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Archive for March, 2008

I’ve modified the opening paragraph of my first novel a few dozen times. It’s safe to say that it has received the most attention, by far, of any section of the book. In fact, I made a couple of changes to it earlier today. While some may argue that I’ve let my obsessive personality get the better of me, this post over at Redlines and Deadlines makes me think I may not have spent enough time on it yet.

Some [editors] faithfully read three chapters all the way through before making a decision. Some read only until the first typo. Some read the first page.

And, of course, there are some editors who will only give you that first, vital paragraph. That leaves it up to you to impress them, interest them, immediately. That leaves it up to you to come up with a truly great beginning.

The window of opportunity can be very small, indeed.

My job as a writer, though, is not just to make that first paragraph shine. As the post goes on to explain, the opening has to contain a compelling hook, but can’t be over the top. Going too far with the opening is as certain to fail as not going far enough. And of course, the opening can’t outshine the rest of the work. If an editor or agent is suitably impressed by the hook and continues reading, the following pages must meet the standard established at the outset. Set the bar too high and the rest of the novel will disappoint; set it too low and the rest won’t even get read.

It’s ironic, in a way, that a career based on bodies of work that average maybe 90- or 100-thousand words each should hinge upon a few documents that are only one or two or three pages long–the query or cover letter, the synopsis and the opening paragraph.

But that’s the game, and I like a challenge.

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Learning From The Experts

My new hobby is reading literary agent blogs. I’ve found that they are a veritable treasure trove of information and advice about the publishing world, the life of an agent, and writing in general. An agent’s blog is a great place to find out what they look for in a pitch and how to submit a query so it doesn’t prompt the immediate mashing of the Delete key.

In the short time that I’ve been reading them, I’ve been impressed with the number of agents and writers (published and not) who leave comments. While I appreciate the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents as a reference source, the blogs are like reading the Oxford English Dictionary as opposed to Webster’s.

If you google “literary agent blog” you’ll see there are tons of them out there. My favorite right now is The Swivet, featuring Colleen Lindsay; she’s funny and smart and has tons of great links. I also like The Rejector because she makes no bones about the fact that her job is to reject 95% of the queries sent to her (and she gives advice on how to be in that magic 5%.)

I had already been checking out agent web sites, but it never occurred to me to search for their blogs. I’m so glad that I happened upon one. The most useful thing that I’ve learned so far is that agents want writers to do well. They provide advice in the hopes that more writers will be able to write compelling queries, which would mean more writers will get their manuscripts read, which would lead to more writers being published. Everyone wins.

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Ctrl-x Is My New Best Friend

Over the past few days, I have mangled the outline I created for book one, repeatedly, mercilessly, and with extreme prejudice. I determined which scenes could be cut, then went to the manuscript and started deleting. (Ctrl-x! Ctrl-x!) I then adjusted the scene before and/or after the freshly cut one, to smooth things over, and went back to the outline to start the process again. Chapters were merged and split and merged again as scenes were flipped and mixed and shuffled, until the continuity and pacing finally seemed right.

All told, I’ve reduced the number of scenes by 14, and the number of words (as the processor counts them) by 8800, or 8.6%. I haven’t lost any of the important stuff that developed characters, motive and conflict. A lot of the unnecessary action, though, and a couple ancillary characters, have fallen by the wayside.

From here on out, the story is pretty tight. There are a couple minor details that need to be ironed out, as well as the occasional spelling error or kludgy sentence, but overall I feel pretty good about it. Hopefully I can get this thing finished and put to rest this weekend so I can finally get cracking on the outline/revision of book two. (And maybe, you know, get book one published. 🙂 )

I don’t know why so many writers dread the editing process. This is kinda fun.

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Revealing, Like An X-ray

I decided to create an outline of book one. Sooner or later, I’ll need to work up a detailed synopsis and I figured that having an outline would make the process smoother. I made the simplest outline I could — a spreadsheet where each scene is on a line with the scene number (1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc.), the point of view character, and a brief summary. The outline revealed a couple of interesting things.

First, there are 168 scenes in the book. I don’t know if that’s significant, but I had never counted them before.

Second, and more useful, looking at the outline, I can see that some of the scenes are unnecessary. The protagonist’s story arc leading up to the main crisis point drags in a couple spots. Now, I can see pretty well where those spots are, just from the summaries. I’m going to go through and trim some of the fat (improve the pacing, I think, might be the proper way to put it.) My goal is to turn 4 of the chapters into 3.

I’ve never been a fan of outlines. I can see now that they provide a useful view of the work in progress. Once I finish trimming the fat from book one, I’ll definitely be making an outline of book two. Hopefully doing so will make the revision(s) go a lot quicker.

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Writers In White Hats

One of the Great Truths of life is that there will always be people who prey upon the desperate. Some are legal: sub-prime mortgage lenders, ticket brokers (aka scalpers), payday advance loans. Some are illegal: drug dealers, loan sharks, smugglers. It should come as no surprise that the writing community has its fair share of nefarious individuals ready to separate hopeful writers from their money, offering nothing but empty promises and shattered dreams in return.

Fortunately, there are still people who care enough about doing what’s right. One such group runs the Writer Beware blog (and corresponding web site.) They are sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, And their mission is to “shine a light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls.” They offer a lot of useful information about scams, contests, agents and a host of other topics. Well worth checking out.

I made the Writers Beware blog the inaugural link in my Writing Resources section, to the right. As I come across more useful links, I’ll post them there.

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