Monday, November 17, 2008

Yes, I Know...

Once again, the all-consuming life has taken over. But...I submitted packet 4 today to Sarah, so I have no excuse now but to post.

SCBWI Brazos Valley held its annual conference this weekend, and we had the best faculty possible. Cynthia Leitich Smith (author most recently of the hilarious and gruesomely intriguing Tantalize) and her husband Greg were there, along with Kathi Appelt (National Book Award finalist for The Underneath) and her agent Emily Van Beek, and Kim Griswell, Editor from Highlights. All of our presenters were outstanding. It was especially exciting to have Kathi, as the NBA announcement is this Wednesday, and we are crossing fingers!

You can see photos of our event at Cynthia's blog (just ignore the awful one of me...)

I do have a piece here that will also appear in our little newsletter, but I think might be helpful at large:

At our conference this past weekend, we ended with a “first pages” analysis. Randomly chosen first pages were read aloud to the audience and panel members (our invited speakers and critiquers), and each speaker gave a flash reaction. That is, was the first page compelling enough to entice an editor to read on?

This analysis went hand-in-hand with Sherry Garland’s great presentation on “Grand Openings”, in which Sherry outlined some of the best ways to open a story.

At the end of the conference, some in the audience expressed concern that the responses to the first pages were overwhelmingly negative, to which Kim Griswell answered, “Yes, the market is tough, and what you’re hearing is that your opening must be terrific.”

I reflected later that I heard a slightly different message. I heard lots of “Yes, I would be intrigued enough to read on”. I also heard that different aspects of the openings were handled well – some had great characters, some excellent description, others intriguing plot ideas or good voice.

What does this mean for us writers? First, I think we tend to hear negative comments before we hear positives. Maybe that harks back to our childhoods, when we tended to hear “no” before “yes”! But more importantly, I think the market is tough, and it pays for all of us to recognize that the first pages of our novels or picture books need to be honed and polished.

Personally, I spend more time on my first page than I do on any other aspect of my writing. I’ve rewritten my first pages dozens of times, and shared them with my critique partners until they get a “wow”. We live in an era of snap judgements. Hooking your reader on the first page is the equivalent of grabbing the TV viewer with remote control in hand: you’ve got seconds, if you’re lucky.

I’m headed back to my work in progress, to rethink my first page. It won’t be the last time I rewrite it, but the attention I place there will be well worth the outcome – an opening that promises more great stuff to come.


Kim T. Griswell said...

I'm so glad you said this, Janet. As I reflected later, I, too, thought--"Wait a minute! We said 'I would keep reading beyond page one' for more than half of the pages we read." There were plenty of positives about all of the first pages we read, and I hope the authors heard those, too. But I stick by my main answer to the question, "What ARE you looking for?"--books we can love, articles we can love, stories we can love. Isn't that what all readers look for?

Janet Fox said...

That's so right, Kim! I think writers who are new to the process hear more negatives, and have a hard time realizing how important that first page can be.

(I say that having revised my novel's first page at least 20 times in the last 48 hours, and now I'm thinking about starting with another scene entirely...)

Thanks for your terrific presentation!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

You know, when I receive an editorial letter, I set a heavy object on it, back away for three days (at least), and then rewrite it. I spin every comment to my best advantage, liberally sprinkling in extra praise like "your hair looks nice today." Think what you will, but it's important to create your own happy place!

Janet Fox said...

Hey Cyn - So true. I have a hard time interpreting my edit comments. This week my agent made an editorial comment - I know she's said this before - but I suddenly heard it new.

That made a happy place for me! I just needed to be in the right frame of mind to hear the words.

And thanks, too, for your great presentation!! Speaking of happy places...