Monday, October 4, 2010

The First Three Chapters

Twitter has once again spawned a discussion subject in my brain. Thanks, twitter. Really. I should be working on other things right about now!

Joking aside, this is something that writers of all calibers should pay attention to.

Your first three chapters are very important. They will be what gets the interest of an agent or a publisher. It will be what hooks your reader into the story. Everyone knows that a story needs a strong foundation to stand upon. This is often done within the first three chapters. In fact, if you haven't built into your real story within the first three chapters, well, there is probably something very wrong. Even if your plot doesn't directly tie in with the climax or conclusion, it should somehow lead your character towards it.

Even if it is a swift kick in the butt to leave their door and go do something with themselves.

I feel that this is a generally accepted concept. However, I am going to take the mold and I am going to go smash it into a wall over there.

Do not polish your first three chapters and neglect the rest of your novel. The first three chapters are important. There is absolutely no denying it. You cannot have a great piece of fiction without a strong start.

You cannot have a great piece of fiction without a strong finish.

I like to call the syndrome, "Great opening and then came the can o' crap!" Crap is generally viewed as a negative thing. Because really, poop is gross. Toilet humor can be funny, but unless your book is about toilets or somehow features poop, you do not want this to be a descriptive term of your story.

I have read many manuscripts during the course of editing and critiquing that have really gripping starts and then they turn to crap. The polished, flowery language that worked so well in the first few chapters turns into a tired, lame horse that can't quite manage to climb the hill. The disappointment factor is typically so great that I have to step away from the computer so that my line edits are constructive rather than mean.

Those of you who have endured my critiques are probably aware of how bluntly honest I try to be. I firmly believe that you can learn the art of writing by doing a *lot* of critiquing. I certainly learned how to improve my craft this way.

This is advice, do as you wish with it. But, if you spend the same amount of time polishing your first three chapters as you do the entire novel, chances are that you will have a novel really worth something at the end of the day.

Also... just because you have polished your first three chapters, do not send them out immediately until your entire novel is done. This is just.... ugh. Don't do it. You never know when an agent or publisher will get back to you. You need to be able to send it out the next day if you get a reply asking for the complete manuscript.

True story: A friend of mine got a reply from Tor asking for the complete manuscript. She IMs me in a complete panic. She has not edited her novel.

Some 8 hours later I returned a line edit so she could panic through her corrections. It was perhaps the worst evening of my life.

I did it because she is my friend, but you should never put yourself into this situation. You want to be a responsive writer who is prepared. If they want the manuscript? It better be ready, printed, sitting on your desk in a nicely wrapped package and ready to send out the following morning. You don't necessary need to overnight the manuscript unless there are circumstances where they ask for it by a certain date. If it is by email, you should just have it ready for emailing.

There is nothing wrong with doing a one last reading before you send, but you should not be needing to do any significant edits. When you send your proposal or query, your novel should be ready from start to finish.

Your new editor or agent may suggest changes, but you should be sending them something that you feel is up to the publication standards of your genre.

I attended Con*Cept 2010!

Really, it is too late at night for me to just be starting this blog post. No, really. After a fun-packed weekend of talking about writing, playing AD&D with friends and then talking about writing some more, I somehow thought it was clever and prudent to blog about my experiences at Con*Cept 2010. I wonder if those crazy folks would let me attend again as a panelist.

I hope. I had fun. A lot of fun.

But I digress.

As a panelist, I was expected to have some idea of what I was talking about. The last panel, well, they must have been convinced the Lady Firebird and I were impromptu artists. It was two of us versus some twenty of 'them'. You know, those writing people. Writing people who stared as if we would somehow be able to save them from the subject that took us all of five minutes to cover.

Leaving another 55 minutes to burn.

Apparently we burned it pretty well. The Closing Ceremonies peeps had to drive us out of there after we ran over time by five minutes and they were waiting on us to participate.

Oh look, that digress word again. If you're curious, the panel was on the subject of "Do you have the Writing Gene?". Lady Firebird and I both quickly agreed that you didn't need no stupid gene to write. If you want to write, you'll write. Back on that a little later.

I attended several panels over the weekend, and participated in three total. There are not enough blog posts in the world that can cover just how useful a convention with panels can be for a new writer. Or even an established writer. Heck, I'm pretty sure the professions there all learned something this weekend.

But, I will tell you about my experiences as a panelist at a convention dedicated to Science Fiction and Fantasy. My first impression?

Best. Idea. Ever.

I do not regret the instant I decided I would be brave and try something new. I have never had public speaking lessons. I'm pretty sure I slept through most of my book reports in high school.

The first thing I noticed when I sat on the panel was that the audience really couldn't care less of my credentials. They wanted to know what was in my brain, as well as in the brains of my fellow panelists. They wanted to know about the art of writing. They cared enough about the craft of writing to endure my squeaky-bird voice for the better part of an hour. (Brave, brave fools!)

The first panel, however, is something that will probably stay with me for many years as a treasured memory. Until the convention, I had only known of Deborah Beale as a name -- someone unlikely to meet but well known enough that I went, "Oh, I do recognize this name!". Turns out the chair I picked at the panel happened to be the one next to hers.

She also 'happens' to be married to Tad Williams, one of my favoritest authors. Sorry Tad, but Tailchaser's Song is still my favorite -- I'm about to give Dragons of Ordinary Farm a whirl as soon as I get a chance to get back to the library! (I'm coming for you, Deborah...)

Oh look, I digressed -again-. I did mention that I wasn't supposed to be writing this blog post so late at night, didn't I?

At least I didn't do it on no sleep like I did the first panel. We were discussing "Writing for Characters". This is a great, great subject. Though at one point I think the discussion may have gone to the sort of silly character -I- am. I mean, really? Who goes to a panel on no sleep?

My memory of the specifics are a little hazy. I do remember, however, that the audience was very eager. They had questions. They hung onto our words. Took us seriously.

Learned about how to write characters from the perspectives of four authors in various places in their careers. I was the little ugly duckling of the lot, in a way. I have been humbled, as a writer and a person, seeing just how much of a difference that just talking about something you love can do. I even learned a little of myself and how I write by telling others of it.

For the record, Violette Malan forgets she is cold once she starts talking.

When asked what one of her more interesting characters was, I seem to recall that Deborah Beale likes flying monkeys. This is ironic, as I was telling the crowd about the fact that one of my characters was born from a dream where a lady had flying monkeys.

I obviously had a soul-sister in the making. I mean, what is there not to like about someone who likes flying monkeys?

I D... nevermind. I won't say it.

Writing for Characters is a great subject for a panel. If you can attend one on it, I suggest it.

Fast forward 24 hours.

Tad Williams at panels! Tad, Tad, Tad, you are a funny, funny person. My husband has been lookin' at me funny because I keep breakin' out in random giggles. Go see Tad if you can. He is very entertaining. Also super nice.

Obviously I spent my morning at panels where Tad was in attendance. Had a great time.

Panel #2... "I have an idea but where to start?" -- Another great panel discussion topic. Once again at a table full of great people.

How odd... I ended up sitting next to Deborah Beale again. We may have been giggling a little bit. I'm sure the glass of wine from the bar just prior really had nothing to do with it.

This is a fantastic panel subject, as I said before, because there is just so much that can be discussed. Plotting, planning, execution. If you have a chance to see a panel like this, go! Very educational.

The last panel was on the Writer's Gene. We ended up continuing our discussion from panel #2 (Lady Firebird was on Panel #2 as well), but that is what the audience seemed to like. We covered all sorts of things from critiquing to how to write. The downside? Tad Williams and Mark Shainblum were the speakers before us. Talk about huge shoes to fill. Both of these male-creatures are extremely talented and funny. Put them together and you make an interesting panels.

The best panels, I think, are the ones where two writers get into an argument about the craft. Things get *lively* then.

Overall, don't expect to go into a writing panel at a convention and suddenly become a better writer. Go in with the hopes of learning something and being inspired.

I know I was inspired. There is something ethereal about being in the same room with so much talent. There is something special about looking eye to eye with those I admire and realize that my methods are so very similar to theirs... I just haven't had as much experience at it.

It is humbling to know that there were so many hopeful people wanting to learn to write and looking at my fellow panelists and me to help give them insights and answer their questions. In future blog posts, I hope I can take just a little bit of the wonder of those panels and put it into what I want to say here. If I can, it will make me a far better blogger on the art of writing than I am today.

If you are not familiar with Tad Williams and Deborah Beale visit their webpage and get to know them. Not only do I class them as fantastic people -- especially after getting the pleasure to talk with them face to face -- but they are wonderful talents in a world that could use a few more people just like them.

I need sleep. Good night!