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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » My Bone to Pick: First 13

   
Author Topic: My Bone to Pick: First 13
David
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I'm rather new to the forum, but have been writing since I was 10. I thought I'd gotten a pretty good grasp on showing without telling, building up to climax and leaving a good bit to the reader's imagination in a way that spurs them onward.

Then I come here. I learn (as it seems) that nothing I do to my pieces seems to satisfy the criticism. The main comment is that readers need to know what the story is about in the first 13 lines.

How is this possible, if the POV MC has no idea what the story is about at the start? Need I make my inciting incident exposition, something that occurred before the reader was allowed to tune in? The books I've liked the most engross a person in the world and the life pre-action, putting them in the MC's boots in a way that paints serenity, and then shatters that equilibrium. Isn't that what we're looking for?

Now I'm told to throw subtlety out the window and start the book in a place where I can throw it all on the line in the first two (at most) paragraphs.

Where lies is the balance?


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AeroB1033
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This is a difficult question because so much of it depends on the story. But I'll throw an example at you from the novel I'm about to start work on.

Let's say, in my novel, the story is about the capital city of this empire. It gets captured by nomadic warriors (think China and the Mongols). My MC is a normal boy without much knowledge of war or politics, but he certainly notices when the raiders take the city in a surprise attack and his parents are killed in the process.

This introduces the first major source of structural tension: The city has been captured by raiders. Furthermore, my MC is suddenly without parents or a home.

The reader will expect my story to be about those two things. (And of course, it will be.)

What I'm trying to get at is that your duty is not to reveal the entire story in the first thirteen lines. You're supposed to start the story. There should be an inciting incident, a moment of important decision for your MC, something that propels into motion the story you're about to write. It's not always as obvious as a city getting captured by raiders, but it's always there.

Why is this important? Because your readers are there to receive a story. The tension inherent in the story is what keeps them reading, so it must always be present, from the very beginning of the story until the end, which should resolve the tension.

I hope this helps.


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wetwilly
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I absolutely do not think you have to be into the thick of the action in the first 13 lines. If you want to move more slowly, that's fine. A lot of great books move a lot more slowly than that. The thirteen line rule here is really only about copyright law.

The general principle the critiques is a sound one, though. At some point fairly soon in the story, the reader should know what the story is about. They should know why they're reading it and why they care about it. Whether it takes 5 lines or fifty lines to get it done is not particularly important, except for the fact that an editor is not likely to get to page thirty if he/she still doesn't know what the book is about.


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autumnmuse
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Well, sometimes the 13 line feedback isn't the most helpful.

The main goal of the first page is to get the reader interested and wanting more. If you can do that by describing one flower in detail, with no actual plot mentioned, then it works. If you do that by action that sets up the conflict right away, then it works.

The writing trumps everything else. Also, in a novel, you have a little bit more time than in a short story, but the beginning is still important.

You can probably think of a lot of published novels that started slowly. However, chances are those novels are not new releases by new writers, but rather by established names or published many years ago. For a more accurate representation of what you are up against, find a lot of published novels that have been newly released (in the past five years, say) in your genre, by unknown authors, and read their first pages.

You don't have to have a bomb going off on the first page; in fact, something that intense is probably a mistake because the reader hasn't had a chance to care. But you CAN put tension on the page in some form, or give a tantalizing glimpse of conflict to come, in a way that is effective without rushing at the speed of an express train.

I hope that helps some.


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autumnmuse
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Oh one more thing: often, when browsing through a bookstore, the average reader goes off a lot more than the first page when deciding what to buy. They'll look at the cover, read the flap copy, maybe read the author blurbs raving about the book. All of that helps sell the story in addition to that first page. However, you don't have all those tools available when subbing to an editor.

This is why the first page is particularly important when you have not yet made a name for yourself. You want the cynical, overworked editor/agent reading it to be blown away and totally caught up in the story, as soon as possible. You will also be able to have a short hook to entice them about the overall plot in your query letter, and possibly a synopsis. But even if the hook in your letter is fascinating, they won't read very far if the writing doesn't hold their attention.


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Survivor
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Sometimes you want to pay more attention to why people are saying something than what exactly they say. Other times you might want to pay more attention to what exactly they say than your preconceptions about what they might be saying.

Having read your openings, I have to reiterate some advice that several people gave you already.

Stick with your POV. People want to know what is going on in your character's head.


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Spaceman
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Sometimes it also depends who says it. Remember, any critique is self-riteousness in disguise. Every writer filters your story through their own way of doing things. That's why you can get diametrically opposed critiques and rejection letters.

How much do I need to know in the first 13? Not as much as you might think. On the other hand, you should catch my attention in the first 13 or it will also be my last 13.


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oliverhouse
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quote:
I learn (as it seems) that nothing I do to my pieces seems to satisfy the criticism. The main comment is that readers need to know what the story is about in the first 13 lines.

Understandable criticism of the first 13 rule, but, I think*, wrong.

We all want the same thing: a reader who goes past the first n lines. n could be 10 or 50 or 100, and people would still say "I know it seems confusing, but on the next line I show..." and "You're rushing me to cram everything into the first n lines." Thirteen is a good number because it correlates to the first page of a standard manuscript; anything else would be more arbitrary and much less useful.

So we have a goal. How do we meet it? What makes readers read (or not) past the first n lines? Grammar, spelling, sentence structure, clarity of thought, cliched ideas, infodumping, initial characterization, initial plot -- all the stuff you can criticize effectively using the F&F format.

To be sure, sometimes we give bad advice in F&F. Sometimes we propose cures for perceived problems before we know what the story's about: e.g., we tell people to tell us more (provide more data), when in fact they should tell us less (raise fewer dangling questions). The former leads to infodumping, the latter leads to tighter writing. You, as writer, still need to follow your own head about what works and what doesn't.

So, to use your example, you can hook people with something that the story isn't "about" in the first 13 (e.g., identify a macguffin, when the story is really about the relationship of the character to her mother), as long as it's consistent with the story -- but if the right people told me they weren't hooked _and_ I knew that the first 13 wasn't "what the story was about," then I'd rewrite it.

The first 13 method isn't perfect for everything, but it's good for what it's good for. That includes:

  • Polishing your first page before sending out to a publisher
  • Determining whether your "hook" is good (whatever type of hook it might be)
  • Identifying clarity, cliche, and characterization issues that you overlooked (usually because you're too close to the work to see them)
  • Asking other people if they want to read a completed work

    I critique on F&F based on how well I think I can help the requester with those specific problems (and a few other personal criteria).

    The key to benefitting from F&F is to listen to what your readers are telling you, even if you disagree with their solutions. If they say that they don't care about your characters, then you need to make them care. If they say that they don't understand what's going on, then you need to clarify. There are different ways to do that: cutting, augmenting, starting in a different place, editing, restructuring. Sometimes you'll get good advice on what to do, and at others you won't. As author, it's your job to figure out which of those to use (sometimes ignoring advice in the process).

    Regards,
    Oliver

    * That's my last qualifier: all this is my own opinion, but repeatedly saying so gets clunky.

    Heavily edited for clarity

    [This message has been edited by oliverhouse (edited October 31, 2006).]


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  • trousercuit
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    Maybe the default method of critique for the first 13 should be reactions rather than suggestions, then - sort of like a wise reader would give:

    "I was confused by..."

    "I want to know more about..."

    "I don't particularly care about..."

    "I skipped over..."

    And then go on to suggestions if the writer asks for them, or mark them clearly as suggestions rather than demands.


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    Elan
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    This may be a good opportunity to remind our readers of these handy forum links:

    Why the problem with the first 13 isn't that it isn't enough
    http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum1/HTML/002662.html

    Just tell me
    http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum1/HTML/002716.html

    When you get feedback that suggests you are starting your story out in the wrong spot, it's another way of saying: "What you have here is boring. It's not holding my interest."

    You don't need bombs or explosions, or climactic events. You need a hook, something to make us curious so we want to keep reading.

    My suggestion is to review your first thirteen and ask yourself: Is there tension here? Is it clear what the MC's emotional state of mind is? Is there a hint of something big to come? Those are three things your reader might be looking for in the first 13. Give us a reason to turn the page.


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    apeiron
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    I'm a long-time lurker of F&F and here's a few characteristics all successful first 13's seem to have:

    -interesting hook: NOT necessarily the main conflict. A neat, rarely explored idea perhaps. Or a unique character (mentally, not physically, usually).

    -tight writing: No extraneous words. The point is conveyed succinctly. That's not to say the prose can't be flowery. But just enough to get the image/mood across. Good grammar and spelling definitely help, though the latter is forgiveable with a first draft.

    -no starting with a wake-up scene. When a book opens with a dream sequence or someone waking up, people automatically get turned off. Even if a dream is important to your story, don't start there. No one will like it.

    -description before speaking. Although a line of dialogue can make a great opening and set up the theme of your story ("Call me Ahab", "Who is John Galt?"), most people get frustrated quickly if they have no sense of setting or speaker voice.

    That's all I can think of off the top of my head. And I'm late for class. My point is that just because someone says they don't like your first 13 doesn't mean they necessarily know why. Above are some things that are consistantly present when readers say yay. The nays may be due to the absence of one of them.

    Also, this is great advice:

    quote:
    I have commented before in this forum that I think our advice is sometimes wrong, but for different reasons than you gave. We sometimes tell people what the cure for their problem is without accounting for the fact that we haven't seen what their story is yet: e.g., we tell people to tell us more (provide more data), when in fact they should tell us less (raise fewer dangling questions). The former leads to infodumping, the latter leads to tighter writing.

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    Christine
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    David, for a wide variety of reasons I haven't frequented F&F for a long time now (over a year). I fear the biggest part of that reason is that I had my head bitten off one too many times when all I was doing was trying to help. (I'm not saying that's what you're doing; that was just my personal gripe and experience.) As it happens, I do understand a little of what you're feeling. I, too, wrote from a very early age. (Sure, let's say ten. It may have been earlier.) I too thought I knew things, but I really started learning things when I put my work out there for critique and when I started critiquing the work of other people. (It's amazing the flaws you can find in your own work when you find flaws in other people's work.)

    This isn't about the first 13 lines. Everyone is right. The first 13 lines don't need to tell the story, they need to start it.

    The problem here is two-fold: imperfect delivery of criticism coupled with imperfect ability to use and understand that criticism.

    Since I've written extensively about these things before, I'll just link you to my blog...the first entry (or the last one, because the most recent entries are at the top), is one I wrote for KDW's Science Fiction and Fantasy Newsletter. The next one is a bullet pint handout I did for an on-line writer's conference a few weeks ago (I was a presenter). Hopefully you can find a gem in there that you can use.

    http://www.christinemorganbooks.com/?cat=2

    The thing to remember about criticism is that critics aren't always great at telling you what's wrong -- the only thing they can really do is tell you how your piece made them feel. And even if they do more (or do something else entirely), it's the FEELINSG that you need to try to identify and make use of.

    I glanced at your postings and I think you are a promising writer who maybe needs to work out some bugs. I'm going to try to find some time today to look at your stuff and reflect on what I see there.

    This is a really hard part of writing. Don't give up, though. (On writing or on criticism)


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    oliverhouse
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    quote:
    ...I really started learning things when I put my work out there for critique and when I started critiquing the work of other people. (It's amazing the flaws you can find in your own work when you find flaws in other people's work.)

    I can't agree more with this. The act of saying "this doesn't work" to someone else immediately reminds you (well, me at least) of times you've done that yourself. To get the most out of F&F, be a critiquer as well as a critiquee.

    Also, I just heavily edited my previous, bleary-eyed entry.

    [This message has been edited by oliverhouse (edited October 31, 2006).]


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    Robert Nowall
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    I've mentioned before, possibly in one of the thread Elan lists, that, as a reader, the First Thirteen aren't that important. I've usually bought the magazine before I've read the story openings...the cover, the ad copy, the author's rep, or the subject usually weigh on any decision I make to buy a book. I rarely look at the first page of anything before I drag it to the counter and whip out my wallet...

    Likely the First Thirteen are important to hook an editor...but the editor wouldn't be the reader, and once you're published, other factors plainly come into play.

    It's important enough to get the opening right, though...


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    thexmedic
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    I rather feel that the main point of the first thirteen lines is to get someone to want to read the fourteenth line.
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    Lynda
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    If the first thirteen lines don't make me care about the characters or the situation, I put the book back on the shelf. Truth be told, if the first paragraph (not even 13 lines) doesn't grab me, I don't bother with the book. I, like many other people these days, have a rushed, hectic life and don't have long expanses of time to sit and luxuriate in a novel. I need books that will keep me fascinated even when I'm doing other things, that will grab me so I'll stop doing those other things and get back to reading. I need characters who I either love or hate, or who make me laugh, but I'd darned well better have some "feeling" about them very quickly or I won't read the book. That's it. That's my particular mindset, but there are a lot of readers like me out there.

    Lynda


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    wetwilly
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    quote:
    If the first thirteen lines don't make me care about the characters or the situation, I put the book back on the shelf. Truth be told, if the first paragraph (not even 13 lines) doesn't grab me, I don't bother with the book.

    That's a shame. You miss out on some of the best books around that way.


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    Lynda
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    Yeah, Willy, I know that, but that's just the nature of my busy life right now. A lot of folks have the same problem, which is why we, as writers, need to grab their attention as soon as possible if we hope to have good sales. There's still room for "slow starting" books, but the vast majority of sales these days, from what I've read and observed, is in the "fast start" books, especially easy, quick, "fun" reads like chick lit or romance (not that I write those, I'm just noting that they sell well).

    Lynda


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    wbriggs
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    quote:
    The main comment is that readers need to know what the story is about in the first 13 lines.
    I don't think anyone said this, or that it's true. (I think I recognize my comments, in that I did say, throw out subtlety.) These are things that I *do* think are usually true:

    * We need to understand the text we're reading. We don't need to know the whole story (although according to OSC, you can tell the reader in the first 13 and your readers will love you for it), but we do need to understand what the author said so far! And why it matters to MC.

    * We need to understand why we should read further -- that is, it needs to be interesting.

    * There *is* an inherent promise in the beginning of a story, which should be fulfilled. It may be in the first 13, or maybe it takes longer. If you set it up as a detective story, and the murder is never solved, then your fans will burn you in effigy!

    Take as an example this magnificent opening from Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover (great book, go get it right now):

    quote:
    I grew up with my mother in Chez Stratos, my mother's house in the clouds. It's a beautiful house, but I never knew it was beautiful until people told me so. "How beautiful!" they cried. So I learned it was. To me, it was just home. It's terrible being rich. One has awful false values, which one can generally only replace with other, falser, values. For example, the name of the house, which is, apparently, very vulgar, is a deliberate show of indifference to vulgarity on my mother's part. This tells you something about my mother. So perhaps I should tell you some more.
    This does the first 13 or so perfectly. We understand exactly what MC is talking about; we (or at least, I) are interested to read further; we expect a story with an exploration of MC's character (and her mother's, most likely).

    We don't know that this is a story about a teenage girl falling in love with a robot. Just like you were saying, David, this is an MC that has no idea yet what the story is about; we can find out with her. But what we do know, we understand.

    [This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited November 01, 2006).]


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    wetwilly
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    Sorry if my post sounded like criticism, Lynda. It wasn't meant to. I just meant it as an observation.

    Which begs the question, "What is the difference between criticism and an observation about the negative effects of one's behavior?" Well, I don't know, but it seems like maybe there should be one.

    Sorry if I sounded snotty, Lynda. I guess I kind of was.


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    djvdakota
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    Dear David,

    Indulge me for a moment in an observation and a suggestion:

    The observation: writers at hatrack often take the comments they receive here far too seriously--mostly as a result of a steep decline in maturity among its participants, but I digress. Remember, almost everyone here is a wanna-be writer, just like you. They haven't figured it all out yet either.

    The suggestion: Spend an hour or two in your local library with a notebook and pencil. Randomly pull books off the shelf and read the first page. Analyze it. What does the first page accomplish? How does it accomplish this? What does the writer include? What does the writer focus on? What does the writer NOT include? Do the same with short stories. (You should find plenty of short story anthologies at the library. Focus, if you wish, on the genres in which you prefer to write.) Spend more time learning from the guys who've figured it all out and less time agonizing over which of the monkeys is closest to tapping out Shakespeare.

    I love you guys. I really do.


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    Survivor
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    I just read a book...nominally fiction.

    The first thirteen lines proper weren't very good. Fortunately, the book had a preface (and introduction) so I was already aware that the body of the book would be in first person and would be fairly autobiographical. It was a pretty good book. But if the author had posted in F&F, I wouldn't have hesitated to nit him for starting in the wrong POV. I also wouldn't have hesitated to nit him for starting the story in the wrong place, even though I'm sure it didn't seem like the wrong place when he started writing his book.

    It was a good book, but only because it happened to be considerably less fictional than most non-fiction. There is a basic problem in judging a book that is not fiction by the standards of fiction. In fiction, the characters and situations only ever exist in the imagination, whereas non-fictional characters and situations have an impact on us even if we don't imagine them at all.

    I'll grant that many of the best books don't have strong openings, but almost none of those books are fiction, strictly speaking. Really good fiction books always have strong openings.


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