my book, on the shelf, where anyone could buy it. That’s a a feeling I will never forget.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Eric Elfman. To learn more visit his website: http://ericelfmancoaching.com/index.html.

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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.