After many months of clawing my way through that manuscript, I needed to take a day off and have some fun before diving totally into revisions. Admittedly, I’ve already begun the process, and have moved through the first ten chapters with relative ease. I was excited to get started, but felt I also needed to take a day and acknowledge my accomplishment—something that I often have trouble doing.
Once I started back at the beginning, it wasn’t hard to see where the story went off track and needed to be trimmed–sections where delving deeper is necessary. I can clearly see some missed opportunities to address the lack of multidimensional depth of character. But the most important revision I will make will be with my opening.
I believe it is Orson Scott Card, in his book THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, who says that how you open your story can make or break your chances at publication. If you don’t grab a reader/agent/editor in the first five pages—or dare I say, even the first paragraph—they may never get to page six waiting to find out what the story is about. One of the most common comments I’ve heard from being on both sides of the contest fence (both judge and entrant) is that the story often doesn’t begin until page seven or eight. That is a sure sign there is too much backstory. Of course, you have to ground your reader in a setting, but you can push them over the cliff with those first few paragraphs and they will enjoy the ride down as they figure out what’s happening along the way. It requires a delicate balance and some hard earned skill, I think.
My goals with those first five pages are to:
1) Pull the reader in by connecting them emotionally to the main characters.
2) Introduce at least one or all of these: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.
3) Set the scene by “showing” the environment in relation to the story and how it goes to show either the central conflict of the story, or what motivates the character to take action.
These are lofty goals for sure, but I’m willing to write and re-write until I meet those goals and create the strongest opening I can. Take my other works for instance. In HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES, the story begins with Jordie attending the funeral of her brother, the point where her world changes forever. There, she sees her childhood crush wounded and blaming himself for her brother’s death and we show the underlying conflict that Jordie has with feeling so responsible for her mother as well as her brother. Lots of emotion/empathy for both Jordie and Alex, and the story question is posed at the end of the first chapter.
ON THIN ICE began a bit differently. I wanted to show Penny in her world, which included figure skating lessons at the rink, and how she viewed her life and her peers. I was able to quickly show why skating was so essential to who she was throughout the story. It set the scene for her goal, (to live up to her mother’s dreams for her), her motivation (intro to her mother’s cancer), and her conflict (knowing that her heart really wasn’t into competing). It might have been a bit slower opening, but I would argue that it gave the character more depth to do it that way.
In SAVAGE CINDERELLA, I chose to use a prologue. I don’t like or dislike prologues per se. If one is needed to show the passage of time or to set up a pertinent scene that sets the tone for the story, I say, go for it. My three page prologue in SC did several things. It gave us a compelling and creepy snapshot into the mind of our psycho villain. Since he was off page until almost halfway through the story, I needed to make him real, frightening, and believable right off the bat. It also gave an indication of the passage of time when chapter one begins eight years later and we see the world through Brinn’s eyes after overcoming and surviving. If I didn’t have that prologue, I don’t think we would connect or identify with Brinn as quickly.
Today’s unlocked secret: I think as long as you keep in mind those few goals I mentioned above, start your story with a compelling scene that quickly leads to the character’s call to action, and write the most powerfully engaging first five pages you can, your reader will gladly read on to page six.
Good luck with polishing those pages! I’ll look forward to seeing how some of you did when we go to our CTRWA writers retreat in September. Until then, happy revising!