Posts Tagged opening scene

Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent, YA author @AJ_Dickenson (and me!) at @Litopia

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had longtime Litopia member and YA author Andy Dickenson @AJ_Dickenson).

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and publishers would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.

As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included the importance of voice in contemporary fiction, the age of the protagonist in a YA novel, whether we’ll want to read novels that feature the Covid-19 pandemic, a lyrically written fantasy that seemed too nebulous, how to begin an action thriller with a sci-fi element, and whether a title was too long, too hard to remember or assertively intriguing. You can see it in the picture above and I’d love to know what you think: too long, just right, too weird, exactly weird enough? It’s a military term, in case that helps you decode it. Drop me a line in the comments because, on the show, we genuinely couldn’t agree on it.

Also, Peter asked me to tell everyone about Ever Rest, which I hadn’t prepared a pitch for, so I had to invent one on the spot. Avalanches of panic until I got myself together.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, look here (to see a less fumbling pitch of Ever Rest). You can subscribe to future updates here.

 

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Stuck at the beginning of your novel? How to get going

‘Please help,’ wrote the author to me. ‘I’ve been writing a novel, I have a mass of text but no idea how to pull a plot out of it.’

We’re now doing well with the plot. But one big thing is holding her back.

‘Should this be the opening? Or this?’

We don’t know yet, I say. Don’t worry. Write a placeholder scene, and make the decision later.

We talk. We make much progress about themes, events and character arcs. Then my author returns to the question. Should this be part of the beginning? Or this? We haven’t even got to the first plot point. (What’s that? Here are posts about story structure.)

My author is finding it extraordinarily hard, very counter-intuitive, to postpone the decision about the beginning.

Why now is not the time to decide the beginning

Although you have to start somewhere, you cannot decide the proper opening until you know the rest of the book very well. Here’s what an ideal opening has to do.

1 It holds a lot of information back.

(You didn’t expect me to say that.)

2 It tells the reader just enough.

(Just enough for what?)

It tells the reader enough to make promises. About the tone, style, themes. About how the narrative will scrutinise the characters and events. About the issues and experiences the story will explore. Those are deep promises, and you must live up to them. (How do you know which promises to make?)

There’s also a 3:

3 The beginning should intrigue, beguile, ignite the reader’s curiosity. And in a way that’s faithful to 2.

Some beginnings are simpler than others

Beginnings are simpler for genre writers, as the reader’s expectations are relatively well established. But if you’re writing a novel that’s more complex or unconventional, you have to direct the reader to your unique flavour – your themes and angles and interests. You might not yet be aware of them all.

Certainly you won’t know them as you’re assembling the book for the first time, from all your swirling ideas. Perhaps not until you’ve made several revisions. (That’s one of the meanings of revision. Not just rewriting. Re-vision. )

The beginning is somewhere in the end

Here’s a nice cryptic idea. The story’s resolution, the what-it’s-all-about moment, will also be, in some way, signalled in the beginning. Probably obscured, of course.

Why is your ending your ending? Usually because a question is solved or a situation concluded. In some novels, particularly non-genre, you may not be sure at first what you’re solving or concluding. The biggest questions will stir up as you live with your themes, plot and characters, the angles that most attract you as you write and revise. Go with that, let the book become what it becomes. If it’s taking you a surprisingly long time, you might be cheered by this: the slow-burn writer.

Your ending will probably work best if it’s somehow signalled in the beginning, so once you know where the bulk of the book is taking you, you can shade the beginning appropriately. But if you fix the beginning from the start, you may limit your explorations. (There’s more about this in my plot book.)

Start here… for now

Write a placeholder opening, something that gets you going. Don’t worry at all about whether it works for the reader. Make sure it works for you, gets you in the flow. This draft, and probably others that will follow, is for you, your playground, your lab, your quarry, your rehearsal.

The beginning, the official proper beginning, is for the final performance, when you’ve done all the other work and are ready to invite readers in.

(Thanks for the bike picture Paul Harrop.)

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at @Litopia

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had longtime Litopia member Jon Duffy.

Here’s a glimpse of the green room before we went on air, with thoughtful shuffling of notes.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.

As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included atmospheric writing that doesn’t go anywhere, a character who seemed in the wrong age group, a voice that might be confusing the reader, a curious choice of second person for the narrator, obvious and unnecessary dumping of information, what voice is, what resonance is, and how to navigate the huge range of writing advice that’s now available.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Studying Ray Bradbury: a beat sheet of Fahrenheit 451

learning from ray bradburyI get a lot of emails about the beat sheet revision exercise I describe in Nail Your Novel. I’ve just prepared an example for my Guardian masterclass using the opening of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 so I thought you guys might find it helpful.

Bradbury is one of my heroes for the way he explored science fiction ideas in a lyrical style – and indeed he described himself as a writer of fables rather than SF. Strong influence there for my own Lifeform Three, in case you were wondering. Anyway, creating the beat sheet made me admire Fahrenheit even more so I thought it would be fun to share my discoveries here. (Discreet cough: spoiler alert…)

First of all, what’s a beat sheet?

It’s my absolute rescue exercise for revision. Think of it as an x-ray of your draft. It lets you check the structure, pacing, mood of scenes, character arcs, keep control of plots and subplots, wrangle your timeline – all the problems you can’t see when you’re lost in a sea of words. And you can learn a lot if you make a beat sheet of a book you admire.

Here’s how it’s done. You summarise the book, writing the scene’s purpose and add its mood in emoticons. Either use an A4 sheet and write small, or a spreadsheet. Be brief as you need to make this an at-a-glance document. Use colours for different plotlines or characters. Later you can draw all over it as you decide what to change. This is the first third of Fahrenheit 451.

 

  • Intro Montag, startling wrongness, brutality of burning scene :0
  • Meets C, explanation of fireman job + role. Establishes M’s alienation from
    natural world & how people are isolated
  • M ” home. Wife overdosed :0 !
  • Horror/desperation of rescue, texture of deeper sadness :0, concealment of
    true feelings, everyone’s doing this
  • Morning. Wife doesn’t remember. M isolated with the horror. TV gives people substitute for company
  • M meets C again, disturbed by her, fascinated by her curiosity & joy
  • Intro to mechanical hound. Brutal games other firemen play. M hated it & feels threatened by hound. Guilty secret :0
  • Friendship with C deepens. She’s misfit. Explanation of how kids are
  • taught in school. Other kids as brutal as firemen. M increasingly drawn to her outlook
  • M progressively more alienated & uncomfortable :0 Goes with firemen to house. Steals book ! Woman defends her books & sets fire to herself !!
  • Men shaken. Captain B pulls them together
  • M too upset/afraid to go to work. Tries to talk to wife. Wife’s priority is for him to keep his job & buy gadgets. Can’t comprehend or notice M’s distress :0
  • B visits – pep-talk, history lesson. Wife finds concealed book ! Does B know?
  • M confesses :0 ! Is B friend or foe? ? !
  • M confesses to wife ! He has 20 books !! Now she could be in trouble too. Furious. Persuades her to start reading !!!…

 

So that’s how it’s done.

Now, even more delicious, what can we learn from Mr Bradbury?

learning from fahrenheit 451Introduce the world and keep the pace moving – variety and contrast

Beginnings are tricky – what information do you show? Bradbury gives us a lot, but makes it memorable and entertaining with his use of contrast.

First is the startling close-up of the books being burned and the brutal relish in his description. Next is the conversation with Clarice McLellan, the kooky neighbour who seems to come from a completely different, gentler world. Third scene is Montag’s home life. (We can see this from the colours – blue for work, orange for the conversations with the intriguing girl, yellow for home.)

We’re probably expecting the home scene, so Bradbury keeps us on our toes and breaks the pattern. It’s no regular scene of domesticity. It’s Mildred Montag’s suicide bid. There follows a horrifying scene where technicians pump her out, routine as an oil change. It builds on those two emotions we’ve seen in the earlier scenes – the brutality from scene one (brought by the technicians), and the sensitivity from scene two (Montag’s reaction). In just three scenes, the world is established – and so is the book’s emotional landscape. A brutal, despairing world and a sensitive man.

Connecting us with the character

In the next scene, Mildred is awake, chipper, and has no memory of the previous night. Only Montag knows how dreadful it was and he can’t make her believe it. She is only interested in talking about the new expensive TV gadget she wants. This confirms Montag’s isolation and disquiet. And ours. We are his only confidante. We’re in this with him.

Change

In each of those scenes, something is changing – Montag is being surprised or upset (or both). Although Bradbury is acquainting us with the world and the characters, he is also increasing Montag’s sense of instability. As you’ll see from the beat sheet, the later scenes continue that pattern.

Pressure and relief: reflects the character’s inner life

Look at the emoticons. They show us the mood of each scene and, cumulatively, of the book. But successive scenes of pressure (action, perhaps, or upsetting events) can wear the reader down. That’s one of the reasons why we might have a moment of relief – downtime around the campfire, or a brief flash of humour. These relief scenes often carry enormous impact because of the contrast.

Fahrenheit 451 builds this atmosphere of a brutal world, and we notice it quickly. The only relief is in the conversations with Clarice – so the reader’s need for relief mirrors Montag’s internal state. Reader bonded to the main character by the author’s handling of mood. What perfect, controlled storytelling.

I could go on, but this post is long enough already. And we need time to discuss!

nyn1 2013 ebook j halfreslf3likeThe beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More here

And more about Lifeform Three here

Have you made beat sheets of your own novels, or novels you admire? Are there any questions you want to ask about beat sheets? Or let’s carry on the discussion about Fahrenheit 451. Ready, aim, fire

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