Perfecting Your Novel’s Opening Page: Advice from Novelist Emma Rea

I’m very pleased to welcome Emma Rea, author of Top Dog, who has some really helpful advice on perfecting your novel’s opening page with the help of a little x-ray vision.

Last Minute X-Ray Vision

Top_DogThe importance of the first page can’t be over-emphasised. For the rest of the novel, you can just tell your story. On the first page, however, you not only have to get your story off to a roaring start, but you have ‘admin’ jobs to do, by which I mean establishing things like age, setting, character – and you have to slip these in so the reader has the information they need without feeling as if they’ve been clobbered over the head with it. I rewrote the first chapter of Top Dog countless times, feeling as if I was coming at it from different angles, chipping away until I found the clearest, simplest start. Here’s an early version:

‘Dylan shoved his hands into his pockets and sauntered out of the Year Six classroom as if this was just another ordinary day. His blood was fizzing around his body like a bottle of shaken up coke with the lid half undone, but he ambled with deliberate slowness across the playground. While Matt and the others were yelling and jumping around Dylan fixed his eyes instead on the school gates, where his headmistress, a knobbly great stick insect disguised in old ladies’ clothes, stood guard. She was trilling goodbye to everyone in Year Six as they left, snatching at an unlucky girl with quick, spindly arms and fussing with her uniform.’

All I really needed to do in the first paragraph was establish Dylan’s age and his excitement about his plans for his summer holiday – and create curiosity in my young reader about what those plans might be. Nothing else. Someone asked me if the headmistress was going to feature again in the story, which of course she wasn’t. So my description of her was redundant. It didn’t matter how clever I thought it was, it had to go. So I tried again.

‘The last few seconds of the last minute of the very last day of Year 6 were ticking to an end with every step Dylan took. And the first summer holiday without a reading list and a threat that his life would not be worth living if he did not mutter his times tables hourly was rushing towards him. Dylan had had enough of school rules. He’d had enough of standing in line. He’d had more than enough of wearing a tie. Six free weeks stretched out in front of him and he knew exactly how he was going to use every minute of it.’

It was only at the final edit, days before the story went to print, that the first page came into clear focus. A strange, x-ray vision made it easy to see every extraneous word. Let me show you what the final edit produced:

‘The last few seconds of the last minute of the very last day of Year 6 were ticking to an end. With every step Dylan took, the first summer holiday free from times tables came rushing towards him.

Dylan had had enough of school rules.

He’d had enough of standing in line.

He’d had more than enough of wearing a tie. Six free weeks stretched out in front of him and he knew exactly how he was going to use every minute.’

Now we’re ready to get on with the story and the stick insect headmistress is free to go off and join another novel where she has a decent role to play.

About the Author

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Top Dog, set over one summer in a Welsh village, is a story of intrigue and youthful determination among a group of boys. Emma Rea lives in London and Wales with her husband and three children. This is her first novel.

Click here to buy from Amazon

emma-rea.weebly.com

Twitter: @emmarea8

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Want to Make Your Dialogue Sparkle?

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Have you ever finished writing a scene of dialogue, re-read it and wondered why it doesn’t sparkle?

Below is an example of such a piece of dialogue:

A: ‘I knew the day I saw Maggie we were going to get married.’

B: ‘Oh, yes. Why was that?’

A: ‘She had the loveliest smile. It reminded me of my mother.’

B: ‘I never met your mother, did I?’

A: ‘No, she died of cancer the year before you started at the college.’

B: ‘I’m sorry. That must have been hard.’

A: ‘It was a difficult time, but I’m over it now. Life goes on, as they say.’

B: ‘I’m not sure I could feel the same. My parents and me are very close.’

A: ‘Maggie sometimes says I haven’t dealt with it yet, that I’m burying the pain, but I don’t think I am.’

B: ‘Sounds like she knows what she’s talking about.’

A: ‘Maybe? I’ve always respected her opinions. That’s why I promised her I’d go and see a counsellor about it. I don’t suppose you could recommend someone?’

So what’s wrong? It’s dialogue that shows the characters’ feelings, history, relationships, emotional tone. It even goes a little way towards driving the plot – character A’s impending visit to a counsellor. So why doesn’t the scene work? Why does it lack that special spark?

The answer is a simple one: dialogue needs conflict.

Give each character a goal they are trying to achieve within the scene, and then add something which stops them achieving it. In dialogue each character can become the other’s conflict.

Perhaps character B has spoken to A’s wife and is trying to recommend a counsellor to him. However character A wants to talk about more practical, work related matters. Maybe he’s worried about a new policy in HR which means he has to undergo an interview with the college psychiatrist.

Have a go re-writing the scene giving each character a definite goal which is somehow thwarted by the other during their conversation.

Picture c/o hovercraft doggy

If you have enjoyed this post – you might like to see how I put my methods into practice in my other work by reading SNAP by Lizzie Hexter, available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.au, iTunes and Kobo.

Bad Beginnings from Sarah Naughton

I’m very happy to welcome Sarah Naughton back to the blog, as she has some useful insights into that difficult first page.

Bad Beginnings

I’ve been known to ditch a book after the first page. There are too many fabulous books in the world to waste any time at all on a dud. So, from an author’s point of view, you’ve got to get it bang-on straightaway. Hook people on the first page: better still the first paragraph: or best of all, the first line. Plenty of authors do entire workshops around first lines.

See if you can guess where these come from: ‘Call me Ishmael’: ‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen’: ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.’: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’: ‘If you are interested in stories with happy endings you would be better off reading some other book.’*

These are rightly famous openers. Some equally good books start off with less of a bang. Twilight’s Bella Swan describes the outfit she’s wearing to get on a plane. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe begins with a long description of the professor and his servants. You may need a slightly longer span of attention, but within a couple of lines the story’s revving up.

Sarah Naughton The Hanged Man Rises cover

When I first started writing the book that was to become The Hanged Man Rises it began like this:

‘The pie was the size of his fist and heavy as a brick. Now that the feeling had returned to his frozen fingers Titus had to juggle it from hand to hand while it cooled. On its lid was a golden bird, wings spread in flight. The bird’s breast had been pierced by the prongs of a fork and from these holes coiled threads of steam.’

It’s not a bad description. The problem is it doesn’t lead anywhere exciting. The pie doesn’t explode in his face. Maggots don’t come crawling out of it. It’s not snatched from his hand by a ferocious giant (yes, I write for children). Plus, whilst we learn a lot about the pie, we don’t learn much about Titus.

This is the way the actual book begins

‘The boy sat on the jetty, skimming oyster shells across the water. It was too choppy to get many bounces but occasionally a shell would strike the dredger, moored further out, with a satisfying clang. He didn’t even bother to prise open the next one before he threw it. The thought of slurping out its slick grey innards, still quivering, made him queasy.’

It’s still descriptive, but as the paragraph proceeds we find out that the boy is alone in the smog and night is falling, and then the Wigman comes for him…

Much more exciting. The pie got binned.

Some writing tips are very hard to follow (I’ve always found stripping my adjectives down whilst maintaining atmosphere to be particularly tricky), but I think this one’s fairly straightforward. Get into the action quickly. Reveal something about your character. Create a mood. That’s what will hook your reader (and of course, potential agents and commissioning editors).

Then all you have to do is keep them hooked for the next 300 pages. Simple.

*Moby Dick, 1984, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Peter Pan, The Bad Beginning

About the Author

SarahNaughton          BloodList-singlecover copy

The Hanged Man Rises, Sarah Naughton’s debut novel for young adults, was published by Simon and Schuster last February. Her second book, The Blood List is now out. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.

Writing Competitions for Children’s Fiction

Having been selected for a Highly Commended award in the prestigious Manchester Fiction Prize last year, I thought it might be nice to update my blog post on various annual competitions for Children’s Writers. Even though we can’t all be winners, it can be a real confidence boost for our writing to get a mention in the runners up lists.

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High Sheriff’s Cheshire Prize for Literature – Deadline: 1 September 2014.

Win Your Way to Swanwick – Keep an eye out for Writing Magazine’s annual competition.

The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition – 2015 competition opens in late March/early April 2014.

Manchester Writing for Children Prize – Deadine: 28 February 2014.

The Bath Novel Award – Deadline: 28 February 2014 (YA accepted)

The Greenhouse Funny Prize – Keep an eye out for the 2014 competition.

Kelpies Prize – Deadline: 28 February 2014

Undiscovered Voices – Keep an eye out for next year’s competition dates.

Winchester Writers’ Festival Competitions – Lots of competitions to enter with this one.

Diversity In Children’s Fiction – Watch this space for news of 2014’s competition.

The Academy of Children’s Writers Competition – Deadline: 28 April

Picture c/o Hovercraftdoggy

Recycling Familiar Characters: Sue Barnard Breathes New Life into Old Stories

Today’s guest post comes from Sue Barnard, a member of the Manchester Crafty Writers’ group, whose debut novel, The Ghostly Father, makes an excellent Valentine’s present for anyone who loves the story of Romeo and Juliet.

NEW LIFE FOR OLD

Sebastian Faulks, Charlie Higson and Anthony Horowitz have all done it for James Bond. Alexandra Ripley did it for Scarlett and Rhett. Jill Paton Walsh did it for Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and more recently PD James has done it for the characters from Pride and Prejudice. There have been numerous attempts to solve Charles Dickens’ unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood. And even Thomas the Tank Engine has been given a new lease of life, by the son of his original creator.

So what is it that makes authors want to write new stories centred on existing characters?

In one respect, I think, it’s because once the original author has died, there can be a great sense of regret that there will be no more from the same pen. So if the authors’ stories and characters are popular, why not give their fans more to enjoy, in the form of sequels, prequels, or simply more adventures? Or you can even give the original story an alternative ending. More on this later.

You don’t need to be a famous, or even a published, author to take advantage of this very useful literary device. Using a well-loved character (or set of characters) as the basis for a new story can be an excellent way of dealing with an attack of writer’s block. Think of a favourite character from a book, a play, or even a poem. Imagine what it might be like to meet that character face to face. What would you say to them? How do you think they would respond? Try writing a short dialogue between the two of you, and see where it leads. You may well find that it gives you a springboard to a whole new story. No writing is ever wasted, even if it doesn’t end up in the final version.

Or think about how the character behaves in the original work. If his or her behaviour is unusual, what might have happened in the past to affect actions in the present? Let your imagination run riot – prequels make fascinating stories!

When, more than thirty years ago, I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s wonderful film of Romeo & Juliet, I came away thinking: Why did it all have to go so horribly wrong? That question has haunted me ever since.

Then, a few years ago, I read one of those lists of Things You Must Do Before You Die. To be honest I found most of them pretty underwhelming, but the one which stood out was Write the book you want to read. And this was what first inspired me to start writing the book I’ve always wanted to read: the version of Romeo & Juliet which has a satisfactory outcome. (I’m not by any means the first person to have attempted to re-write the Bard. As far back as 1681, a writer called Nahum Tate produced an alternative version of King Lear, in which Cordelia marries Edgar, and Lear regains his throne at the end!)

The Ghostly Father

My debut novel The Ghostly Father (published by Crooked Cat Publishing in 2014) takes the form of a backstory for the character of Friar Lawrence, and is a sort of part-prequel, part-sequel to the original Romeo & Juliet story. It explores what might have happened to Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers if events had taken an alternative course. In the play, the lovers fall victims to a sequence of misfortunes which combine to produce a double-catastrophe. But what if just one of those unfortunate events had not occurred? What difference could this have made?

Read the book and find out…

About the Author

Sue Barnard

Sue was born in Wales some time during the last millennium. After graduating from Durham University with a degree in French, she returned to Manchester (where she had spent her formative years) and got married, then had a variety of office jobs before leaving the world of paid employment to become a full-time parent.  If she had her way, the phrase “non-working mother” would be banned from the English language.

Sue is now a member of the editorial team of Crooked Cat Publishing, who also publish her debut novel The Ghostly Father (a new interpretation of the Romeo & Juliet story).

She lives in Cheshire and Anglesey with her husband and a large collection of unfinished scribblings.

You can find her blog at: http://broad-thoughts-from-a-home.blogspot.co.uk/

Stimulus and Response: Getting Down to the Nitty Gritty

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In fiction, stimulus and response work like a ping-pong game. They make you look at the line-by-line progression of a story.

Stimulus is external, and so is response, and as such they must be shown on the page. Action and dialogue are key. However, action can include a character interacting with the setting, showing an emotional response, or describing a sensory input. So long as these are ‘shown’, not told.

Character thoughts do not create an external stimulus or response.

So let’s have a closer look. The first stimulus might be an event or action which affects Character A. Character A responds. Their response creates a stimulus for Character B. Character B responds, which in turn becomes a new stimulus for Character A.

For example we could take the following initial stimulus:

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Clues to Writing A Brilliant Mystery Story: Kate Pankhurst Investigates

Sometimes when you meet an author in person you find yourself delighted they’re published, because they’re so nice, and the world is a better place for their books.

I met Kate Pankhurst in York a month or so ago, when we both attended the second of Sara Grant’s wonderful workshops on editing. We got talking, and I asked if she’d like to contribute a post to this blog. Being the lovely person she is, she not only wrote a post but illustrated it as well. Here’s what she has to say about writing a mystery story:

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