Lessons from First Pages Critiques

(as in my critiques of other people)

I find critiquing someone else can be a valuable exercise, in crystalizing your own thoughts about a topic, in being inspired by some things, and recognizing things that you like less in others. To be clear, there is a wide spectrum of readers in any audience and I can only speak to my own tastes, as is often clear from other comments on the same work. So this is not meant to be a slam to anyone I may have critiqued at any point over the years, but simply things that I thought might be useful to my own work and what I find effective:

  1. Introduce tension and stakes early, some hint of the negative story problem, don’t leave those until chapter 2, the reader won’t get there.
  2. Have a question or curiosity that makes reader want to start reading chapter two, as it’s easy to stop at the end of chapter one and never pick it up again.
  3. Either make your POV character likable with a problem (creating sympathy and tension), or if you’re going for an ant-hero or redemption story, consider a) having some minor redeeming qualities, b) have them have minor regrets about how bad they are, raising possibility of a redemption turnaround in the story, or c) have them be very very good at something, as then people will follow them anyway, because they are so interesting.
  4. Work backstory in a paragraph at a time, spacing it out, and giving some excuse for mentioning it.
  5. In a short story, have the ending be consistent with the short story’s theme (as shown in the unique mix of character and his / her story problem). A short story works best if everything seems to fit together, blending into one another, rather than being disjointed.

These can be valuable things to have in mind when you’re either planning or polishing a first chapter or short story. Or at least I found them so. Good luck with the writing!

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I am finding some time and picking up speed on my StoneDragon edit, which is gratifying. I’m a little behind on my art, partly because all the art stuff is still saran-wrapped in the basement and I haven’t really found the time and place to bring the art back into the day to day routine yet. But I’m thinking about it, and the creativity well is filling up. 😀

There’s only one book that matters to an unpublished writer – the first

(and I’m not talking about their own).

This could also be titled: a first time writer needs different skills than an established one. The first time writers need to prove themselves, and they haven’t earned any goodwill that might cushion missteps. The first boring section, a slow start, or an uninteresting section of dialogue, and the new author risks losing their audience and likely not getting them back, especially if they are not being published by a large traditional publisher with glowing reviews (which might by them cushion for one or two mistakes).

Established authors admittedly are generally more polished writers, but they’ve also earned a loyalty in their followers that will buy them at least a few pages of grace. They are likely more focused on the end of a book, of the spine of a longer series, of emotional payoff and drawing readers back when the book is over. All of which is important, but they can probably relax a little more on the opening few pages. This is almost the reverse for the new author. They have to intensely scrutinize the first pages, and may have no-one ever reach the end of their book.

So what is the practical take-away from this? For those trying to break in, and studying how to clamber over the barbed and electrified wall of publishing, when you are looking at established authors and what they did right, there is only one book you should focus on and try to emulate: their first. When they were in the same boat as you.

After you’re published, you can learn all sorts of things from their later books, but the author is then working in a new place, with new benefits and drawbacks. For better or worse, they’ve got their footprint in the sand, created expectations, establishing a certain audience and set of expectations. Sometimes that footprint in the sand may be aimed in the wrong direction, and that sucks, but one way or another it’s something that got them noticed, and it’s sometimes good to keep that in mind when listening to established professionals give advice. What they are focused on and struggling with for their tenth book may be absolutely the wrong piece of advice for your first…

Here’s to all our firsts! :)

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We moved recently and I haven’t unpacked the art stuff, so this image is an oldie but goodie. I’ve gained a tiny bit of steam on the StoneDragon manuscript, maybe 25% rewritten now, and picking up speed. I’ve decided that much of the original writing was actually reasonable and in places, all I have to do is change the pronouns from first person to third. Where I’m adding new POVs takes a bit longer, but again, it’s more about finding motivation to ‘chop wood and carry water’ without much in the way of creative reward, that’s slowing things down. Chop, slosh, chop!

Woot, woot!

Another honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest, this time for ‘the Test’, the story that I mentioned I’d quite liked and been disappointed it wasn’t picked up for the anthology it was written for. Nice to get a bit of writing encouragement in a period of ‘mucky middle’ writing! (for StoneDragon)

I also just finished the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown and found myself incredibly inspired. What a great series, and a wonderful afterword in the third book where he compares writing to building a skyscraper, with all the hard work and angst involved, and then tells writers that the world needs their skyscrapers.

I don’t know if the world needs mine, but it certainly encourages me to keep building. Thanks Pierce!

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I set the image to be my brain with an uzi. Cause I haven’t seen it in a while and think it’s funny. :)

Some days the well fills faster than others…

I think I might have posted on this before, but I firmly believe that creativity is a finite well. For creative people, and I count myself among them, the desire to create fills up steadily and itches to be released. That release can be through writing, art, or even work, if you happen to have a job that involves building something with a lot of independence and flexibility. In fact, that is dangerous for writing, as the well can be emptied at work and leave only exhaustion for other creative outlets at the end of the day. I’ve had a number of days like that. Good for those who look for work to fulfil that desire, dangerous for those who wish to write.

So if you have a boring and monotonous job, congratulations! :)

The other challenge with the creative well, is that sometimes going to it too often scrapes the bottom dry. Sometimes it helps to let it fill up, take a break, and then come back later. But this is a dangerous line to walk too, as it can slip into procrastination! And not writing makes sure you get no books into the world, whatever else you’re doing (writing posts like this included, ironically).

When I was learning art, I learned to switch back and forth between drawing new things (outlining) and doing monotonous non-creative work (coloring and shading) to always be able to use time effectively, whether the well was full or not. Maybe I should try to segment my writing better to be able to switch back and forth the same way. Maybe this means having two projects going at the same time, and alternating creativity and editing. It’s an interesting idea.

But one thing I know, the worst thing you can do is try to scrape the well dry. You’re only going to burn out and either come up with an empty bucket (a bad book) or a lack of enthusiasm to go back to the well at all (burning out and not wanting to write at all).

Why am I writing about the Well now? I’m not getting much done and trying to approach that problem in a thoughtful way. Part of my current challenge is priorities (work, kids, and moving), where writing falls a sad fourth, unfortunately. But I also want to make sure that I have the motivation to get back to writing when I have the time. That I don’t burn out the well, or scrape it painfully. I love writing, and want to feel the desire and reward that comes with it. Right now, I’m not sure I have that balance exactly right…

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The image is an oldy, a pencil drawing of a shield in a river. I think the rough water and ominous mood is appropriate here. :)

And on the personal side, we have sold a house, bought a house, and moved in this week. Overwhelming, particularly with my escalating work demands. But I love the new property, which includes a pool, which I’ve never had before, and it’s nice sometimes to shake things up, even if it means muddying up the well. :)

Wag that Tongue. Dialogue is how we get to know people

It may sound incredibly obvious, but in real life, the most common way for us to understand someone’s personality is when we hear them talk: the words they say, the way they say it, the topics, the tone, and the body language. And yet, sometimes in stories, we skip conversation for interior thoughts, assumptions, and the narrator telling us why someone is doing what they are doing. Why? Why ever replace a powerful relevant conversation that has a place in the story with exposition (non-dialogue) instead? This is something I’ve caught myself doing recently and am trying to fix. I think the answer is it’s easier. But easier isn’t better. Those words, even if they’re incredibly obvious and expected, help build character in a way that actions and expressions don’t.

I remember when I was a teenager, before Kindle and story samples online, that I would flip through books to get a sense of writing style before buying a book. And I would put one back down that had too little conversation (I remember some with almost none). I didn’t know why, but those books felt sterile and dense to me. They weren’t as fun or easy to read.

Dialogue is a great benefit to our writing. Don’t neglect an easy benefit to your writing! Let your characters talk…

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I had some fun painting the Broken Cowboy / StoneDragon cover image. It’s not done yet, and this was a quick snapshot with a cheap camera in bad lighting, but I’m looking forward to when it’s done. I’m also on vacation, getting a little bit of momentum going again on the story, which is nice. At this point, I’m just focused on ‘chopping wood and drawing water’, getting the revised words on page and letting any judgement on quality wait until the end. The only thing worse than an imperfect book is no book at all!