The First Two Hundred and Fifty

The first two hundred fifty words of a manuscript are crucial. They should set the tone for the whole, almost like a novel in miniature. They are your ultimate hook. And because of that importance, you might want to separate those opening words from the rest of the manuscript and look at them alone instead of as a part of a larger whole. Consider your first two hundred and fifty words as flash fiction—flash fiction that’s missing an ending. So what should be expected from flash fiction?

Because of the shortness, flash fiction has to be very alive. Strong and active verbs are a great way to do this. Don’t ‘jump’ when you can ‘leap’ or ‘soar’. Don’t ‘make’ when you can ‘create’ or ‘craft’ or ‘construct’. Forget ordinary verbs and go for active ones. Flash fiction needs to convey emotion, make you feel something. The opening page should set a mood. If the piece is mostly descriptive, that description should invoke atmosphere.

Also, just like flash fiction, your first two-fifty needs to breath or hint conflict. It doesn’t need to be the main conflict of the novel, but is there something to indicate everything is not sunshine and flowers. Conflict is what runs the show and pushes a good novel forward, start off on the right foot by involving conflict.

The characters should have personality and be fully-fleshed. They should use sharp, real-sounding dialogue and stand out as individuals. Flat characters make for boring stories. Create memorable characters.

And finally, because of the limits on words in flash fiction, each and every word has to count. The same should go for your opening page. There shouldn’t be any wasted words that could be cut, such as unneeded tags (said/asked). Watch for useless filtering, using words like ‘heard, saw, looked, thought, realized’ and others. Not only does filtering waste words, but it distances the reader from the action.

Whether you’re entering a contest or trying to entice an agent, it pays to take a long hard look at your first two hundred and fifty words. Separate those beginning paragraphs out from the rest of the first chapter. Consider your opening as a work of flash fiction. Does it provoke interest? The opening words have to be workhorses. They are the sample that first meets the eye, and you need them to do their job.

 

Filtering It Out

I have been seeing a lot of filtering in the Speculative Fiction Marathon over the last ten weeks. Filtering. What is it, and why should I care?

Filtering is exactly what its name implies. It is running an observation through your point of view character instead of giving it straight to the reader. It’s pretty easy to spot but can be harder to remove. What happens is you’re having the character share the action with the reader instead of putting it directly before the reader. It’s like a stage direction that shouts ‘look here’. If you have words like ‘heard, saw, watched, looked, realized, knew, understood, seemed, and felt’ then you have filtering. Here’s a heavy example:

 

She heard the gunshot and dropped her book. It felt like her stomach twisted and dropped into a hole. She knew that her mom had taken matters into her own hands. Going to the window, she saw smoke rising from the rifle crimped against her mother’s shoulder, and she watched as dozens of blackbirds scattered from the cornfield. It seemed Mom had gone over the deep end.

 

So what’s so bad about filtering? First off, it adds to your word count. Those words are unnecessary, and they won’t help your cause with agents. It makes the writing look sloppy instead of sharp and concise.

Second, it’s like twirling your head in plastic wrap, or putting a swimsuit on your kid, covering him with a towel, and adding a parka to top it off before you go to the beach. You’re coating your writing in layers. Those words create a distance between the reader and your character. They filter and slow down the pace, adding a layer to separate readers from getting close to the action. Everything you write, unless you use third person omniscient, is coming through your point of view character. What filtering does is poke the reader in the eye and say ‘hey, don’t forget, my character is here’.

Most of the time, it isn’t necessary though there are exceptions. Rarely, there are times when you do want to draw attention to something such as the fact that your character is in a dark room so you focus on her hearing.

Here’s how it looks without the filtering:

 

The pop of a gunshot made her drop her book. Her stomach twisted as if it fell into a hole. Her mother had taken matters into her own hands. At the window, smoke rose from the rifle crimped against her mother’s shoulder while dozens of blackbirds scattered from the cornfield. Her mother had gone off the deep end.

 

Try writing without filtering words and see how much more vivid  and fast paced your writing becomes.

It’s in the Details

I was reminded today is my day to post and could only think crap in a sack. Yesterday we spent the day driving to and from O’Hare in Chicago so I’ve nothing ready. Forgive me if this is kind of rough.

My blog is entitled It’s in the Details because the small details can really make or break a manuscript. Details add life. They show a character without telling. Small points enrich a story and make it real. They give readers something to grasp at and say ‘oh, yeah, I’ve seen a person like that’. Adding in the details is like putting frosting and sprinkles on top of your cake.

I have a scene where a girl crouches naked in the weeds. (You might have seen it from this week in the marathon.) At first, it was a decent scene, but it needed more. So I went back and gave the weeds names: thistles, milkweed, garlic mustard plant. A thistle scratched her bare skin. I put in a strategic sharp rock. A garlic mustard weed crackled under her as she shifted, giving off a sharp scent when she tried to escape the rock that poked her bottom. Now I had something real. Who hasn’t sat on the ground and got poked by a rock? That shows she’s human, a rock annoyed her. That’s the core of world building. You might have wizards or vampires, manticores or zombies for excitement, but the small touches make it real.

Another example might be having a cloud of gnats pester your main character as they ride along on horseback or a cloud pass over the sun which sends your character into dark thoughts. There are infinite ways to use the environment to set the mood of a character, and it’s all about using those details to breathe life into words.

Which sets the mood better?

A single candle was in the room. She sat on her big bed and looked at her expensive paintings.

Or.

She focused on light from the night candle as it played over the wood of carved furniture and displayed silk and brocade fabrics. On the walls, paintings and tapestries were thrown into shades of gray, their colors muted. The flickering light cast dancing shadows over exposed skin.

And you can and should use details to flesh out characters. As example I have a minor character who is a high bishop in a fantasy world. I could say he was pudgy and old and had a high opinion of himself. Or I could show his character with details. Dressed in his violet robes and wearing his miter over his scant gray hair, the bishop held out his golden ring of office, topped with a two caret ruby, to be kissed. His jowls shook when the queen hesitated. Those two lines show many things about him. Gray hair-older. Big flashy ring and bright clothing-grasping and ambitious. Jowls shook-pudgy and concerned with his precedence. Probably not someone you’re going to like.

Without the right details, you have only the shell of a world. It’s all about expanding your senses and noticing things around you then adding those things to your story.