Monday, November 12, 2012

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.


Anonymous said...

Wow-- what a list. I'm not sure I could boast one or two. Fascinating!

N. R. Williams said...

Hi Janet
This would translate into our first 5 pages if compared to a published book, correct? Especially if we're talking double spaced, 12 pt, Courier New. Just wondering.

Tamela said...

Sweet list! It reminds me of what Margie Lawson trains us to look for with her magic markers. Her class must work, because I just looked at the first two pages of my WIP, and I had 10 of them. Best of all, this is my first draft.
Woo hoo! Thank you Margie! And thank you Janet, now I'll apply the list and get even more juicy stuff into those pages.

Janet Fogg said...

Julie, this is an interesting list, isn't it?

Good job, Tamela!

Nancy, an excellent point. I think you're right in that two pages from a published book would be roughly equivalent to 4 or 5 pages of a double-spaced draft.

Anonymous said...

Since I'm working on revision anyway, I went through the check list on the first 5 pages of my MS just for fun. I actually had 11 from this list worked in and could easily work in one or two more. Fascinating. Who knew?

Anonymous said...

I would wager that if we did the same analysis of manuscripts that failed we would generate a similar list.

In social science, we call this selecting on the dependent variable. If you just look at cases that have a successful outcome, you do not have enough variation to know if they are also found at the same rate in failed outcomes. You need a huge sample of failures and successes and then you need to see if certain independent variables (metaphors, body fluids, and so on) are related to the dependent variable (publication).