Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Fine Line

Last Sunday I attended a NJ-SCBWI Mentoring Workshop at which there was a First Page Session. In preparation for this I submitted a first page to my critique group. It was a revised first page of a WIP that has been IP for years. It's a project that, for one reason or another, has been difficult for me. I've stopped and started, abandoned and returned to it many times. In the current return I have decided to pretty much chuck all that I'd written previously and take on a new direction with a new main character, new POV, and essentially new everything.

My critique group trashed it.

Yes, this group of writers who I consider among my best friends literally ripped my first page apart. A first page! Quite honestly, I didn't know one could find so much wrong with a single page. Don't worry, they all did it in a nice way and started and ended their eviscerations with positive comments, but Gale still had to call me the next morning to make sure I wasn't planning on doing a Sylvia Plath. (I wasn't, just so you know).

I went off to the Workshop on Sunday with two first pages. The first from my contemporary YA which has been critiqued in so many First Page Sessions I felt confident it would not be torn to shreds in public - it was safe. The second first page in my writer's bag was the ripped-to-shreds first page of my current WIP with a few minor changes (the ones that could be managed without a complete rewrite). Standing at the desk where I was instructed to leave my first page, I couldn't decide which one to leave. My hand was on the ripped-to-shreds one, but my ego wouldn't let me pull it out. I chickened out and put the safe first page on the pile. My skin was not thick enough to weather a second shredding in less than 48 hours.

Something you should know about me is that I love First Page Sessions, often finding them the most valuable part of a conference. It doesn't matter if the first pages are accomplished pieces of writing simply waiting to find the right editor or a newbie written page that makes you cringe just to listen to it (and admit it, there's always at least one in a first page session that makes your hair stand on end). I learn something from every page that's read.

What I learned on Sunday when the editors read my safe first page was that I had some dialogue that wouldn't really happen, but conveniently allowed me to bring up a point of tension between two characters. That's a valuable criticism and something easily fixed.

But what I REALLY learned on Sunday came from other people's first pages -- To recognize the thin line that exists between starting with action, which is something we always hear, to dropping the reader into a scene without them having the slightest notion of what is going on. A Thin Line. And I understood immediately what my critique group was trying to tell me.

Now one could argue that my beloved critique group could have lightened up a little bit. On the other hand, our group has never been known to blow hot air up anyone's skirt. We all call it as we see it, which is one of the things I value most about the group.

It's another thin line, one we balance on at every meeting.

I'm not sure if I regret playing it safe on Sunday. Given that the rest of the Workshop went so well, maybe I could have weathered a second evisceration if I'd been brave enough to submit my WIP first page. It's a thin line.


  1. Great post, Meg! I am going to the one in March. Do you know if anyone from your critique group is attending that one?

  2. Ooh, I shiver to think what your critique group could do with a few of my darlings! Good for you, for having the courage to appreciate honest criticism.

    I've got an honest critique group too. Sometimes I just long for them to be thoroughly happy with something I've written, but who knows -- maybe that will happen one day. And how wonderful it will feel...

  3. Corey - I don't know of anyone going, but I'll ask. It was a good day.

    Mary - Having an honest critique group is worth the occasional bruised ego.

  4. Meg,
    Because I attended the same first page session, this post wasn't exactly suspenseful for me. I was pretty sure you picked the safe one. You wuss. But I would've done the same thing.

  5. Here's the truth -- Meg has some pretty high standards to live up to. Her first pages always rock!

    Wait a minute, Meg -- that hot air up the skirt line -- where have I heard something like that before? I know! Wasn't it from your former first page for your former version of your current WIP? If I remember correctly, your former MC felt hot air blow up her skirt? Am I right? Well, maybe not the first page, but pretty darn close.

    And if I further remember, that was a killer opening that totally drew us all in.

    Revising so dramatically like you are is really hard. But I have complete faith that your finished product will fulfill the promise of your original opening.

  6. Melissa - I know you had a good first page session also. I am not proud of my chicken-heartedness, it's a character fault I have to live with.

    Judy - "Blowing hot air up my skirt" happens to be one of my favorite phrases, you've probably heard me say it before. Revising is difficult but I couldn't do it without the group. Old dogs can learn new tricks.

  7. Hmmm...I'm on the fence here. I see the value in getting a first page critique. It's important to know if you're "wowing" your reader, or misleading them in some way, or worse, if you're just boring them.

    On the other hand, I've been to conferences where the first page critique session seems to be a sadistic form of entertainment. No encouragment, no advice to make it better, just a "this isn't working for me, next" with put downs and laughter through the audience. That sort of first page session leaves me feeling uninspired, whether or not I've submitted a first page. A conference should be a place where you leave with a fire in your belly, not ready to pull a Sylvia Plath.

    For me, first page critques work best when I have a completed work. Before then, it's poisonous. jmho

  8. Shucks, Meg, I liked your first page...for the most part. Maybe one, two, or more of the workshop editors would have too. Imagine how redemptive that would have felt. You could have written off your crit-mates for the cranks they really are! Next time you get the chance at a conference or workshop or wherever, why not submit it...just to see what happens. I say, seek revenge! :0)

  9. I think perfect first pages are pretty damn near impossible to write. If you read commentary about all a first page should do, it's enough to give you instant writer's block.

    But the hardest fact, I guess, is that once you've written the novel, what you have on the first page will probably have to be changed.

    So-o maybe don't submit a first page until you've finished the book?

  10. I think the key to first page sessions are to learn, as Robin said, if you're wowing, misleading, or boring your reader. You can't do everything on the first page - just set the scene.

  11. This was so interesting and I loved your honesty. Very interesting to hear what you learned at the conference. I've never been to first pages, but would love to.

  12. Christina - I hope you have a chance to attend a first page session soon. Some people love them (me) and some hate them. I suppose a lot of it depends on the editors...

  13. I was there on Sunday, too, but not in your first page session.

    I love first page sessions. I got hooked last year and now I try to attend as many as possible. Like you, I find them the most valuable part of a conference. I learn something from every manuscript.

    I'm surprised at how many people at these sessions don't take notes, though. I'm frantically scribbling away, trying to remember what was read and what the pros said. It's for this reason that I always volunteer to read. It helps me remember the whole experience.

    I submitted the "safe" WIP as well. I received very encouraging feedback, but it didn't help me learn anything new.

    That's always the toss-up. Do I submit something strong and try to gain an editor's attention? Or do I submit something that really needs help? Tough call.

  14. Tara - Yes, it's a fine line!
    I don't take notes at first pages. I just listen, making my own assessment as the pages are read and then comparing my thoughts to the editors'. Sometimes I'm spot on and sometimes I've missed the boat completely!