Key Points: conflict and tension are good. Be careful of personification. Voice is OK, but get to scene and setting soon. Action! Sensory experience! Clarity. Put backstory in dialogue, action, and setting. Make sure we know who the viewpoint character is soon.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 32, recorded live from Dragons and Fairy Tales in.. um...
[Dan] Eagle Mountain, Utah.
[Brandon] Eagle Mountain. Yes.
[Howard] First Paragraphs?
[Brandon] First paragraphs. Yeah.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're obviously not that smart.
[Brandon] Yeah, well, you know, we're live in front of an audience and so that makes Dan nervous and when Dan's nervous, I'm nervous, and so... What we're going to do today is, I actually posted online to have people bring the first paragraphs of their pieces and we are going to critique them. Try and look at them. Now, I wanted to set up the ground rules. We are not American Idol. Our job is not to rip these to shreds, and we're not going to try to.
[Dan] Oh, man.
[Brandon] We may sound a little bit negative. We're not trying to sound negative. All we want to do is kind of talk about what we feel about the paragraph, and see if there's a way that we could suggest improving it, either line edit or content edits or whatever. So this will be a hybrid first lines podcast, line editing podcast. These brave individuals have either brought paragraphs or they e-mailed them to me. We're going to go ahead and start with Michelle's paragraph. All right. I will read it and then we'll see what happens.
It mocks me. It sits there, blinking, and each blink seems to say, "Hah. I am still in the same place I was an hour ago, which means you haven't written anything."
[Dan] OK. I like the... this kind of a twist at the end of that paragraph, that it's about writing. I was expecting this to be about something else, so that intrigues me enough to read the second paragraph.
[Howard] I want to find out what's blinking. Is it a clock? Is it the timer on the VCR, which is also a clock? [Laughter] Will you tell me what's in the next paragraph? I must know!
[Dan] No. You're not allowed to know what's in the next paragraph.
[Brandon] Looking at this paragraph, just from a writer's eyes, there's a couple of things it's actually doing very well. I have no complaints about this paragraph. You'll notice that the author, Michelle, has put some of the senses in conflict with themselves which creates instant tension. You know, "I'm still sitting in the same place I was an hour ago, which means you haven't written anything." It starts off with conflict. It is personifying something, which is a little tad bit of a worry, but it's balanced by a very strong voice.
[Howard] We talked about that a few weeks back, where the personification is OK, provided it's something we maintain or hang a lampshade on or...
[Dan] Yeah. Now, my honest reaction to the "hah" was I thought, "Oh, that just ruined it for me." But then by the end of the paragraph, like I said, it's a very nice twist and that sense of humor becomes a consistent thing rather than an out-of-place thing and it worked very well.
[Brandon] Any words you guys would cut from that? I don't see any. It looks pretty lean to me.
[Howard] Can I hold it and look at it, so that I can see the words?
[Dan] I wouldn't cut anything.
[Brandon] I think we're good. My only suggestion then to Michelle on this would be to be very careful that you start to give us some scene and setting soon, because if you just continue in this sort of falling in love with the voice of the character for too long and having fun with just this narrative, we're going to really get to know the voice but not have a scene. That's a danger. That's particularly a danger in this type of piece. Dan does this a lot when he first writes in. He's getting the character voice. That's great to get you to get the character voice, but make sure you give us a setting soon.
[Howard] I would come back to that personification, that anthropomorphizing that's happening there, you are making a promise of sorts to the reader, so keep an eye on it.
[Dan] Setting and genre, I think, is also a concern for marketing reasons. There's nothing in that first paragraph tells me where this book is or what shelf it's going to be on.
[Brandon] See, I immediately... just my instincts go that this is YA teen girl, maybe with... I wouldn't say paranormal right now...
[Brandon] All right. Let's do the next one. This is from Austin.
Litho sat atop the tallest spire of Castle Mountain, his eyes closed. Rain was falling down unusually hard this time of year, the sky completely darkened by angry stormclouds. He had something to do with that. "Let it rain," he thought, lending the rain power. "Let the rain hide me."
[Dan] OK. Again, that's kind of a cool end to the paragraph.
[Brandon] All right. We need really... we need worse people to bring us paragraphs.
[Dan] Well, I do have complaints about this one, though. It starts off... I mean, this is possibly unfair, but my reaction reading that is that it starts off very passively. Not necessarily passive voice, but the person is sitting with their eyes closed. I mean, there's no action anywhere in this paragraph.
[Brandon] No, you're right. You're very right.
[Howard] Well, the other thing is that "The rain is falling unusually hard right now for this time of year?" So in communicating that, that needs to be worded differently.
[Brandon] It does.
[Howard] The rain is thundering which... torrential which is odd for spring or something. I don't know.
[Brandon] Well, no. I want a... my big complaint with this is if you're going to start with a setting like this, which you are... you're setting the atmosphere. I want to feel it, and I don't feel it right now. I want to say, "Litho sat atop the tallest spire" that's fine "with his eyes closed, feeling the icy rain pelt his skin, each drop feeling as if it had been hurled from above by some monstrous force, smashing against him, splashing against the ground with the pelting sound of a horse's stampede. Lightning clashed and the spires shook."
[Dan] That's actually the first paragraph of my next book. [Laughter] See, that provides...
[Howard] I was just going to say, "Soaked to the bone, skull drumming under the rain..."
[Brandon] See, but I want... remember, sensory experience. If we're going to start with this, I want one line that tells me, is it cold? Is the rain falling hard? How does it sound? I really want to feel that.
[Dan] In addition to being very sensory, that gives you a lot of action. It's not the main character being active, but there's exciting verbs.
[Brandon] Well, and then when he compares his power to the rain... he's lending his power to the rain... we immediately will get a sense for how the force of his magical power is... this wild tempest that he is inciting... it will immediately then give us a feel for the magic in a concrete way rather than an abstract way, because we've now felt the power of the magic that he is using.
[Howard] The other thing that might help, instead of tallest spire... it can still be the tallest spire, but maybe give the spire a name? Maybe it's the King's spire. Maybe it's the...
[Brandon] Right. King's spire, and say, 50 feet above the city or 150 or whatever it is.
[Brandon] All right. Let's move on to TJ. By the way, you're all very brave individuals, and thank you for letting us do this.
Loving Elizabeth Harrison's kidnapping was the third in the last week. First was Mary Hollywell who disappeared from school. Then Alex Tanner never came home a few days later. Every teacher at Frontier High School, many of the students, and all family members were questioned by the police. This was the third time, however, that Elli was questioned. The first couple were informal, a 20 minute interview with a local officer in the principal's office, just like everyone else. This time was different. Elizabeth was his twin. They took him to the police station and put him in the interrogation room.
[Dan] Wow. Steep learning curve.
[Howard] Steep learning curve. I'm going to argue that the first word needs to not be the first word.
[Brandon] Yeah. I was having real trouble with that sentence.
[Howard] Loving is a verb, and you're going to have to convince me that that's not a verb by putting it in the middle of a sentence and capitalizing it instead of leading the book with it.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think it's supposed to be her name. Loving Elizabeth.
[Dan] Uh-huh. It's a cool name, but that's a very awkward place to put it.
[Brandon] Right. Because I had to... the first time... listen to that pause when I tried to read that.
[Howard] I heard you read it. That was interesting.
[Brandon] I was really trying to figure out what that sentence meant.
[Dan] There's actually several sentences in here that are awkwardly phrased. I especially liked "Alex Tanner never came home a few days later."
[Howard] [laughter] Sorry to laugh. But I do the same thing. That's often the way we think.
[Brandon] Right. That sentence is backwards. It just needs to be, "A few days later, Alex Tanner never came home from school."
[Dan] Well, and "never came home" doesn't need a day on which it happens because it's always happening forever.
[Brandon] Right. And we've got a lot of passive voice in here. "Every teacher at Frontier High School, many of the students, and all family members were questioned by the police." That's a classic passive sentence. It's not a bad one. It's the sort we always use. But you've really got to watch them, particularly in the beginnings. If you start with "Police questioned every teacher at Frontier High School and many of the students. This was the third time that Elli had gone through that." We have police doing something, and then we have the sort of conflict with the character in the last... the predicate. It will set the sentence up much better and set the scene much better. So in this one, I'm really worried that the language really could use a workover. Clarity is going to be the thing that I would suggest to you. Watch that clarity, watch that passive voice.
[Dan] What we meant when we said steep learning curve, there's a lot of names given to us. Very quickly. Just in the first... it looks like, I think, you read two paragraphs instead of one?
[Brandon] I did read two paragraphs this time.
[Dan] We get five or six names. That's not necessarily bad, as long as it's very clear and we understand what's going on.
[Brandon] Yeah. I may suggest getting rid of last names for this. If it's from Elli's viewpoint, and these are friends or people she knew, you may start with the first one and then just say, "Then Alex..." I don't know, I might keep the last names. The one that's really worrying me once "Elizabeth was his twin." I'm trying to remember, "OK, is that Loving Elizabeth?" And whose twin is the "his?" Is the "his" twin the officer or was it Elli? I guess it's Eli, not Elli? So...
[Howard] Yeah. I actually did not...
[Brandon] Yeah. So she was the twin of Eli who's being questioned... see, that's something I'd lead with. "Eli's sister was kidnapped the third day of the week." We've got a viewpoint character that something terrible happened to. We don't... he's not going to care as much about Alex Tanner. His twin sister's been kidnapped! We don't find that out for quite a while.
[Brandon] All right. We're going to go ahead and do our book of the week. By the way, TJ, thank you very much. Brave man. Howard, you've got our book of the week this week?
[Howard] I do. I've already plugged The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett. I just picked up the second book in the sequel... second book in the series, The Desert Spear. This book took a huge chance by opening with the character that you like least from the first book and spending 180 pages on him. I've got to applaud Mr. Brett because by the end of that 180 pages, I liked him. I didn't want to, but I knew that I needed to. And the book has been awesome, and has more of those fantastic stand-up-and-cheer moments that I like. So I recommend it to you. The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett. It's available at audiblepodcast.com/excuse where you can go and sign up for a 15 day free trial, download a book, and have it read to you.
[Brandon] All right. We're going to go on. Ew. Thunder rumbling... the Howard's...
[Dan] The ominous... whatever pact that Howard has made with Peter V. Brett...
[Brandon] Oh, boy. Are you implying that Howard is the... anyway. He does wear black an awful lot and that beard... kind of scary.
[Dan] That is true. And the forked tail, I've always wondered about that.
[Brandon] All right. I'm going to use one of the ones...
[Dan] OK, Howard, I apologize.
[Howard] Stop mocking me!
[Dan] Listeners at home, if you can't hear the thunder... it's either thunder or someone's beating the crap out of a dumpster outside.
[Brandon] Had to send the dumpster X...
[Howard] I've got my minions on speed dial. Pound the dumpster harder...
[Dan] All right. Let's do a first paragraph.
[Brandon] First paragraph, online, sent to me by Whitney.
The five men stood in a huge room, surrounding a table filled with the last of the magic left in the world. Around them, on shelf after shelf were all the books they had been able to find that had any mention of magic and the way it could be used. It had taken years to gather all the magical objects and books together. So much had happened since the beginning of the journey that they had undertaken. It had all started when the prophecy had ended with the great scourge and Calyx Synthain had gathered his armies and marched on Mornut, the great magical city in the world, starting the wars of domination and killing many of the wielders of magic. After that, the world had changed forever.
[Howard] That is a fantastic paragraph for backstory sorts of notes to tell you, the writer, all of the things that you need to include in the first two pages. I think the first two sentences could be reworked to be strong, because you've got a setting with people around a table with shiny stuff on it and they're about to do something either horrible or wonderful, I'm not sure.
[Dan] Now, as infodumpy as that paragraph is, and as awkward as a lot of the phrasing is, I have to say the sentence that these people are standing around a table containing the last of what remains of the world's magic... that was a really cool idea. That really jumped out at me.
[Brandon] I love that first sentence. I think it's a great first sentence. I actually would cut everything after that, and then try to work it into conversation and setting across the first two pages... or two chapters.
[Howard] I would shorten the sentence and punch it up. "The five men..."
[Brandon] Five men. We don't need "the."
[Howard] Right. "Five men surrounded a table filled with the last magic in the world."
[Brandon] Surrounding... yeah. You could rework that. There's just a lot of extra words in here. We'll just go on in this... even though we said cut the rest of the paragraph, I'm going to look at a few of these sentences to give you suggestions, Whitney. "Around them, on shelf after shelf, were all the books that they had been able to find that had any mention of magic and how it could be used." You really need that sentence to be about half the length that it is. It's got lots of extra words in it. I would say, "Spread around them on numerous shelves were the books... were each book they had discovered that had any mention of magic."
[Howard] I think the problem with that is that she's trying to be too accurate in description of what's going on.
[Brandon] And too many... I mean "they had been able to find" you don't really need that. You know, "that had any mention" there's just too much going on in there.
[Dan] So much of that could be broken down into dialogue and action. And more details.
[Brandon] Right. They're character...
[Dan] They could be looking at a book... I don't know what the rest of the chapter's like, so this suggestion might not work, but for example, they could be looking at a book and say, "Well, OK, there's nothing in this one." And he checks the title of it, and he throws it behind him. "There's only five left. We looked at every other magic book in the entire world."
[Howard] Or, yeah, "This is the last remaining tome on summoning." "Well, how do you know?" "Well, I couldn't find any others." "Well, but that's..."
[Brandon] And I spent 150 years looking.
[Howard] "Well, but that's not proof that there aren't anymore." "Well, it's proof enough for me." And then you have conflict.
[Brandon] Right. Or even just a simple... give us a character who's doing this scene, and have him scan the shelves of books and think about all the effort that went to gather them and say, "These are the last that are remaining." Were going to go ahead and go a little bit extra on this podcast because we spend so much of it just reading. So I'm going to go ahead and do one more. This is a piece sent to me by... he doesn't actually say his name. So... person...
[Howard] Your move, John Smith.
[Brandon] Or Jane Smith. But it starts like this...
[Dan] Is it Brandon Nolan?
[Brandon] Oh, there it is. Brandon Nolan.
[Howard] Sorry, Brandon.
[Dan] We didn't look for your name in the byline of your story.
[Brandon] Yeah, well, it wasn't at the end when he signed it and things. OK, I'm just dumb.
From the Journal of Elijah Gray. It all started nearly 10 years ago, when the Keytec first came to Earth. At first, we were all fascinated with these gentle giants, these 9 foot tall, three headed monstrosities. We clamored to them, hoping to learn all we could about the technologies, like the secondary skin of metal that they wore infused to their skin, called bioenginized steel. The peoples of earth created these folk with open arms.
[Dan] Very odd mix, actually, of generalities and specifics. The first paragraph is probably not where we need to learn the name of their special metal armor.
[Brandon] Right. I would say.
[Dan] But on the other hand, a lot of the other stuff is very good. Giving us general background. It all started when these aliens showed up, this is what they looked like, and we thought they were cool.
[Brandon] I'm not a terribly big fan of the "it all started..." sentence phrasing. I'd kind of prefer to just say, "10 years ago, the Keytec first came to Earth..." and go from there.
[Howard] Well, and if it's a journal entry, I do not write journal entries that start with "10 years ago..." I might start with a journal entry that says, "Flipped through my journal and found stuff from 10 years ago about how wonderful the arrival of the aliens was. Boy, was I wrong!"
[Brandon] Yeah, something like that.
[Dan] Or if it's my journal, it would say, "Boy, has it really been 10 years since I wrote in this thing? Well, what's happened? Oh, yeah, Earth was taken over..."
[Brandon] Wow. There's your story prompt. Everybody. I'm going to just counter on Howard. I actually think that it works just fine. There are plenty of people that sit down to write their journal and they're going to... they start their journal because they're like "So much has happened in my life, it's time to tell this story." And he's looking back 10 years and starting his journal. I think that's just fine.
[Dan] I will...
[Brandon] Counter my counter?
[Dan] Suggest... counter both of them maybe or agree with both of them and suggest that it works, but it ought to have more personality in it.
[Brandon] Yeah, I think it should.
[Dan] If it's from the journal of Elijah Gray... which by the way, I think is a wonderful way to open this, I would like to see more of Elijah Gray coming out. More of his personality and his speech patterns, instead of just narrative.
[Brandon] Scanning down, it looks like Elijah is a main character. We have a kind of epigraph start with like five paragraphs, and then we jump into a narrative with him as a character... I can't see if he's the viewpoint character yet or not. Yeah, I'm going to definitely say that. I really would like if you're going to have a journal like this, it seems like you can get away with a bit more of a zing. Maybe you've got it here in your first five paragraphs. It reminds me a little bit of... um... what's that great book? The True Meaning of Smekday? If anyone's read it, it's a YA novel that begins, "Well, I have to write this stupid essay about what Smekday means to me." You find out that Smekday is the day the aliens invaded. He's writing a school report on what the alien invasion meant, and that's how he starts his book.
[Dan] Well, that's cool.
[Brandon] Which is a great little twist on the alien invasion story, to have to write this essay.
[Howard] That's totally how it would happen.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think he's sitting in class, having to answer an essay question that is "What does Smekday mean to you?" And Smekday... something like that. Anyway.
[Brandon] We're going to go ahead and end with a writing prompt, which is what Dan said. You're writing in a journal, and you haven't written it in 10 years. Then you say, "Oh, man, OK. What happened? Earth got invaded. Well, let's start from there." Do this story, but do it silly. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write. OK, and we're out.
[Howard] Don't stop recording, there's applause.
[Brandon] Louder, louder.