Posts Tagged openings

Your first pages – 5 manuscripts critiqued at @Litopia by literary agent @AgentPete @AJ_Dickenson and me!

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 the other guest was Andy Dickenson @AJ_Dickenson, ITV reporter and YA author.

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 commissioning editors would consider a submission.

This week’s edition had a range of genres. Speculative fiction, fantasy, sweet romance, contemporary and – a new one on me – Martini-flavoured spy thriller in a grounded steampunk world.

Have you heard of that? I hadn’t. But it turned out to be an accurate description.

As always, the manuscripts had many strengths. They were fluently written and thoroughly realised. The authors often had solid track records in other areas of writing. But how did they do as novelists, and were these submissions ready to wow an agent or publisher?

There were several issues we discussed.

Titles – Some titles suggested the wrong genre. Or weren’t memorable enough. Or didn’t catch the spirit of the text. Some hit exactly the right notes, but even so, the chatroom audience still had questions, worrying about whether the word order could be switched for more oomph.

Blurbs – Blurb-writing is a dark art of its own, and mostly loathed, but whenever you present a manuscript, you have to write a short summary. Some blurbs hit just the right notes, promising plenty of the kind of action that would appeal to readers of that genre. Some gave too much, so the reader was confused by the end. Some gave far too little – a vivid moment from the action, but no indication of the overall trajectory of the book, whether it would be personal essays that dwelt in the moment or a bigger arc, perhaps of tragedy, perhaps of healing. It’s so interesting to learn what the reader needs from that one, agonising paragraph.

Beats of action – one of the openings had an interesting incident, but was cluttered by another incident that took too much of our attention before switching to the important character. At the start of a novel, the reader is so adrift, they are easily overloaded.

Purpose and lack of purpose – one of the manuscripts had a vivid setting with one character observing another. But somehow the narrative lacked purpose – we didn’t know what the protagonist was there to do. This made the narrative hard to understand.

Starting at the wrong moment – two of the manuscripts were trying to front-load a lot of explanation and back story, but had done it in scenes that were not intrinsically interesting.

Developing a writing voice – this wasn’t a problem in any of the manuscripts we examined. All flowed beautifully in styles that seemed natural to the writer and suitable for their chosen genre. But Peter, as an agent, and also as Head Lit of Litopia, sees a lot of manuscripts that lack these qualities, so we spent one segment of the show discussing the elusive ‘it’ factor – how do you find your own writing voice?

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

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 #speculativefiction manuscripts critiqued at @Litopia by literary agent @AgentPete @AJ_Dickenson and me!

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 the other guest was Andy Dickenson @AJ_Dickenson, ITV reporter and YA author.

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 commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)

As always, the submissions had many strengths – and much to teach us. This week’s edition concentrated on speculative fiction, and several times we found ourselves discussing what that actually is. As you’ll see from the critiques, some authors identified their manuscripts as speculative, but the panel felt they were better described by another label – fantasy or fable. In the case of the fable, this made a vast difference. One panellist felt the book had overplayed its message – but when we considered the book as fable instead of speculative fiction, this changed our expectations of the book.

Another interesting issue that arose was prologues. Prologues abound in speculative fiction, and these submissions gave them a good go. Some were riveting. Some seemed little different from a first chapter. Some were too different from the first chapter – and left the reader wishing for more of the kind of action in the prologue.

We also talked about orientating details that are necessary for reader comprehension, the suitability of style for the material and the mood of the world, how much the reader needs to know to get involved in a story, and styles that seemed to rush through the material instead of lingering on the interesting details.

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

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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The opening act – what the reader needs to understand (with help from KM Weiland)

for lf3 023It’s planning time on The Mountains Novel. I have the scenes spread out on cards and the dining table is out of bounds (see Two authors in the house).

At the moment I’m taking a hard look at the set-up chapters. Of course I’ve got my own spider sense, but it’s rather fun to have a guide to remind me of what I might not be seeing. (And what I might be ignoring because, well, to change it would be inconvenient.) So I’m sharing the fun with KM Weiland’s rather useful new book Structuring Your Novel.

Today,  she is reminding me what I need by the first plot point, roughly a quarter of the way through my story.

Introduce the setting and world

I need to establish where the story takes place, what era, what special things might be interesting or significant about the world. A setting isn’t just any old backdrop. It’s the perfect resonant environment for themes and the characters’ plights. I’m making sure my beginning gives inklings of this, while still seeming entirely natural.

Introduce the main characters

By the end of act one, I need to have the major characters established. The reader must know who they are, what makes them individuals (and distinct from each other), what their beliefs and dilemmas are, where the instabilities and disturbances might be in their lives. Even if I’m going to reveal more later, I have to give the reader enough to provoke their curiosity.

Make the reader care

Curiosity isn’t enough. The reader must feel emotionally bonded to my protagonists. Whether they’re Mr Average or someone extraordinary, I need to show their humanity. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes; Winston Smith feels an urge to write a diary even though it’s against the rules. (In Winston’s case, his streak of humanity is going to draw him into danger. If I can combine any of these set-up steps, that will look very smart.)

Establish the need and the stakes

By the end of act one, the reader needs to understand what the main characters want. Perhaps they want to solve a crime or murder their uncle. Perhaps they want to stop their family finding out about their secret life. The reader must also understand why this is so personally important – and what failure will cost them. This is the other half of making the story matter.

Back story on a need-to-know basis

There’s quite a lot of background to establish, but it must be done – as much as possible – with scenes that advance the plot, rather than pages of explanation. Back story is important, of course, but we need to earn the space for it. Deploy back story only when the reader is hungry to know.

Add an element that makes sense of the ending

The story’s ending must resonate with the beginning. Perhaps it answers a question, solves a problem, resolves an imbalance. But if the seeds of the end aren’t in the opening, it will not be so satisfying.

The first big change at the quarter mark

Just as I have all that bubbling, I have to push the story over a point of no return. The characters make a choice, cross a Rubicon. Perhaps disaster strikes – and that dreaded event becomes reality. Why is this a quarter of the way through? As Katie points out, readers – and moviegoers – have an innate story clock. No matter how interested and enthralled they are, if you don’t shift the goalposts at a quarter through, they’ll feel the story is slow.

And now to work

strRight. I’ve got some fine-tuning to do on the beginning of The Mountains Novel. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that KM Weiland is one of my favourite writing bloggers. Her book is as clear and wise as her blog posts and I recommend it – whether you’re writing beginnings, middles or ends.

In the meantime, tell me: what stage are you at with your WIP?

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