On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.This week:
I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.
These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
The First Fifty Pages, Lisa Rector
(Note: This entry has been shortened to a summary at Ms. Rector's request. Please buy her upcoming book to read the entirety of her helpful and incisive advice for your first 50 pages!)
Story: what is it?
- A combination of conflict and change. Both external and internal conflict and change are needed.
- The first moment of change/conflict must matter deeply to your character right from the start.
- There should be many moments of change in your first 50 pages. A story consists of "turning points" for all the characters. From the reader's point of view, the turning points ARE the story.
Types of openings:
- If you start slow, you need looming change, or the need for change. Your character needs to at least be trying to change things.
- Action aids conflict and change, but it is not itself conflict or change.
- Make sure your characters show what they're feeling. A plot needs emotion or it will lack impact; action alone will not move the reader.
Common question: Don't I need to show what normal is first?
- If your world is exotic, give the reader one or two details that feel normal and comforting.
- If your world is ordinary, bring in a bit of the extraordinary.
Why you need conflict/change:
- Most novels need more of both emotion and action. There's no such thing as too much.
(JJ's Comment: Actually, read Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher. He has too much action; there's no down-time, and the pacing is really screwed up and odd because of it. However, he sorted that out as the series progressed, and the later books are very enjoyable indeed.)
- The conflicts you introduce in the first 50 pages will carry the middle of your novel. IMPORTANT: If you introduce the conflict later, the reader will SKIM it. If your character didn't care about this conflict at the beginning, then the reader won't buy the development as important later.
- When you introduce a character, introduce a problem along with them.
- Give your characters challenges, rather than flaws. If you make a character flawed, you may be saying to the reader, "I don't like this character."
- If your character truly is flawed, introduce the possibility of redemption very quickly. Show what's worthy inside the character, even within the context of an unworthy action.
-For every character, ask the following: What is the character on the verge of? Greatness? Failure? Reward? Punishment? Why today, why now? And why does it MATTER today?
A question to ask yourself:
- Why does it matter to you? Why do you want to write about someone who is, for example, old, or young, or dying? Why does this character's story need to be told?