Thursday, August 22, 2013

The First Fifty Pages

Last year, I had the pleasure of attending the MWA University held in Denver. I recapped the sessions on my own blog, and today I'm sharing how I've put one of the sessions to use. Reed Far­rel Cole­man, an author and adjunct pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Hof­s­tra University, suggested that when you're starting a new project, you begin each day by starting at page 1 and editing until you get to the point where you're adding new material. He says he does this until he's written 50 pages. If you want to see the rest of what he said about editing during his session, you can find it here.

For my next book, the third in my Mapleton Mystery series, I decided to give that method a try. My normal writing process is to print out each completed scene and read it in a non-writing environment (usually in bed). Then, the next day, I go over that scene, fixing anything I noted on the previous night's read. This gives me a running start for writing the next scene, and it tightens the writing. Some of the frequent things I catch on this read are confusing dialogue, weak or repeated words, and pronouns that aren't clear.

Sure, using my basic method, if I caught a problem that needed to be addressed in an earlier chapter, I'd go back to fix it. But I'd never gone back to page 1 every day.

How did it work? The first few days felt "normal" because I was doing what I always did, backing up a scene or two and getting my momentum going. But this time, it was more than just reading to get that start; I was editing.

And, because the book is the third in a series, there are characters I already know, and plot threads that have been established in the previous books. How much time should be spent bringing readers up to speed? Reading the first three chapters over and over showed me where I was moving too slowly. I recalled what Michael Connelly said at CraftFest when someone asked him how he dealt with readers who might not have read his earlier works, who didn't know Harry Bosch. He said he made a conscious decision to leave most back story out. "The books are there. Let them catch up."

When I write, I don't bother with things I don't need to know right then. So, if I found I needed to show Gordon dressed for cold weather, I'd go back and show what he was wearing. Paula was initially described in chapter 2 as "a little on the skinny side of slim." (Later, I cut the "a little" because qualifiers are weak and slow the pace). Because I read this phrase each time I went through the manuscript, it 'stuck' and I could show her running five miles even though the weather was terrible, and taking only half-portions from the buffet table, or picking at her meals. Others will do entire character studies before starting to write, but that would drive me crazy. I prefer to let my characters show me who they are.

The result? I have 50 pages that are holding together. I know my characters, I know my setting, and when it comes time to do the final edits, I won't have as much to do.


Terry Odell
is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

11 comments :

  1. Interesting, I may adopt this method myself next time. :-) Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Maria - I wasn't sure it would work, but I figured it made sense to report on using it after I recapped the session suggesting the method.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  2. Different things work for different people. I used to do it this way, but it slowed me down too much. I'd spend most of the day tweaking and never writing anything new. I could reword a sentence ten different ways each time I read through. The first draft is very spare. I do have multiple revision passes,each focused on a specific element: timeline, cause and effect, description, dialogue, etc. Also I have an amazing critique group that catches my plot holes and choreography problems. They usually see the second or third draft. Nothing quite replaces another set of trained eyes.

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    1. Diana - I've always "fixed" each scene along the way. I also give each scene/chapter to my great crit partners. However, I'm not finding that this slows me down very much, as I have my daily word goal and work toward increasing my word count by that each day. I don't do very many drafts. By the time I get to 'the end,' it usually needs only one more pass before going to my editor.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  3. wow! That's an interesting way to do things...although I don't think I'd even consider it. Redundancy breeds redundancy... Well maybe this works for him. Everyone is different.

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    1. Patrick, I totally agree. I've written 12 novels without using this technique, but thought it would be worth a try on the new one. I find less redundancy because I catch things in smaller bites. I can't remember the name of another author who starts from page 1 every day until 'the end'---that, I couldn't do. I mean, how many days would it be between writing new stuff if you're 200+ pages into the book.

      The beauty of writing is, grammar, etc., notwithstanding, we all find what works. And what works for book 3 might not work for book 6. We're not locked in to any single method.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  4. While "different strokes for different strokes" applies here, I do believe there's some validity to the idea of doing the first 50 pages this way. By the time you get to page 51, you're raring to go and have a firm handle on tightening and tweaking the story as you continue writing.

    Love this idea, Terry. I think I'll give it a try.

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    1. Linda, I'll be interested to see what you think. You might consider the first 3 chapters, which are always the most critical, if 50 pages seems too much. However, I'll point out that the early chapters go faster after you've gone over them a few times, so you're not doing full blown edits of everything every day.

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  5. Ooops..."different strokes for different FOLKS." Too many irons in the fire this month. Next month it's sand and surf -- all month long! :-)

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  6. Interesting technique! I may give that a try as well. I usually tell people not to get hung up on re-reading and re-editing to the point that they get stuck and can't get the work finished. But this is a variation on the self editing that deserves a look.

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    1. I think there's a difference between polishing and doing this kind of "get a running start" writing. Obviously, if you're a 'fast draft' writer, this isn't going to work for you, but I can't write that way. And who knows? Maybe on another book, I'll try the fast draft technique. But now, it scares me!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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