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

IMG_1402

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

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

cute fluffy cat kitten string playing adorable pet animal fun

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:

Continue reading

Tricks for Creating A Strong Character Voice in Dialogue

Making dialogue sound genuine is an art in itself. Creating a distinctive voice for every character in a story is no easy task.

Below are a couple of things which may help you write dialogue for each of your characters which steps off the page in a unique and individual way.

A Rainbow of Shoes and Legs for Breuninger by John Breed (1)

Vowel changes

Continue reading

Writing Advice From Acclaimed Author Marcus Sedgwick

I first came across Marcus Sedgwick when I read his YA novel, My Sword Hand is Singing, and have been a fan ever since. His 2011 novel, Midwinterblood, was shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal, and having read it I can see why. So when I heard he was about to release a new book, I asked him if he might share with us a little of the secret of his success.  Here’s what he had to say:

Continue reading

3 Things Every Scene Must Have

When writing fiction, there is lots of advice out there in books and on the internet. One of the most important pieces of advice you can take on board is understanding that story is made up of four elements: Continue reading

Writing Children’s Fiction: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion by Linda Newbery and Yvonne Coppard

I’m planning to run a free creative writing workshop at Stockport Central Library on the 10th of August. The workshop is on how to help your reader visualise the story you’ve written in their mind’s eye and I want to use a worksheet which has extracts from other writers showing examples of how to do this. Being the conscientious girl I am, I wrote to each author seeking permission to photocopy their extract. One of the extracts is from The Shell House by Linda Newbery, a book I read as part of my MA course. When Linda replied granting permission (all the authors did. Writers are incredibly nice people) she mentioned that she had co-authored a book on writing fiction for children (with Yvonne Coppard) which was launched yesterday.

I couldn’t help myself. I asked if she’d write a guest post telling us about the book.

Here’s what Linda has to say about it: Continue reading