I attend several writers conferences each year. I love it. I love learning. There is always more for me to learn. I inhale writing information, always looking for ways to improve my process and make myself more productive.
This year, one piece of advice topped everything else I learned. It came from Ronie Kendig, a talented author, who, next year, will release her first young adult fantasy novel--which is AMAZING. (I got to read the first three chapters.)
Here are some of Ronie's books. You should check them out. They're great.
And here is Ronie's picture:
Okay, now back to Ronie's writing wisdom that changed the way I edit.
Last week, I talked about the importance of the opening line of a book. Ronie talked about that in her class. But she took it ever further. She encouraged us to pay strict attention to the firsts and lasts.
-Of every chapter
-Of every paragraph
-And sometimes (in the white space) of every sentence
Especially on the first page of your book.
-You also want to give a good first impression when the reader glances at the page. This is about paragraph length vs. white space. (White space is good. You want lots of it.) But also, a reader's eyes are drawn to white space and the words that show up there. Look at the words in the white space. What do they say? Is there action in those words? Is something happening? Do those words strike a mood? Hopefully they don't say something completely awkward.
So, yes. Pay close attention to your first sentence. But also to your last sentence of the chapter. And to your last sentence of the first paragraph. And the first and last words of each paragraph on that first page.
For an example on how to put this into action, let's look at one of my first pages. This is from Onyx Eyes, the book I started writing on my author blog that I had to temporarily abandon. (I will return to it soon, but if you want to read more, click on the title above.)
I haven't done too badly here. The paragraph that begins with "Silence" feels too long. I'd like to rewrite it to give more white space.
The words I've highlighted are my firsts and lasts. I want to make sure I use strong words there. Words that mean something and grab the reader's attention. I might change "We are not fairies, Kenneth" to "We are not fairies." Fairies is a stronger word than Kenneth, who the reader doesn't yet know. I'd also look at the pronouns and see about changing some of them out.
There isn't much movement in this scene. They're just standing around talking. Perhaps I could rewrite this to have them entering the room and taking in the scene of the crime.
The mood is tense. Drake is upset, and he is in charge, so his behavior has everyone else on edge--except Kenneth, who is always calm. I think readers could relate to that.
As to the words in the white space... The reader's eyes are drawn to what I highlighted blue. I'm not opposed to what I have. It's not awkward. There is a lot of eye movement. But it doesn't grip the reader, either.
Here is my quick rewrite. See how this looks a bit better?
But can you see how such an exercise is useful? Especially for page one?
Do keep in mind, this is just for submitting to an editor or agent. If your book is published, the words, paragraphs, and white space will shift during typesetting (which is when they format your Word file into a book file). You can look at the firsts and lasts again when you're proofing your final galleys. But at that point, you can't change a ton or you'll annoy your editor.
I visited a school a few weeks back. I set five books (that were not mine) in front of them and asked how they chose a book. First I had them judge the books by front cover alone. Then I read the backs. Then I read the first page. I was really surprised at how many kids changed their minds about which book to read after hearing the first page.
First pages matter. A lot.
What do you guys think? Do you see value in this "firsts and lasts" exercise?