The First 250 Words

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Much has been written on the importance of the first 250 words of your manuscript.

All of it is true.

It can be hard, as a writer, to keep that in mind–you have the whole story to keep in your mind–so polishing (or demolishing and rewriting) your opening is something best done at the editing stage. Once your whole story is down on paper, go back to that beginning (after taking a break from the manuscript so you’re looking at it with fresh eyes) and ask yourself–if I were a reader, would I pick up this book based on this first page?

I’m not going to rehash the advice in the articles I linked to–go read them for yourself. Instead, here is the beginning of one of my favorite books of all time. I’ll post it, then we can discuss why it’s so great. I think I’ll make this a regular thing.

It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.

The house shook.

Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.

She wasn’t usually afraid of weather. —It’s not just the weather, she thought. —It’s the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.

School. School was all wrong. She’d been dropped down to the lowest section in her grade. That morning one of her teachers had said crossly, “Really, Meg, I don’t understand how a child with parents as brilliant as yours are supposed to be can be such a poor student. If you don’t manage to do a little better you’ll have to stay back next year.”

During lunch she’d roughhoused a little to try to make herself feel better, and one of the girls said scornfully, “After all, Meg, we aren’t grade-school kids anymore. Why do you always act like such a baby?”

And on the way home from school, as she walked up the road with her arms full of books, one of the boys had said something about her “dumb baby brother.” At this she’d thrown the books on the side of the road and tackled him with every ounce of strength she had, and arrived home with her blouse torn and a big bruise under one eye.

This of course comes from A Wrinkle In Time

Why does this work?

1. We meet the protagonist–and like her We’re introduced to Meg, and in just a few sentences we learn a lot of important things, most notably that she’s the kind of person who beats up people who make fun of her family. We’re on her side right away.

2. We see the conflict Meg’s struggling in school with grades and other kids and herself. For the genre (MG) this is incredibly relatable.

3. It’s tense On top of Meg’s problems, there’s the thunderstorm. Thunderstorms are the best.

4. It makes us want to keep reading You want to know what happens to Meg. You want to know why people are calling her baby brother dumb. You want to know what else is wrong. So you buy the book. You keep reading. Mission accomplished.

It can be painful to go back and dissect your “perfect” opening of your manuscript but you must make sure that it does all these things. Not in the first chapter–on the first page. Otherwise, you won’t get it past the querying stage, much less the publishing stage.

Kill your darlings. It’s the only way to get good enough.

p.s. One of my favorite blogger-writers offers a first 250 word critique every month to one of her blog followers. She has a really great editing eye, I highly recommend entering her sweeps when she offers it again.

 Image found somewhere on this Tumblr

Friday Things

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TGIF!! (How I wish that lineup of sitcoms was still on…)

Here are the things that made my week:

1. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: print out your manuscript to edit it. It’s the secret to seeing the forest for the trees and it’s changed my life.

2. To continue the theme of my Tana French obsession, I found this interview, and I love love love this quote:

I’ve realized that I write a lot less about romance and parent/child relationships than I do about friendships. I think I keep coming back to this idea because in some ways, friendships are even more essential to a human being. You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship — you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.

My FAVORITE thing to explore in my own writing is unconventional relationships between people (more on that below).

3. A life-changing (or at least money-saving) thing I’ve been doing: making my own vegetable broth. I just put all my veggies scraps (think potato peels, carrot peels, garlic skin) in a bag in the freezer, then when there’s enough (about 1/2 a large ziploc) I put them in a big pot of water with some salt and pepper and once it reaches a boil, simmer for an hour. Then I strain and discard the vegetables. Voilà free broth!

Reading: The Girl on the Train It’s good in that it’s really well-written and suspenseful, really drops you right into the action. But I have the same problem with it that I had with Gone Girl, and also with The Secret History–I do not like a single character in it. So while I’m definitely reading voraciously to find out what happens, I don’t particularly care if any one of the main characters or supporting characters ends up getting arrested (or killed). It’s a legitimate technique, sure, but in general I prefer stories where there’s at least one character to root for (maybe Evie, the baby? I have no issues with her.)

Watching: Mad Men. Season 7 Part 1 finally came to Netflix. I love that show. Why can’t everything on TV be so well-written? The penultimate episode “The Strategy” was my favorite, entirely because of the Don/Peggy scene near the end. This is the kind of unconventional relationship I’m talking about–not romantic, not family, not even quite friends, really, but something else, and I absolutely love them together.

Listening to: The Les Miserables Pandora station. Sometimes I like to pretend I’m Eponine while in the shower.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Image found here

Wanderlusty Wednesday: Ile d’If

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Do you remember the first time you saw water that was so many different shades of blue and green it looked fake? I do. I grew up in New Jersey, less than a mile from the beach, so the ocean was always a navy-grayish color to me, and I still prefer it that way, big waves, dark sand, cold most of the year.

My family vacations when I was little didn’t take us far from home–my parents were big on short, educational road trips, usually to places ending in -burg (Gettysburg, Williamsburg, etc.) So I didn’t see a different kind of ocean until I was in college.

After my semester abroad in Dijon, France (go there too), my friends and I spent two weeks traveling around the South. My first glimpse of water like this was in Marseilles, the day we tool the ferry out to Ile D’if, the island made famous by The Count of Monte Cristo.

It’s been a long winter here in NYC and I’m looking forward to being able to go outside again without shivering. Until then I’ll be dreaming of the sun on my shoulders, salt water in my hair, and this surreal blue-green water.

Friday Things

tumblr_nlf7u2loCY1qa11wdo1_1280I’ve had a very long week and thought many times about running away from my life like the dude in the picture above. I know I’m lucky to have a good job with a good company that pays me more than enough to live on, but sometimes the soul-sucking hours spent in a windowless cubicle working on things that really don’t matter at all can get to me.

Even bad weeks have high points; here are some of mine:

1. I finally got around to watching the film version of Never Let Me Go, which was just as devastating as I’d expected after reading the book a couple years ago. If you feel like sobbing hysterically (while pondering a really interesting ethical dilemma), this book/movie is for you. Also, Ishiguro’s prose is so simple and brilliant, reading him is an asset to writers (and readers!) everywhere.

2. This Tumblr is awesome.

3. For those who like bread: how to revive stale bread. This article changed my life.

Reading: The Martian. It’s fascinating. And a definite departure from my usual angsty-YA reading list. It also makes me feel supremely stupid (never would have thought of trying to grow my own potatoes, what’s wrong with me?) Read it before it becomes a movie!

Watching: Girls. I know, I’m late to the party. I have never been so sucked into a show in which I dislike pretty much every single character (except Ray. And maybe Adam). Maybe it’s because I live here and find them so realistic. Realism wins out over likability anytime.

Listening to: The Horrible Crowes. This song has been on repeat this week. I adore it.

I believe the above photo originated here

On Editing: Three Tricks I’ve Learned

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So I wrote a book. (In a sun-drenched field, on a typewriter. Isn’t that how you write, too?)

Then I rewrote it. Then I rewrote it again. And again. And again.

To save us all time: I spent a lot of time with this book. And I thought it was good. I truly believed I’d made it the best work it could be.

So I began querying. And getting entirely positive feedback from beta readers. Positive feedback from agents, even!

But it was always ultimately a no.

To keep from getting down–and also because it’s what I do–I started writing another novel. This one totally different. And it’s going well! (I think.) So it’s been a long time since I have even looked at my first novel–over six months. Before that, I’d spent nearly five years straight with the thing.

Recently my boyfriend surprised me by turning my 95,000 word manuscript into a bound book. (You can do that here.) He preferred to read it that way. So one day I picked it up and flipped through it.

And… it looked completely different.

I’d heard the advice to print out your work and look at it on physical paper before. I thought, “waste of paper!” It’s the same words, right?

Wrong.

The things is–I spent SO MUCH TIME with this manuscript. And that’s okay. It was the first book I ever attempted to write, and so I was essentially teaching myself how to write a book as I went. But by the time I was done, I could recite the entire manuscript by heart.

And when you can do that–you are so hopelessly lost among the trees it’s absolutely impossible to see the forest.

I thought I’d remedied this problem by having some trusted friends–and by trusted I meant, I trusted them to tell me the truth–read it and tell me if there was anything wrong with my book. I had ten beta readers. General consensus was “We love it! Don’t change a thing!”

Great!

And then I asked my boyfriend to read it.

His opinion differed slightly.

Maybe it’s because he’s an artist too. Maybe it’s because he can just shout across the apartment anytime he reads something he doesn’t like. Maybe it’s because he knows me better than anyone ever has. He is brutal.

But so far? He’s been spot-on about everything he’s found that’s wrong with it. So spot-on, I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.

The weird thing is, I’d argue and argue with him–then I’d go pick up the printed-out book and read over what he was talking about. He was almost always right.

A few things that were apparent to me that I didn’t notice before:

Be selective about your details. I had already described a homeless man, and he kept putting his hand in his “tattered” pocket. I already described his clothes; by now my reader knows that any pocket he has is tattered. Don’t be repetitive!

TOO MUCH EXPLAINING
“Why are there so many scenes of them driving back and forth to school?”
“Because they have to go to school, and they have to have a way to get there?”
“You don’t need to show it all the time. It’s boring.”
Point taken.

TOO MUCH BACKSTORY/INTERNAL MONOLOGUE 
“Why does she spend so much time thinking about her dead brother?”
“It’s important to the story! You’ll see later!”
“Fine, but does she have to spend so much time thinking about him? Find a way to work it into conversation. The internal monologue is getting old.”
Okay, then.
Also remember readers don’t need to know too much right off the bat.

You must look at your work like it’s someone else’s, or you’ll be blind to all of this stuff.

So the best way to edit your own work?

1. Take a break from it. Longer than a month. I’d say give it at least 6 months, depending on how long you’ve been working on it. During that time, dive into something else. Something totally different (I went from a third-person, multiple-POV, past-tense magical realism historical fiction mystery to a first-person, single-POV, present-tense contemporary story). When you come back to your first story, it shouldn’t be so familiar anymore. Then you’re better able to see what’s wrong with it.

2. Look at it in a different way. In a different font, in a different color. Or better yet (sorry trees!) print it out. It’s helped me so much.

3. Ensure your beta readers are BRUTAL Ego-boosting kind readers are nice, but they don’t help you improve your story.

And a bonus fourth tip, which I thought I knew, but am having to put it into practice again:

4. “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”–Stephen King

It’s really hard to once more take a scalpel (or a circular saw) to my “perfect” novel. Killing my darlings really does break my heart. To be honest, I don’t actually “kill” my darlings. I cut and paste them into a document. I entitle this document “My Darlings”. And then I try and use those beautiful turns of phrase elsewhere.

Once I’m done with all of this, I will again begin querying. And I dare to say that this time, I may even get a bite.

Friday Things

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I’m a bit behind on the blogging due to a last-minute re-vacation to St. John (pictured above), where I devoured these novels. But I am back now, in full-on getting-ready-for-spring mode. In NYC the snow is melting and I am back to writing and attempting to move my life to where I want it to be, one day at a time.

Here are three things that improved my week:

1. I have a music discoverability problem in that I’m too lazy to discover new music so just listen to the same stuff over and over until I’m sick of it. I found this article on Medium and I’m going to start taking these suggestions to heart.

2. I started adding a dash of cinnamon to my coffee before it brews and it makes such a difference.

3. My “real” job (the one for which I get paid, unlike writing) is in the beauty industry. I never write about beauty because I am surrounded by it 40+ hours per week and that is enough, to be honest. However, people are always asking me for skincare advice. And honestly, the best one I can give you? Drink massive amounts of water. Especially in winter. Especially after a vacation of binge-drinking painkillers and rum punch. 10 glasses every day makes a remarkable difference in your skin. Trust me.

I’m also adding a reading/watching/ (and hopefully listening to, eventually, when I discover more music) section to these posts because I love those:

Watching: I’ve been called snobby, but isn’t that just another word for having discerning taste? So in the midst of complaining that I hadn’t seen a great movie in ages, I stumbled on this trio of films. I know I’m a few years (or decades) late, but if you’ve never seen them, they’re the anti-blockbuster: beautiful, poignant, largely plotless, and amazing.

Reading: I’ll Give You the Sun. If you read blogs about books, you’ve seen this title everywhere. It’s so worth the hype.

Book Review: The Infernal Devices

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“Heroes endure because we need them. Not for their own sakes.”

I finished The Mortal Instruments series a couple of months ago, and while I most certainly enjoyed it, it definitely had its highs and lows, a mix of 3, 4, and 5-star moments. I put off reading The Infernal Devices because I thought my experience would be the same.

I was wrong.

“You and I, we’re alike. We live and breathe words. It was books that kept me from taking my own life after I thought I could never love anyone, never be loved by anyone again. It was books that made me feel that perhaps I was not completely alone.”

I loved these books.

They were more well-written, more well-plotted, the setting more richly-imagined, with the characters more finely-drawn. They surprised me, had me looking forward to waking up each day so I could start reading, had me fighting sleep every night so I could keep reading.

“It is the only way any of this can ever mean anything. Otherwise it is only—”
“Pointless, needless suffering and pain? I don’t suppose it would help if I told you that is the way life is. The good suffer, the evil flourish, and all that is mortal passes away.”

The Infernal Devices is a prequel trilogy to the Mortal Instruments. It takes place in Victorian London, and tells of the demon-hunting ancestors of characters I’d already come to know, with a few (immortal) characters actually appearing in both sets of books. The basic plot set-up is similar: girl with no knowledge of the supernatural world is suddenly thrown into danger, she learns of her mysterious heritage while helping to fight demons, and along the way meets a cute boy.

Or two.

“And I came to see that I could not bring someone home when they were already there.”

The real draw to this series, of course, is the thing all my favorite books have in common: well-written characters.

“You cannot buy or drug or dream your way out of pain.”

The secondary characters were all fine and good, but Will, Tessa, and Jem absolutely captured my heart. Their relationships were so perfectly constructed. I will always, always, prefer relationships that start as friendships, the long and drawn out sexual tension, to be culminated in some beautifully-written scenes where … but I don’t want to spoil them for you.

Spoilers after the jump…

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