Figuring Out Where to Start Your Novel

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The other day I was trying to figure out where to start my story. Trying to figure that out is like trying to figure out where to drop your character head first into a world that already exists and is spinning full speed. My goal was to find the exact moment that matters, the moment that the rest of the story hinges upon.

The world is already in place, the people already exist; who is this character in relation to all of these things?

No pressure, right?

So I needed to figure out the entrance point. First line. First scene. The moment the main character is introduced. The first time we see her/him on the page. A moment that doesn’t move so fast that the reader doesn’t understand (or care) who the main character is, what he/she wants, and what’s going on in the story, and a moment that doesn’t drag so poorly that readers are yawning mid page. I was also mindful about not introducing too many characters too soon, and focusing on putting the main character on the page with the right amount of action (I don’t mean car chases or gun fights, but someone who, right when we see her, is in the middle of doing something that springboards us into the crux of the story). The moment that will make the reader care.

I thought about this (okay, agonized. My husband can attest to this), and tried to find:

The right protagonist to tell this story (the character needs to be fully equipped to deal with all the obstacles I’m going to throw her way)
A character introduction that wasn’t laden with backstory
The correct pacing
The right tone
The right first line
The right supporting cast

My biggest issue: I know the plot, what was supposed to happen in the middle, and I kind of know what’s going to happen in the end. But picking the right moment to introduce the reader to the main character, right before things are going to get really shaken up? Not so easy for me (especially since that first page a thon where I learned that too much description at the start of a novel is like kryptonite).

The entire story hinges upon that beginning. That first line. Whatever happens in that first scene is the launch pad for the rest of the story, so it has to matter, has to be right. Has to make sense for what will follow.

I think I’ve figured it out. I’m one of those writers who can’t outline a story until I have the first five pages written, tone figured out, voice, etc., so getting that first scene down initially is crucial for me at the beginning stages; I can’t outline until I’ve put the character on the page.

After mulling over all of this for a day I think I’ve picked the right moment to start the story. Hopefully one that piques interest without moving too fast or dragging; the one that’s (hopefully!) just right.


Squaw Valley Writers Workshop

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July is coming up and I’m noticing a lot of traffic on my blog centering around the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop.

I imagine that people attending the workshop have questions about what the week is like (and my last post about it focused mainly on my literary agent anxiety), so I thought it would be a good idea to give a brief overview of my experience that week. And if anyone has any questions about what the week was like you can contact me directly at quanie@quanietalkswriting.com.

So without further adieu….

I went to the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop not knowing what to expect. All I really knew was that my friend Stacy had been telling me for years that I should go, and that my mother was worried about me being around “all those mountains.” I knew that I would have a novel excerpt critiqued in a group of 12, and that I would have a one on one with one of the faculty (either an agent, editor, or published writer) where they would give me feedback on a manuscript excerpt, but other than that, I didn’t know what the week would entail.

So I drove there from San Jose, the whole time wondering if my GPS (I call her Bettina) was leading me astray because at one point, I looked to the right of me and saw no guard rail and what appeared to be a very precarious cliff. I put the petal to the metal and rechecked Bettina, and it turns out she was confused about whether the workshop was in Nevada or California. I turned her off and used the directions given by the workshop organizer (and was relieved that she didn’t get so confused that she thought the workshop was somewhere over that cliff).

When I got to the Olympic Lodge people were lined up inside, so I followed suit, and when I was next, told the lady with the notepad my name. She wrote my name down and told me that they would be with me in just a second. After about fifteen minutes they called me up (I felt like a contestant on the Price is Right, but refrained from running up there while waving my hands in the air). I handed someone my manuscripts and received a groovy black folder with my name written on it in a silver marker. Très chic, I thought. Inside of it was a schedule of events, the workshop schedule that told me which workshop group I would be in (it was group 8), where we’d be meeting, and which manuscripts I should read the next day. (There was also a map in the folder, but since I am sort of map impaired, I squinted at it for at least twenty minutes before deciding that I would probably just use it to draw squiggly lines.)

After that I checked into my room at the hotel (which was right across the street), and took a picture of it (it has a kitchen! I yelled when I called my husband), and piddled around until the opening talk started at 5. I felt really intimidated. These other writers looked like they meant business. Like they’d read James Joyce and survived, or understood Tristram Shandy the first time around. I, on the other hand, had tried to read Joyce and gave up when I got to the moo cow, and banged my head against the wall the first time I tried my hand at Stern. Would I make any friends? What if they didn’t like me? Well, that actually turned out to be a non issue. As soon as everyone gathered the questioning began; which group are you in? Are you fiction? I found a couple of other eighters and we banded together; I was not alone.

The workshop schedule was jam packed; 8 am sharp the next day, workshop from 9 until noon, panels from 1 pm until 5:30 pm, dinner at 6, and then another talk at 8 pm, and then I had to go back to my hotel and read my assigned manuscripts for the next morning! Whoo! But, as Mark Childress told us the next morning; you can sleep when you get home.

Duly noted. I survived on coffee, let me tell you. Every morning our workshops were facilitated by industry professionals. For our group we had Mark Childress, John Glusman and Michael Carlisle, Victoria Patterson, Sands Hall, B.J. Robbins, and Glen David Gold. These people knew their stuff! (I told a friend when I returned home that the workshops were like an M.F.A program on speed.)

My one on one was with Dana Johnson. I had about 20 minutes with her where she went through my piece page by page and gave me some very insightful feedback. The daily panels included people like Al Young, Alan Rinzler, and Amy Tan (and many other, really great people whose names didn’t start with an A). Topics included “Making Workshops Work,” “The Truth of the Story,” “Beginnings: Getting Their Attention,” a discussion of E-book publishing, and more. There was also a fantastic Invitational Follies the last night. By the time Saturday came I was actually sad that I had to leave! For starters, I met some really fantastic writers (you’d be surprised at how quickly people can bond in just a week) and realized that all of those industry professionals really aren’t so intimidating—especially during the follies when some of the agents got up there and got down with their bad selves.

The experience really took away the whole industry professionals as “otherworldly beings” notion that I had somehow built up over the years and allowed me to make genuine connections with some really great and encouraging writers. A lot of writers that I met had actually been to Squaw before and plan to return. I think that says a lot about the atmosphere there; it’s really relaxed with an emphasis on craft and building a community among the participants. When I got home I was teeming with all sorts of new ideas about how to make my novel better and am so glad that I went! So for anyone considering going, do it. The experience is just great.

 

 


When Your Characters Surprise You

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I thought I knew what my next project was going to be about. Without giving too much away (for fear of angering my muse), it was about a girl who discovers that her family has been hiding an explosive secret about her childhood.

Well. I was all set to start work on said project, and to sit there like I normally do and envision the world of the story until it all boiled over, forcing me to rush to the computer like a mad woman to get those first five pages down.

Didn’t happen.

I was at the beauty salon yesterday (getting all of my hair chopped off, but that’s another story), sitting under the hair dryer. This adorable little girl was walking by showing people something she’d colored in a coloring book when all of a sudden I got this image of this socialite in a gorgeous, strapless, colorful dress that had a split up to the knee. Her hair was pulled back, her makeup was flawless, and she held her head like she was having a migraine right before she took off running through her expansive mansion to hide the evidence of the crime she’d committed.

And just like that a new project was born. I was stunned (and intrigued!), and went home that night, put two sentences on the page, and then walked away. I let the idea simmer overnight and at about 5:30 this morning I was up creating the world of this story, and creating the bio for the main character, the poor lady who will be most affected by the awful thing this socialite has done.

I have to say that I am very excited. I can’t wait to find out what horrible things this well to do woman is capable of. It never ceases to amaze me the way these characters just spring to life, when we least expect them to, and remind us why we fell in love with writing in the first place.


The San Francisco Writers Conference

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I’ve been meaning to write about the San Francisco Writers Conference for a couple of months now, but with packing up an apartment in a month, driving across the country, and getting settled into a new city, I just hadn’t gotten around to it.

But I’m all settled now and ready to tell the world about how great of an experience it was.

For anybody who doesn’t know, the conference is held every February, normally around Valentine’s Day, at the Mark Hopkins hotel. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship this year (thanks to the uber cool Vicki Hudson), and let me tell you; the experience was just phenomenal.

There were dozens of sessions going on about craft and the business of writing and on the last day, there was a pitch session with agents that I wasn’t sure I was going to participate in initially. The sessions ran from early morning until midnight in some cases, and I went to as many as I could.

One of the first things I participated in was the First Page-a-Thon. This is when five agents get together on a panel and one of them reads the first page of your novel out loud, and yes; this means that everyone in the room can hear how incredibly good or bad the start of your novel is. So you walk into the room, hand the page of your novel to one of the agents, sit, and try to keep the beads of sweat from popping off your forehead.

The game is this: any agent can raise their hand at the point on the page they would stop reading if they had received your manuscript. If two agents raise their hand, the agent stops reading your page and all the agents give feedback about why they would have rejected the submission.

It was eye opening! You would not believe how many times agents don’t get past the first paragraph (and in once instance, the first line)! They cited turn offs as things like; a novel starting with someone answering the phone or with a knock on the door (one agent said the phrase “my heart pounded” drives her nuts).

Thankfully, all submissions were anonymous (we were instructed to keep our names off the page), but luckily for me, my friend Lindsay was sitting next to me, and when the agent read the first line of my novel, Lindsay jabbed me and whispered loudly, “That’s yours!” A streak of lightening ran across my chest and I covered my face and ducked as far in my seat as I could.

But at least they got a third of the way through my first page before two agents raised their hand! There reasoning? Too much description and not enough action at the beginning of the story. So that night, I went to my hotel room, cut the first two chapters of my novel, and thought about the pitch session on Sunday. I still wasn’t sure if I was going to participate because the thought of being face to face with an agent for three whole minutes made me forget what my novel was about, but then I remembered; agents are people too. And even if my pitch was so bad that they laughed in my face, I knew, as Lindsay had declared, that I couldn’t miss my shot.

So I swallowed my nerves and began hacking away at my pitch. The really cool thing about the conference is that pretty much everyone I met asked me what my novel was about (and vice versa), so that really helped me gauge people’s reaction to my pitch; if they seemed to fade out of consciousness during what I thought was the hookiest part, I made changes accordingly. Or, if their eyes lit up during a part that I didn’t think was particularly spectacular, I made a note to keep that part in my final pitch. Everyone, including the professionals, were willing to help. During the Ask a Pro session, Mark Coker asked me what my novel was about and really helped me to iron out some of the kinks.

The night before the big day I participated in the pitch prep session, even though I wasn’t brave enough to actually read mine out loud. But other brave souls did, and the feedback from the agents really gave me insight into the kinds of things they look for in pitches; they want the hook up front. First line. Most of the pitches (like mine) saved the hook for the last line, and I guess that makes sense since we’re taught to write leading up to the climax. But for a pitch, you need to give them the juicy stuff up front so that their ears perk up.

With that in mind, me and two other really cool writers that I met, Audrey and Allison, sat at a table reworking our pitches until we felt that we were ready for the next day. I couldn’t sleep that night, woke up at 6 am the next morning, and peddled around until it was time to head over to the Mark Hopkins.

Before the pitch session the agents let all of us know what type of material they were looking for. After I decided who I was going to pitch to I practiced my pitch until the greens were up (they group you by color). While waiting in line to pitch, I met super friendly author Lisa Renee Johnson. She was volunteering at the conference, and out of nowhere, hopped in front of me and Lindsay and said, “Tell me your pitch.”

And guess what? I remembered what my novel was about! She liked my pitch and gave me the encouragement I needed to go in there and face those agents. During my first pitch my heart was galloping in my ears (since the first page-a-thon I no longer say that my heart “pounded”) but I got through it, and by the time the pitch session was over I could roll that pitch off without blinking, and guess what? I got three requests for partials during the session! Two agents have since written back to say the novel is not for them, but one of them requested a full.

For anyone who’s interested, here is the pitch. I memorized it just like it is on the page. On a side note, one agent I pitched to, who will remain nameless, asked me,”Is this a contemporary story?”

I had not anticipated that question (or any question for that matter), and my brain took a quick trip to Bermuda.  I could not, for the life of me, remember what contemporary meant. “I don’t know,” I finally said, after sitting there for 10 seconds just blinking.

“What do you mean you don’t know? You wrote it!”

“Well, you see, (gulp), what had happened was….” Long story short, he passed on the novel.

Rejection and all, I am so glad that I didn’t allow fear to keep me from participating in the pitch session because it was such a great experience. I think I really would have regretted it if I hadn’t done it.

Overall, all the sessions at the conference gave me insight into the business side of publishing and I got so much valuable information about craft that after the conference I felt motivated to go out there and really make my writing career a reality. I met some really great writers that I plan to keep in touch with (some of them even read my novel and gave me some really great feedback).

Since I’m no longer on the west coast I probably won’t go back next year, but I definitely do plan to go back eventually (hopefully by then, I’ll actually be able to remember what the word contemporary means).


Transitions

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A lot has changed in the last few months! My husband and I quit our jobs in San Jose, packed all of our things into our Ford Escape, and embarked on a cross country road trip to Louisiana and Charleston (after riding through the desert I almost hopped out of the car to kiss the water once we got to El Paso). I hadn’t been home in over two years and it was so great to see my family and friends! We stayed in Louisiana for four days and then headed to Charleston, our final destination. I am not the most geographically savvy person, so I was amazed when we sped through Mississippi and Alabama in just five minutes (I took a nap and five minutes after I woke up we were crossing the Georgia state line).

So we’re here now in South Carolina and I’ve been thinking about what I want to do next. I’ve done developmental editing before and enjoyed it, so I started my own editing service. I love to cook so my husband and I started a made to order sweets business. With all that going to keep me busy in the back of my mind I keep wondering: but what are you going to write next???

I have a few ideas running around in this head of mine, and one of them, the one that seems the most ready, is really large in scope and I’m kind of afraid to write it because I wonder if I can pull it off. But I have a strong feeling that I’ll be starting a new project next month, so we’ll see which idea wins out. I’ve also been kicking around some ideas for a short story, thinking of starting a literary magazine (everything I’ve read about that seems to indicate that it really wears you out, but I’m still considering it), and even thinking about starting my own publishing company! I tell you, this move has really kicked my entrepreneurial side into high gear. But I keep telling myself: you need to be writing.

And hopefully next month, I will be.