Recently, I participated in Ryan Lanz’s Under the Microscope project, where I submitted the first few hundred words of a novel and received feedback on the particular scene. I’d done this before, and it really helped me rethink some of the possibilities, so I was eager to undergo the experience again. You can find the link to my submission and his comments here.
Here is what I learned this time:
- Keep things simple. A sentence like “Not yet morning, no longer night, the day was caught sleeping beneath the cool, clear stars, both moons having gone to rest, slipping past the horizon to sleep in sunshine” has too many cool ideas to be effective because it gives the reader too many word pictures. First we are told to imagine the night sky, and then to picture moons crossing the horizon to sleep in sunshine. I think they’re great descriptions, but together, they are too much.
- Readers like characters who do things, not characters who work to stay…well, normal and dull. If one of your main characters is someone who is summed up by his desire for inactivity (and this is beyond a running joke; he actually does everything he can to not do things) then you may want to rethink your character.
- A little information goes a long way. Hinting at how a character is special by comments like “other people” and “normal people” in the same few hundred words is like playing the same note, over and over again in a musical piece. Used as part of a chord, with other notes interspersed, these things can be very helpful, but if they appear too frequently, the reader is going to wish you’d get on with things.
- Get into the action without delay. The fiction that most of us read gets the plot moving quickly, even if the plot is slow paced. Even a work as slow-paced as Pride and Prejudice gets to its theme of marrying off the Bennett girls in the very first scene (and, in a more general way, through the first sentence). Admittedly, you don’t jump right into a scene between one of the romantic couples; you are eased into the plot, slowly meeting character after character as the chapters unfold, but you get to the heart of the story without a great deal of fluff.
- Good prose doesn’t have to be poetic to do its job. Statements like “he was out of breath” or “she winced in pain” don’t have to become poetic descriptions; they can just say what they have to say and let the reader move on. It all depends on your effect. If being out of breath is important, then it may very well deserve your extra attention as you cleverly elaborate the description. Otherwise, it just gets in the way of moving on with the plot.
If you haven’t already, I’d highly recommend submitting your opening scenes to Under the Microscope for feedback (or, if a scene you are struggling with falls later in your novel, you can send it to Writing That Scene). Either way, having a group of readers look it over and give you feedback can give you an array of new possibilities.
I call it the gift of doubt: giving you a chance to rethink things, to see where the story could go as the readers guess what the story is about, who the characters are, and where the plot will go. Their assumptions may be leagues away from where you were headed, but they can be the inspiration for a whole new beginning, and thus can be the most valuable doubts you ever have.
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren Photo by RainbowhART, Creative Commons