Just Write Cat

One Writer, One Journey

The First Fifty… July 27, 2010

Filed under: Editing,Writing — justwritecat @ 3:28 am
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Whew!  Two weeks of cold/allergies/who knows what else and I’m wiped out.  I didn’t write for an entire week.  Okay, three days but it seemed like for-ev-er.  I did a bit of revision work, but quickly realized that what one writes in an allergy-drug-induced state doesn’t always make sense the next day.  Non-drowsy, my a–.

So, the past three days have proven a bit more productive.  I’m off “my meds’ (hmmm, not sure that sounded right), and my mind’s clear and ready to get back to revision work.  My next session with Lisa is this week, so I’m excited.  To prep for the next call, I spent the last couple of days thinking about ‘the first fifty pages’.  My first fifty, to be exact.  Fifty pages seems to be the typical number of pages asked for in partial requests.  I’m not exactly sure why, but enough agents ask for that so there must be a good reason.  Just enough to get a solid idea on what’s going on, who the protagonist is, is this something I want to keep reading…that sort of thing, I guess.

So, to better consider if my first fifty have what it takes, I read (and reread) the first fifty pages of several urban fantasy books and took notes.  Here’s what I found out:

When I read the first fifty pages of several books, one of two things happened – either I found, on page fifty, that time had flown by and I didn’t want to stop reading.  OR, I held the book in my hand, trying to figure out just how much more I’d have to slug through based on the width of the book.  If it was an especially thick book, say 450 pages thick, I promptly placed the book in my ‘return to library’ bag.  If the book was oh, 250 pages thick…I gave it another twenty pages…and then put the book in the bag.  There really was no in between.  No, ‘well, it’s not that bad so I’ll keep reading because my other books are downstairs and it’s late and what if I get out of bed to go downstairs and I hear a sound and it’s a ghost or something’.  See how my mind works?  I either wanted to keep reading or I didn’t.  So – those pages either grab a reader and refuse to let go.  Or they don’t.  Of the half dozen or so books involved in this ‘test’, only two made the cut. 

Jim Butcher’s Changes (latest in the Dresden Files) and Joe Gores’ Spade & Archer, the Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

I don’t know if you read The Dresden Files, but this last one is a doozy.  No spoilers, don’t worry.  I hate spoilers.  The series is about a wizard living in Chicago.  This guy – Harry Dresden  – has really, really bad luck much of the time.  He’s a good guy, a great guy – but crap is always happening to him.  Of course, that’s what makes the stories so fun to read.  You get to watch Harry deal with the crap in some very creative ways.  First fifty pages of Changes – no less than four major crap things happen to Harry.  Again, no spoilers – but as I took notes, I realized that there was more action in Butcher’s first fifty pages than I read in some entire books.  Lesson learned – things have to happen to your character!  Maybe not quite so much so soon, but enough.  Enough to keep you turning the pages all the way to the last one.  The author Piled. It. On.

You also learn some things about Harry and the larger plot early on, some things that Make You Care about the character enough that you want him to win whatever it takes. 

I reread my first fifty.  First couple of chapters, hey – whaddya know, you do learn some things about Joe.  Things that pre-revision with Lisa, you didn’t learn until – drum roll – AFTER page fifty.  Egads.  Important things, things that matter.  Things that Make You Care.  But, too late.  Again, that was pre-revision, so I do feel good about my revised opening chapters.  There’s more tension, more going on – not just action, but things going on with Joe, with where he’s at when the story starts and where he seems to be headed.  Not nearly as much happens in my first fifty as does in Changes – but, Changes is like book twelve or something in the series (I think).  So there’s been a tremendous amount of set-up, enough that you can bring back characters from previous books, have things happen to them or because of them, and the reader easily follows the plot.  Set ‘Em Up, Joe is the first in a (hopefully) series – so I might need to set things up more before all sorts of stuff happens to characters.  Not sure, will have to ask Lisa during our next session!

Gores’ Spade & Archer.  As one reviewer on the back cover stated – this book is ‘pitch perfect’.  The voice, oh my goodness, the voice.  And the language – this author clearly studied Hammett, read him, read other noir books – maybe all noir books – and then put his own spin on things.  From the first page, nay the first word, I am hooked.  I want to keep reading.  I’m having fun! 

Now, it’s not quite fair to say I learned so much about the character of Sam Spade in the first fifty because I already knew the character from Hammett’s books – and some of the films.  BUT…Gores presents a totally possible explanation for why Sam is the way he is.  You buy it, you see it playing out in your head, you are convinced Gores channeled Hammett somehow.  Not to undermine Gores’ talent….but it’s so darn…darn….pitch perfect that channeling had to have occurred.  First fifty – you understand Spade.  You get him.

My first fifty – yes, a tentative yes, but yes…I think you get Joe.  Get what makes his blood boil, what makes him react.  I believe you can see things playing out.  I’ve been told yes to these things by readers, but it’s hard to see it for yourself sometimes. 

So first fifty – give the reader something to care about, have your protag doing something that is worth caring about.  Make your character(s) real, find a way to connect to the reader.  Make bad things happen to your characters (conflict).  Don’t let up, don’t ease off.  Pile. It. On.  

The books that made the bag rather than the cut?  Nothing was going on, or at least nothing that mattered to me.  In one case – things were happening, but none of it made sense.  It was as if the author tried to throw in every UF plot twist just to keep the reader’s attention.  It lacked focus.  One other book – I actually sort of read it through because I wanted to know how it ended.  I read the first fifty, uh, the skipped around.  Quite a bit.  Like to the end.  I know, I know – I hate doing that, but that was the book in my hands that night when I was suddenly afraid of the downstairs.  So, I read the end.  Um, and in the morning I took the sequel out of my library queue.

Working on your first fifty?  Read other books in your genre, take notes – then apply to your own work. 

Happy Writing!

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Some Things I’ve Realized… July 11, 2010

After three intense sessions with independent editor (and character therapist) Lisa Rector-Maass, I’ve realized a few things.

Some of my scenes, a few, are pretty decent.  The rest suck.  Not suck bigtime – well, maybe some.  More like suck, with potential.  Which is better than suck without any redeeming qualities.  So, I have hope.  And no, Lisa did not imply said suckage in any way.  It’s more of a personal realization.  She’s been nothing but encouraging and positive, which is really quite wonderful.

You can always push your characters more than you have.  Raise the stakes – both internal and external, turn the conflict and the tension up to high, push them to their breaking point.  Sometimes, it’s more interesting to see what happens if they actually break. 

You don’t know your characters as well as you think you do.  Lisa asks questions about their motivations, history, goals, desires, fears – and even though I have answers for most of her questions (though not for all of my characters), I learn something new each time we discuss my novel.  I’m struggling with my antagonist.  I can’t seem to get a handle on her past, which makes it difficult to know her motivations.  Lisa offered up this challenge:  Look at the first fifty or one hundred pages from the antagonist’s point of view.  My first novel is in first person, so that was something I never considered (or would have).  She provided several questions and things to consider while I tackle this challenge – which I’m working on over the next several days.

When you revise, it can help to do so in layers.  Read your scene and/or chapter several times – each time looking for or working on specific things.  Tension, pacing, inner conflict, story development – whatever needs attention.  Everything’s connected, but if you try to tackle it all at once – you’ll get overwhelmed.  Or maybe you won’t, but I did. 

When you find someone who gets your writing – an editor, a writing buddy, someone from a crit group – it may help to work only with that person for some time.  Otherwise, if you get feedback from several different people at once – it can make it hard to know what you should or shouldn’t change.  I’m not saying getting input from several readers is a bad idea – it’s not.  But there’s a point when you’re either doing deep revision or even polishing a scene – and if there’s too much feedback or suggestions coming from all different directions, you don’t know who to listen to.  Too much noise, and you can’t hear the one person you really need to  – yourself.  Yes, get feedback and be open to it – but it’s okay to go with your own instinct.  Oh, but you can listen to your characters.  They usually know best.

One other thing I’ve realized – what matters is writing the best damn story you can.  Being true to your characters, to their story.  Heck yes, I hope to have an agent some day soon.  And to see my book(s) at Borders 🙂  But right now – I’ve put those things out of my mind (as much as possible) and I’m focusing on my writing.  There’s a freedom in that.  And that freedom seems to…well, free me up to improve my craft.

And so the revisions continue.  More on working with Lisa after the next session (I’ve got several more to go)!