From Sarah, With Joy

Writer querying two novels and some other word babies. I tend to effervesce.

New post every Monday

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Most Important Thing For Your First Paragraph

One of the most interesting (and terrifying) parts of the recent Las Vegas Writers Conference was a panel they did during Friday lunch. Before the conference, attendees could send in an anonymous first page to be read during the panel. The agents would listen and then raise their hand at the point where they would stop reading. Then they would give feedback.

You can see how this would be invaluable.

Of course I submitted a first page, and it went over decently well. Only half the agents raised their hands, which is good, and the other half all raised their hands at the exact same spot. Which, of course, meant I really, really needed to take a close look at that spot.

That spot was a descriptive paragraph.

It wasn't just a descriptive paragraph, though. It was a descriptive paragraph after a descriptive paragraph. The agents said the writing and characterization was good, but there was too much description and not enough action. I went back and trimmed and rearranged, and I do think that feedback made the opening passages much better.

As I listened to some of the other entries, and saw which pages made all the agents raise their hands, and which kept all their attention, I noticed a few things. Often when I thought the writing was a little poor, the agents kept their hands down. When I thought something was weird, they kept their hands down.

Here's the key--the most important lesson I took from this panel. In your very first paragraph, a character must be doing something

The stories that kept the agents reading had action. Sometimes it was all action, and very little characterization, and the agents commented on that and said it needed work, but that they would read a little more. They told almost everyone to pair down the overwriting and focus on the action. There were even stories with as much description as mine, but it was more evenly spaced out and involved action.

To borrow terminology from Writing Excuses, one of my all-time favorite podcasts, your first paragraph--even your first sentence--does best when it features a protagonist who protags.

Right, now write!

Sarah Allen

20 comments:

  1. Start with action - check!
    At least you knew exactly what you had to fix.

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    1. Exactly. It was nice to know exactly what was the trouble spot. And a good lesson for all my future projects! This is why conferences are so valuable, in my opinion.

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  2. That must have been terrifying. Good for you for being so brave. Thank you for the information. I will definitely use it in the future.

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    1. The anonymity helped a lot :D There was one agent who really, really did not like my page, but because it was anonymous, and because he was like, "the writing is good, I just hate teenagers," I just had to laugh.

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  3. Replies
    1. Oh good!! I definitely recommend conferences if you get the chance.

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  4. Really enjoying all these reports form the conference. Very helpful.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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    1. Yay! I'm so glad :) I only hope to be as practical and helpful as your blog. I know there are so many conferences I wish I could go to but can't, so I like hearing what people learned from them.

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  5. That was a very good piece of advice.

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    1. Thank you thank you! I appreciate the kind words.

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  6. I mostly have read older books my whole life, so it took me awhile to get used to the fact that the typical modern book no longer starts with backstory or descriptive passages. It didn't come overnight, but I eventually figured out how to blend my particular style and voice with modern expectations, without writing like someone I'm not.

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    1. I think that's the perfect answer! And I'm with you. In those pages that the agents critiqued, I liked my fun character descriptions. As I edited, I realized I didn't need to cut out my particular style and all the descriptions, I just needed to carefully arrange things to give it a better flow and more exciting action. All these things we learn hopefully just make us better writers :)

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  7. Thanks for the great advice. I'll be doing some revising thanks to you. :-)

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

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    1. Thanks to the conference, you mean :) This is why I've become a conference convert. They can be so helpful!

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  8. Thanks for your reports. Having something you've written read aloud IS nerve wracking but that advice was priceless!

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    1. Exactly. It was terrifying, but I couldn't pass it up!

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  9. A protagonist who protags? Love it! I'm revising right now, and when I reread my first sentence/paragraph/page, I think I may have laughed/thrown up/cried. So I'll have to take this advice. :)

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    1. Yeah, if you like that I definitely recommend that podcast. It's great. And yeah, don't worry, first drafts are allowed to be messy and I definitely had some revising to do after I heard all this feedback from agents!

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  10. I had a chance to be part of a similar panel at a conference a couple years ago. Unfortunately, only a few papers were drawn from those submitted to be read and mine wasn't one of them. Still, it was a real eyeopener to see how fast some of those agents' hands went up and why.

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    1. Yeah, definitely eye-opening! And so worth it :)

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