Friday, October 6, 2017

10 Writing Pitfalls from the Mentors of the 1st 5 Pages Workshop

Reposted from Adventures in YA Publishing
Each month the mentors of the 1st 5 Pages Writing Workshop read and comment on the first 5 pages of Workshop participants’ manuscripts, and participants have the opportunity to revise their pages twice based on the feedback of the mentors and the other participants, and to submit a pitch for comment as well. With the last revision, the participants also get feedback from a literary agent. While the manuscripts differ widely, a lot of the problems with the openings are the same.

Here are some of the most common issues the mentors and agents find in work submitted for the workshop:

  1. Starting in the wrong place: This is one of the most common problems, and to be honest, it is something most of us struggle with in our own opening pages. Some writers start too soon, offering so much back story that after reading those critical first five pages the reader still has no idea what the story is about or even the genre of the work. Other writers start too late, as Mentor Holly Bodger finds. In that case, the reader is confused, trying to understand what’s going on. In both cases, often the reader (including agents and editors) will stop reading. It may take many drafts to find the perfect starting point. Martina Boone suggests looking for the moment just before something changes and creating a scene that allows you to see what the main character is like before that change occurs. Finding the right place to start is among the most difficult tasks in writing a story, because the writer already knows everything. That can make it difficult to gauge what information and impressions the reader is taking away. That’s where having many readers—or something like the 1st 5 Pages Writing Workshop—is invaluable. Listen to the advice of other writers and readers, and be willing to make changes. Often in the workshop, after listening to the mentors advice, a participant throws out their initial pages and starts someplace entirely new—and it almost always pays off!
  2.  Starting with a static opening: We’ve all heard the advice to “start with action.” Many writers think this means we need to begin with something explosive and eye-opening, and that often results in starting the story too late. What this advice really means is that an opening where the main character isn’t engaged in doing something is rarely going to work. Static openings are dull and rarely hook a reader. Mentor Stephanie Scott advises writers to avoid “set up pages” such as the protagonist traveling to a destination and thinking about her life but not doing anything until she gets out of the car/off the train, when the story truly starts. I often see the morning routine in opening pages—waking up, brushing of teeth, thinking about the day. Ask yourself whether the manuscript would be stronger or more interesting if you wove the backstory into an active scene. Most often the answer is a resounding yes.
  3. A confusing start to the manuscript: Once again, start with action is common—and good—advice. However, the pitfall with starting with a car chase or big action scene is that the reader has no idea why that scene is taking place and doesn’t have enough of a connection to your character to care about the outcome. Action can be your protagonist pacing in her room, looking out the window, wondering if she should run away, jump, fly out it, meet X . . . you get the idea. In that type of a scene, you are presenting the reader with a central story issue—should I leave or go, should I meet X—basically, it is a before and after moment for your character, which will draw the reader in. From there, back story, or world building, can be woven in seamlessly. Stephanie Scott also advises to always name those characters early! We often see submissions where we don’t know who the main character is after several pages. Not knowing name, age, or gender can add to a reader’s confusion and make it difficult to become invested in the story.
  4. Relying on overused tropes: Mentors Lisa Gail Green and Rob Vlock both advise to avoid the use of the types of scenes you’ve seen frequently in other published novels. (And if you aren’t reading a LOT of recently published novels in the genre and age range in which you are writing, you absolutely should be!) Too often workshop submissions start with a character dreaming or waking up. Because these beginnings have been overused, it will be difficult to make your opening pages seem fresh, unless you turn the trope on its head or do something very different with it.
  5. Telling Instead of Showing: This is also a very common pitfall that the mentors find in workshop submissions. The writing and descriptions can be beautiful, but if the writer tells us about the character and the situation he finds himself in, the reader does not see and feel the story, and does not become invested in the story. There are many resources on this (a few are listed at the end of this article), but this is typical of something I often read in submissions: Character X is afraid because soon she will be married off to Y who is known throughout the kingdom as the meanest, vilest creature. Not only is the writer missing a golden opportunity to build suspense and a sense of both stakes and danger, the reader is not the least bit concerned, because the writer has not brought the reader along for the ride. Another side to this same issue is what Mentor Kimberley Griffiths Little calls "narrative telling,” where the writer presents the action as though he or she is a storyteller sitting around the campfire with friends instead of using deep point of view or showing to let the reader truly see/feel/live the story along with the main character. Either way, “telling” makes it hard for the reader to become invested in the story and the characters. It can absolutely work, but it requires an experienced and gifted writer with a very strong voice to pull off successfully. 
  6. The Dreaded Info Dump: Related to “telling” but slightly different is the dreaded overload of information. This is especially common in fantasy, but as mentor Sheri Larson points out, we often see it in contemporary submissions for the workshop as well. The writer makes the mistake of thinking that the reader needs to know everything right up front in order to follow the story. Although confusion is not good, the world or the back story should be slivered in seamlessly. Try writing just what the reader needs to know to understand the story, and then weave in the world building or back story information only as the reader needs it. Think of both as the chips in your chocolate chip cookie—a perfect cookie has just the right amount, so that you get a bit of chocolate with each bite, but still can taste the cookie.
  7. Descriptions: As in openings, there are many cliché and overused descriptions and tropes. Mentor Ron Smith too often reads about characters looking into a mirror and describing themselves. Instead of “butterflies in my stomach” try to think of a unique and different way to describe that sensation. In this month’s workshop, one of the participants had a lovely way of describing the moon, comparing it to a fruit. Your writing will be richer, and your world—whether contemporary or fantasy—more real to your reader if your descriptions are fresh and unique, and especially if they add to our understanding of the main character’s outlook on the world.
  8. Point of view and tense shifts: Mentor Kimberley Griffiths Little also frequently sees tense and POV problems in 1st 5 pages submissions. The point of view will change from character to character, the tense will change from past to present, sometimes several times in just those early pages. Point of view shifts—especially within chapters—can be difficult to pull off and require a very skilled hand. As far as tense changes, reading the pages aloud is the easiest way to fix that problem. Your ear will pick up what your eye may not! 
  9. Not understanding the genre: Sometimes in submissions we find that a story is labeled YA, when it should be MG, or the subject matter is YA, but the voice is too young, making it feel like MG. Stasia Ward Kehoe often encounters this issue in the workshop. She advises making sure that the ages are appropriate for the genre that you are writing, and to make sure to let the reader know the age of the character. (And again, all writers should be reading in the genre in which they are writing!)
  10. Workshopping for praise instead of improvement: Last, but certainly not least, understand the benefit of critique, and be gracious and thankful when someone takes the time to read and comment on your work. Critique is part of being an author. If nothing else, your agent and editor both need to know that you can process notes and do the hard work of revision. Professional reviews can sting, and even more painfully, reviews by readers can sometimes be based more on their own subjective experience than on what you’ve placed on the page. You have to be able to accept that, take what you can from it to make your future work better, and move on. But too frequently, writers look to critique partners, workshops, and professional critiques to tell them that their work is wonderful instead of hoping to hear what they can do better. That’s not what the 1st 5 Pages workshop is about. While we do have an agent mentor, we’re unique in that we’re really looking to grow writers and give a manuscript the best possible start, whether or not it’s a finished work. Why? Because writing the opening is the hardest part, and it makes the biggest difference to the success of a project. Once you have the beginning, the rest can seem to flow effortlessly. Have the beginning wrong, and the work can be a struggle.

You don’t have to know anyone to get published. You don’t have to win a contest or get an agent’s attention in a workshop. If your manuscript is solid, well-written, and—most importantly—different enough from what is already available to make readers willing to spend money to buy it, agents will pluck it from the slush pile and editors will want to publish it—whether or not you’ve ever interacted with them. So don’t go to a workshop or writers conference to connect with agents. Don’t go to your critique group hoping to hear that everything is perfect. The role of feedback isn’t to tell you how wonderful your story is, or what a great writer you are. Feedback is meant to help you find the problems with the story or characters or writing that you, the writer, cannot see because you’re too close to the work. Most participants in the 1st 5 Workshop are thrilled to receive the feedback. They don’t take every bit of criticism—part of evolving as a writer is learning to take what resonates and leave the rest. But the workshop participants who go on to get agents and book deals do have one thing in common. They dig in and revise, unafraid to experiment and make big changes over the three weeks of the workshop.

Keep in mind that most successful authors are willing to scratch entire openings or delete whole scenes or chapters that they love if those aren’t working or adding to the forward momentum of the story. Authors aren’t afraid to “cut their darlings” and they know that polishing words isn’t going to change a bad scene into a good one. Whether you do the 1st 5 Pages workshop, another workshop, or simply work on your own or with a critique group, our advice is simple: get people to read your work, listen to the feedback and criticism, really examine what was said and why, and don’t be afraid to cut, rewrite, and revise until everything makes sense and flows smoothly and logically in a way that allows the reader to be pulled into the story. That's what’s going to elevate your book above the rest.

This is the first in a 4 part series from the mentors of the 1st 5 Pages Writing Workshop. Please check back for the next three Tuesdays for more writing advice!

Additional Resources:

Adventures in YA Publishing has had a slew of posts about every conceivable problem with starting a novel over the years. Check out our Inspired Openings label for additional help, or use the search by topic. Many of our wonderful mentors also have wonderful advice on their blog and/or website. (Click HERE for a list of our mentors).

There’s an invaluable, quick read on the topic called THE FIRST FIVE PAGES: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO STAYING OUT OF THE REJECTION PILE by literary agent Noah Lukeman.

Kimberley Little also recommends these books: WRITING DEEP POINT OF VIEW which gives many examples of how to do just that, and RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW.

Happy writing, and revising!

Erin Cashman and the mentors of the 1st 5 Pages Writing Workshop!

About the Author

Erin Cashman is AYAP's 1st 5 Pages Workshop coordinator and a permanent mentor. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, three kids, and an energetic rescue dog. She writes YA fantasy. 

UNCHARTED is coming fall of 2018, and THE EXCEPTIONALS, a Bank Street College of Education best book of the year, is available now. 

For up to date information about the workshop, you can follow Erin on twitter here

Find her on her website.

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