Monday, November 14, 2011

Elements of successful novels: the first two pages

This post from Julie Kaewert was written for the Sisters of the Quill blog, and my sisters, including Julie of course, have kindly given me permission to share it here. Janet Fogg

I've just returned from two glorious weeks at the University of Iowa Writing Festival in Iowa City. It's always a little like drinking through a fire hose; as usual a great deal of useful information on writing was exchanged. I have a fun and useful tip to share.

We all know the first few pages are crucial to keep the agent or editor reading, so I signed up for the week-long course, "Beginning the Novel." The tone of the workshops tends to be literary rather than commercial, so our wonderful workshop professor, Gordon Mennenga of Coe College, apologized for coming dangerously close to being formulaic before sharing this. He'd gone into a bookstore, the classic Prairie Lights (Iowa City's Tattered Cover), and picked up all of the bestselling and otherwise successful novels of the past year or two. Each of them had all of the following on the first two pages (brace yourself!):

a sentence containing three commas
a one-word sentence
food (the universal ritual)
body fluid--sweat, blood, tears, urine
reference to sex or death
something sinful or painful
a color
a physical feature
a personality trait
question mark
mention of nature
anything with a brand name
body part or parts
metaphor, each of which saves five pages of description
city, state or street

He had us go through our first two pages and check off how many of these we had included. Most of us had two or three; one of us had ten or so (way to go Alan!). As far as evoking sensations in the reader, we realized we were writing at about 1/10 power. You might enjoy going through your first two pages and seeing how many you instinctively included...and then add the rest! You can always take them out again if it feels too much, or too contrived, but it's a useful exercise in writing vividly with all the senses.

Happy writing.


Nathan Lowell said...

Ok this is funny.

But I checked my current WIP.

a sentence containing three commas - yes
a one-word sentence - no
alliteration - yes
food (the universal ritual) - yes
body fluid--sweat, blood, tears, urine - no
reference to sex or death - yes
something sinful or painful - yes
a color - yes
a physical feature - yes
a personality trait - yes
question mark - yes
mention of nature - yes
anything with a brand name - no (historic fantasy. not many Nikes.)
furniture - yes
body part or parts - yes
smell/odor - yes
metaphor, each of which saves five pages of description - yes
city, state or street - no
walk/gesture/overbite/musculature - yes


I never would have suspected *that* many.

Kathryn Elliott said...

Wow! Must go check...

Martha Husain said...

Interesting. I thought we were supposed to avoid alliteration, three-comma sentences, and question marks (on the first page).

Thanks for this thought provoking repost.