Sunday, July 12, 2009

Three Common Problems with Manuscripts: Beginnings

I had lovely time giving my workshop “Write It Right” for SCBWI in Colorado Springs yesterday. The organizers had considered canceling, as enrollments were slow, but we decided to go ahead, anyway, and enrollments came pouring in at the last minute, proof that – well, proof of something about the power of hope.

In preparing for my session, I thought back to a conversation I had last month when I was flying out to teach a weeklong workshop on children’s book writing at Brigham Young University. Another faculty member and I sat together on the plane from Provo from Denver; as we were chatting, she asked me, “What do you think will be the most common problem with the first chapters we’ll be seeing this week?” I thought for a minute: “Too much back story.” She said, “Yes!”

It’s a common mistake, in the first chapter of a novel, to take the dutiful approach and conscientiously bring in all kinds of carefully thought-out information about our characters and their situation: their physical appearance, their likes and dislikes, flashbacks to earlier incidents, the whole history of what brought our protagonist to this crucial moment of time when the story begins. Most of this is not needed. It can be skipped altogether, or worked in a little bit at a time, or (at the very least) deferred to chapter two, once the reader is engaged and eager to learn more.

With the correct answer about problematic beginnings to my credit, Alane then asked me to predict the most common problem with middles and endings. What do you think we decided?

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