Focus: Questions and Answers for First Page Reading

Writing a stellar story is hard work.

Image by  Mabel Amber  from Pixabay

Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

That would be why I have no published novel. The more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know.

A few weeks ago, a literary agent invited regular followers to submit the first couple lines of their first chapters. After 20 entries were placed, the comment section was closed.

My submission? Let’s just say I did not do well. (How long have I been at this writing gig?!) In other words, my first couple of lines did not intrigue and, in fact, confused the reader. Not good.

Help!

First Page Questions

On Jane Friedman’s blog, Peter Selgin offers occasional first-page critiques. On September 4th, after sharing a first page sample that had been submitted, he wrote:

The effectiveness of an opening comes down to questions. The questions are always the same: who, what, when, where, how, and why? What varies is which questions are raised and answered and to what extent.
— Peter Selgin, The Challenge of Sensational Openings

Basic, right? But I obviously, I still need basic!

How many Questions to Answer

How many of the six questions—who, what, when, where, how, and why—shall we answer? As you have guessed, readers are more intrigue by unanswered questions and will read further to discover answers. But there is a need for balance.

  1. Answering too many questions—risks giving the reader too much information and decreasing the desire to read on as tension is deflated.

  2. Answering too few—risks confusion or sending the reader in the wrong direction.

What Questions to Ask

The other piece that Peter Selgin focused on was which questions we even wish to ask. We certainly do not have to have all six on the first page.

Which questions we ask and which ones we will leave unanswered depends upon the genre of our story. If we’re writing a mystery or a thriller, focus on the what question and let the search for that answer lead the reader through the story. To ask what, focuses the reader on a situation, a plot.

I’m writing women’s fiction. The most important part of my story is the main character. (That’s not to say thrillers and mysteries do not care about characters but their spotlight is aimed more at plot elements). Since readers of women’s fiction wish to connect with the main character, then I need to focus on the who and the why questions to draw a reader through my story.

Peter Selgin puts it much more eloquently than I have. I invite you to read through the two samples and the critique he offers for first pages on the September 4th blog.

Blink! Summer's over!

Wow. Summer went fast, didn’t it?

Most of my head space was involved in learning the new parish I am now serving: the people, the town, their joys, their concerns. So blog writing and story writing went floating downriver without me!

But I did get some reading in, fiction and non-fiction. How about you?

Photo by  Clay Banks  on  Unsplash

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

New Favorite Stories

  • At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

    …oooooh, Scotland, wealthy American trio, the Loch Ness monster, a brusque Scotsman, a couple of fey occurrences, set during WWII. What’s not to like?

  • The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

    …when a book starts off with somebody’s ashes traveling alone in a biscuit tin on a London train without a ticket, I’m intrigued.

New-to-Me Mysteries

  • Hangman Blind by Cassandra Clark

    …a medieval mystery and a series

  • Charmed Bones by Carolyn Haines

    …a fun read from the Sarah Booth Delaney series

Some Lighthearted Reads

  • The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory (a romance)

  • Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick (a modern woman’s story)

  • Enchanted, Inc. by Shanna Swendson (a paranormal series)

  • The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harm (modern woman’s story)

  • The Cavanaugh books by Stephanie Laurens (historical romance)

  • Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith (exactly as its title explains)

Some Heavier Reads

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney

  • One Day in December by Josie Silver

  • The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Non-Fiction Reads

  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

    filling in my missing history knowledge, this is a great book about the African American migration from the Jim Crow south (1915-1970s) in their quest to live free of discriminatory practices and lynchings

  • Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

    I enjoy anything Brene Brown but I didn’t get to finish this as there’s a waiting list for it so I’ll need to check it out again or buy it, however I did download a few of the worksheets from her website

  • Atomic Habits by James Cleary

    fascinating take about how to change our habits

  • Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

    hmmmm, thought-provoking read about how landscape influences our politics

How about you? What books did you have a chance to read this summer?

chimney leak

It’s spring here in the upper Midwest. At least until Wednesday and Thursday.

All of the snow is melted except for the small pile on the north side of my deck. The neighbor’s crocuses are blossoming. My tulip and daffodil greens have appeared. Rabbits are having a heyday eating some of the fresh greenery and the tender tips of my lilac bushes.

But we are predicted to receive a lot of snow on Wednesday.

roof+construction.jpg

Thank goodness, I found a carpenter last fall to repair my chimney leak. It’s warm enough today and tomorrow for him to get the work done that needs doing, before we have more snow on the roof!

Moving on

Not much revising happening on my story right now. Lots of unfocused thinking, what with wrapping up my time of serving at one church and preparing to serve another church.

At least, I don’t have to think about moving into a different home. I only have to pack up an office and shift it to another office. I am going to really miss the people at my current church but I look forward to making new relationships and helping another church continue their desire to be relevant for the future that is coming at us.


First Page Critique

I’m still in the midst of a life pattern change and so my restlessness is affecting my ability to write (Yea. I guess that’s an excuse, isn’t it? As good as the dog ate my homework.)

The KillZone blog, where mystery writers take turns writing columns about the craft of mystery and thriller writing, has an excellent first page up by an anonymous author today.

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photo by DXL from Unsplash

And Debbie Burke gives an excellent critique of all that the author does right! A bit different from other blogs or submissions where suggestions are for how to improve the first page.

So head on over, read the sample, the critique, and the commenters takes on it. Lots of learning there.

Studying and Art

A writer’s life is made of millions of minute observations which we then try to successfully capture in words. Writers want (don’t we?) to infuse our sentences and paragraphs with the five senses to convey what’s going on around us. Not all five at the same time on every single page! But woven throughout the story, whether it’s flash fiction or an epic Sci-Fi, we use the senses to envelope the reader within our world.

Paintings and photographs invoke the sense of sight, gardening and cooking the senses of touch and taste and smell, while music and the wind and the wandering rivers or brooks or streams give us sound.

Let Us Feast

photo by Juan Ignacio Tapia from Unsplash

photo by Juan Ignacio Tapia from Unsplash

Writing a novel is a feast because an author wants to lay claim to and use all five physical senses in our story. We want to help readers crawl into our imagination, into a world they maybe have or have not ever dreamed or thought of, to take readers outside of the normal, routine life and live in the skin of another being.

There is of course, more to the world than the concrete, the physical, which we take in through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and touch.

There are the emotions evoked, the spirituality that gives meaning. These are sometimes hidden deep within the subtext of a story but in other stories may be very visible.

So, in lieu of writing on my story, at least at this moment, I am studying:

All is fodder, as Barbara O’Neal shares in her Writer Seeks Experiences column on Writer Unboxed.

We never know where the mysterious unconscious will lead us as we gather bits and bobs of lived experiences and attentiveness so that we may craft stories that will enthrall ourselves and our audiences.

Brilliant Flash Fiction Humor...

There are wonderful 100-word stories on Janet Reid’s blog today. They sure filled my Monday with laughter.

Online Community

Between the community among her blog commenters and the sharkly wisdom and passion Janet, literary agent, shares with newbie writers, it’s a great blog to follow regularly for writer-wanna-be’s.

The reason for this weekend’s contest is one of the regular’s consistent calisthenics in using the words Janet assigns us to place in the story. He had to use (and other’s could at their own discretion) two extra words in his story: fortissimo and marzipan. Check out Janet’s reasons and rules for the Stymie Steve Forti contest.

There is some inside language. In particular, the winner received Janet’s vote as s/he made a cat the heroine of the story. Janet referenced Her Grace, the Duchess of Yowl (DoY). Regular readers of the blog know that Janet regularly cat-sits the DoY. Janet herself is no slouch in telling amusing stories whenever the DoY is living with her.

frost on a window

frost on a window



African American Heritage Museum

Last weekend I went to the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery. It just opened last fall. For 30 years there were attempts to open a museum in Minnesota, one of the few states that did not have a museum dedicated to African American history.

Green-Book

One of the artifacts in the museum, is a Green-Book, a travel guide for black travelers to black friendly hotels, taverns, garages, restaurants, night-clubs, service stations, and more. From the 1940 Edition that was in a case, here are the black friendly places in Minnesota:

Green+book-inside.jpg

from the 1940 Edition: The Negro Motorist Green-Book: Prepared in cooperation with the United States Travel Bureau, Publisher Victor H. Green

There were two vibrant African American neighborhoods in the Twin Cities but both neighborhoods were destroyed by the placement of Highway 94 in St. Paul and Highway 55 in Minneapolis.

Rondo Neighborhood, St. Paul

Highway 94, built between 1956-1968, cut the neighborhood in half and displaced 600 residents from the Rondo neighborhood. There have been on-going conversations about the impact of Highway 94. In 1982, Marvin Anderson, whose father lost his home and his business, initiated Rondo Days, a community festival held each summer. In 2016 St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and state Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle apologized for what happened and there are talks about how to make reparations for what was done.

Phyllis Wheatley Community Center

and Minnesota Land Trust

There are several panels in the 4th floor museum to tell various pieces of history that happened in Minnesota and one panel described the land and lake available for black children to go to in the summer.

Lake.jpg

There is so much history to learn and in learning, we move beyond monochromatic stereotypes we have of people who were not part of our own neighborhoods. In reading these histories, we become aware of the struggles other people have had, and still have, due, not to their behavior but because of the color of their skin.

Have you studied history besides that of white ancestors?




Four Vision Quests of Jesus

Written by Steven Charleston, citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and ordained at Wakpala, South Dakota on Standing Rock Reservation. He has served as national director for Native American ministries in the Episcopal Church, tenured professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, Bishop of Alaska, and President and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

book.jpg

A friend recommended this book to me. I’m only half-way through yet this book has unmoored my faith and at the same time rooted me more firmly in God as made known through the life of Jesus.

A Native American Spirituality

I am struck by the care with which Charleston writes. He shares of his own experiences as a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, raised as a Christian. His tribe, friendly with the Spanish, French, and English people, and allies fighting alongside American soldiers during the War of 1812, had invited Presbyterian ministers to their nation because they wanted to learn more about European religious practices. Because Christian theology “resonated with our own religious traditions, we quickly adopted Protestantism.”

But then in the 1830s, the Choctaw people were among many Native American nations, betrayed by the American government, were forced to take the Trail of Tears.

Charleston also deconstructs the non-Native understanding of quest and teaches the components of a classic Native American vision quest: preparation, community, challenge, lament.

Not a long book (162 pages), the first chapters give us context and setting, share Native American telling of history, and deconstruct terms understood a particular way within the Native American communities.

I believe Jesus both corrects and confirms the original covenants God made with God’s people. Israel and Native America are not alone in having a sacred memory of the encounter with God. There are many “old testaments.”

Having just finished the chapter on the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, I’m now at the point to read about the four vision quests of Jesus.

If you have a desire to strengthen your spirituality or better understand a Native American approach to Christianity, I highly recommend this book.



Wow! Women on Writing contest

Annnnnd yes!

I made it into the Top 10 with my short story—The Oak and The Boomerang Daughter.

Photo by  Val Vesa  on  Unsplash

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

There were 250 entries for the contest and I also asked for a critique of my story, which was given by one of the panel judges. The guest judge to help determine the top three was literary agent Heather Flaherty of The Bent Agency. You can scroll down on the page of the Top Three Winners to find her manuscript wish list.

Go here and scroll down if you’d like to read the Top Three winners.

Go here if you’d like to read my short story—The Oak and the Boomerang Daughter.

And it’s time to get back to writing.


Spreadsheets for revisions

I’m in waiting mode.

Waiting for my story to come back from a beta reader. Waiting to see if my short story made it to the top three in the contest. And it’s a gray Monday morning. Quite bleak and blech looking outside.

So let’s do something fun—spreadsheets!

Although I’m not reworking the chapters of my story, I’m still thinking about it and analyzing it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been studying specific blogs from Jami Gold, Janice Hardy, and KM Wieland to measure how well my story is working.

By measure, I do not mean formulaic. But readers come to story with expectations—there will be two forces tugging against each other because they have goals that conflict with one another, their struggle will be set in a particular time and place, there will be (if the story is lengthy) a series of setbacks and advances until the FINAL big victory and defeat. If there is no tension in the story, why would a reader continue to turn the pages?

When I am writing or revising, it sometimes feels like all I do is fiddle around with words (true!) and I accomplish nothing (not true!). This is where a spreadsheet comes in handy.

Three Act Structure

Stories are divided into three parts: beginning, middle, and end.

How much of a story falls into each category? According to blogs I’ve read, the middle is often the biggest at 50% of the story. The beginning and the end contain 25% each.

But, I’ve also read that some stories shorten their beginnings to twenty percent and add the extra five percent to the middle. This is how I’ve chosen to roll with my story.

Spreadsheet

Below is just one of my excel spreadsheets. Under Act One, I list:

  • my chapter title

  • my January 2019 word count

  • my current word count

The figures in both the January and current word count columns are the same as I’m letting my story lie fallow while my beta reader has it. Some chapter titles have the year listed in front of them.

Behind the current word count, you’ll see I’ve bolded the major Plot Points that fall in Act 1; Launch (or Hook) and Inciting Event (or Inciting Incident). The red squares list the antagonist’s actions that I want to make obvious in that chapter.

3+Act+Structure.jpg

My chapter titles won’t necessarily be part of the finished book. But the titles help me recall what each chapter is about and, better yet, they may make it easier to write out the synopsis when the time comes.

After I write for the day, I enter the figures (from the word count listed on the word doc of that chapter) into this sheet. You’ll notice the bolded figure of 20,047. That’s a sum function I’ve put in place to help track the number of words in Act 1. Up above, you’ll notice the figure, 13,362, which is where the Inciting Incident comes in at. KM Wieland lists 12% (middle of Act 1 because she uses 25% as the amount of the story to be in Act 1) as the ideal place where readers will expect some event or incident to add tension and kick the story up another gear.

Revision Experimentation

When I’m revising and having problems with the line-up of my chapters, (I’m currently having problems with my Act III. Again.) then I will add an excel sheet.

REvise+and+Edit.jpg

Revise

Experiment

As I write out what my next steps will be to edit and revise my story, I sometimes find myself deadending. I’ve dead-ended (pun intended) a couple of times at the ending.

Not the very very end. I’m quite happy with my resolution and the new normal world.

But my problem is with the most exciting chapters when Act III starts to the resolution, the climactic sequence that leads to the climax, the high point of the conflict. You’d think that would be easy to write.

Act III is complicated because there’s so much to wrap up and wind down in order to provide a victory and a defeat.

Since I have certain pieces in place (I’m just not happy with their placement), I like to experiment with where they might go, doing so on a totally new sheet. That way, I don’t risk ruining my spreadsheet with all the figures and sums listed on it.

And with that…it’s time for me to get back to sorting out Act III.

Do you create your own excel sheets to use to track your progress through your writing?