On the Importance of Page One

(3 min. read)

beautiful journalist looks typewriter

Page One challenge

Whenever I happen to read my students’ essays and theses, I seldom need more than a couple of minutes to make an opinion about the quality of their work: evaluation of research always involves the same sequence of steps–

  • read the title to pick out the most significant words (keywords) in it and to learn about the subject of the research paper;
  • study the Contents page, which is supposed to outline the general logic of the research;
  • look through the introduction really quickly, to see how the author identifies the goal, the tasks and the main methodology of the research; and
  • take a quick look at the section called ‘Conclusion’.

If I see some red flags in these parts of the thesis, I open the text at a random page and read a couple of random sentences: this gives me understanding of the author’s level of professionalism, awareness of the ‘rules’ of academic writing, and the amount of effort put into the writing of this thesis. After reading of a few sentences, I can easily say whether the author did a thorough, diligent work of writing or not. Quite often, when the writing style is complex and even unclear, it reveals quite the opposite of professionalism. This is why the best works of science are written in such a language that even an 8-year-old can understand what the talk is about in the research.

Before I started writing fiction, I thought that similar evaluation of fiction manuscript swould be impossible, because fiction writing is such a creative process and it is always absolutely unique. Now, when I have finished a few works of fiction, I realize (and strongly support) the fact that evaluation of a fiction manuscript by editors and agents is also done in a similar way, by means of applying a certain sequence of actions which serve as bench mark measurements to identify the level of the author’s professionalism and talent.

Johannes_Vermeer_The_Geographer

Johannes Vermeer. The Geographer. 1668.

 Every evaluation involves applying some system of measurements to the object of evaluation; even such thing as talent of a master in any form of art can (and should) be measured.

This is what Carly Watters, a literary agent, writes in her blog about reading manuscripts of fiction authors:

“I wish I had time to give writers (and their books) more of a chance but I can tell a lot by one page: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice, and writing talent–yes, usually all from one page. Five at the most.”

Carly gives us her measurement criteria: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice and the general impression of the author’s writing style which she calls writing talent. I am very thankful to Carly for sharing this with us. Isn’t it great to know how your first page will be assessed by a professional?

But how can we measure talent? I kept asking myself this question until I have done evaluation of dozens of graduate students’ thesis. The answer is quite simple: the talent of a scientist is measured by the readers’ ability to understand and follow his/her writing.  During life, with lots of reading and learning experiences, every person develops a certain pattern (stereotype) of mental strategies which help us understand each other’s way of thinking. The professionalism (and also the talent) of a scientist is his/her ability to use commonly accepted patterns to explain their unique ideas in a simple and attractive way.  I think the evaluation of a fiction writer’s talent is done similarly: if the narration ‘sounds’ attractive, realistic, exciting and quite simple to digest, the manuscript is good and is worth reading. The very first page will inevitably reveal this.

In her article, Carly Watters suggests a few tips to attract the reader to your manuscript from the very first page:

  • Learn how to balance what readers need to know vs. what you, as the writer, want to tell us;
  • Learn what “start with action” really means;
  • Let us know who has secrets; keep the reader curious;
  • Be wary of information dumps;
  • Introduce characters on a need-to-know basis; and
  • Never assume a reader is going to finish your first page, first chapter, or whole book.

You can look up her explanations about each tip in her article. The bottom line is, every author needs to know these ‘tricks’ and check their whole manuscripts for compliance with the editors criteria, because, in fact, they are not the editors’ whims, but the common, universal patterns of perception of fiction, which form readers’ expectations of our books. This is why her majesty Page One is so important, and this is why I am off to  sit down and check my own Page One for compliance with these requirements– right away!

William_Howen_allchin_Open Book

William T.Howell Allchin. Open Book.

Bye Bye, Blackboard!

(A few thoughts about modern education)

learning1

My group of graduate students called me yesterday to say that they could not attend my class because four of them were having a cold and the rest would be working in the morning hours. In this semester, my class with this group fell on the day when they have no other classes at all (we use to call such days ‘library days’), and of course my students would prefer to spend it taking care of their own affairs.

“All right,” I said, “let us see when we can do it.”

It took us not more than a minute to revise a few options and agree to arrange an online afternoon class instead, in a time convenient for everyone. My students were very thankful to me for understanding, and I was glad to have a chance to use all available Internet resources during my class, because there is so much you can share with your students if you have direct access to the Internet resources right during the discussion!

After the online class, we remained online with one girl for a few minutes to clear up some information regarding her diploma thesis, and that was when she confessed to me that, more often than not, teachers grow quite upset if they find out that their students combine work and study; they rarely agree to change time of their class, to say nothing about giving a class online.

To my regret, Ukrainian system of higher education remains highly conservative and snail-paced. The largest state universities, which traditionally set the pace of all processes in the whole educational system, are the slowest when it comes to having to revise programs of study, curricula or teaching approaches, even when the changes seem obvious and inevitable. They prefer to turn their backs to the newest technologies and look like mammoths of the academic system rather than to make changes and improve the system.

learning2

Still, the changes are coming and they are inevitable. Today, when people around the world have become accustomed to communicating with each other remotely, it is obvious that they expect to have this opportunity everywhere – in the streets, at home, at work and of course during the process of learning. If my students spend their morning time wearing headphones and listening to audiobooks online just to pratice their English, and then roam through the Internet in search of materials for their essays during their subway ride to the university, how on Earth can I make my classes interesting in a classroom equipped only with a blackboard and a piece of chalk?

Soyer, Paul Constant, 1823-1903; Old Man and a Young Girl Learning to Read

We all have to realize and agree with the fact that the time of reading coursebooks has passed. It does not mean that we should stop reading books, no. But we’ve got to adapt to the fact that we need to combine all available ways of information perception — books, the Internet resources, and all possible audio and video based information — to share knowledge with students Why? Because-

learning should be consistent with the requirements of the time.

In the nearest time, all students will interact with others remotely, and teachers who will try to keep their students in classrooms by telling them about the pleasures of silent contemplation of books, are going to fail miserably. Again: why? Becausein the 21st century-

reading books has become an intimate, pleasurable and luxurious, yet time-consuming occupation, which very few can afford.

Alas! This is true. Reading, as well as real-time listening to a highly skilled professional in the quetness of a library or a museum, has become an unaffordable luxury because the most precious thing of the 21st century is time (not money anymore!). If some of us have not realized this yet, they will. Very soon. I am sure.

learning3

One more thing to add to this is a simple fact that in this situation, people’s general attitude to acquiring diplomas (as well as other forms of professional certification) is going to change.

Very soon, pictures like the one you can see below, will become exclusively the property of art. Even today we are more accustomed to seeing kids using electronic devices instead of books, and, however sad it may sound to us, the older generation, the faster means of learning will take over, and this is going to happen in the nearest few years.

learning5 The situation when students had to adapt to the requirements of the educational system will soon change to the exact opposite: the system will have to adapt to the realia of life, and– you know what? I cannot wait for this to happen.

Not His Worst Valentine’s Day

(micro fiction, 1 min.read)rodinka1

It was exactly twelve months since Ivan’s previous date: that incredibly sexy blonde with a mole on her lip ran away from the bar… with his wallet and keys.

It took Ivan almost a year to recover after the stress. Still, that wasn’t his worst Valentine’s, he had to admit. At least, they cuddled and kissed, and she called him “My Captain”. Twice.

Ivan lit a few candles and opened the wine. Luda was to arrive within minutes. They’d been speaking online, and now they decided to meet on the Valentine’s Day for the very first time.

I am making the right choice this time, he assured himself as he waited. She is honest and kind, she is smart, and she’s never been late for a chat...

At two minutes to six, a knock on the door made him start. His heart started hammering. Ivan hurried to open.

The first thing he saw were his keys.

Hi, Captain!” said the voice from the chat, and the mole on the lip made a short sexy dance as she spoke.

Ivan gulped and stepped back. She walked in.

Happy Valentine’s Day!” She exclaimed and dropped Ivan’s keys on the table. “Hey, Captain, come on, stop staring and pour me some wine! Let us talk…”

Mitya and the Climate Change

(micro fiction, 1 min.read)pest-control2

Minutes after TX-1 turned him into a fly, Mitya was already soaring around the lab like a bird. Flying gave him the sensation of freedom and impunity. He buzzed into the Professor’s ear, tickled his young assistant’s velvety neck, took a bite from her sandwich, pooped on Global Transformations Bulletin, and– felt bored. Now, he was waiting for another experiment to begin, so he could fly through TX-1 beam again and turn back into a humble trainee Mitya Somov.

But strangely, no one was going to start the new test. At a quarter to three, the team was preparing to leave!

Mitya panicked. He landed on the Professor’s nose, but the old man waved him off, mumbling: “That climate change must be real, even flies are up this winter”, and left.

Mitya dashed to the closing door, and there, he finally spotted a note: “No afternoon tests: the lab will be closed. Pest control.”

pest-control

Writing with a Good ‘Flow’

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How much of rhythm should prose have? It is obvious that achieving a certain rhythm (I would even call it a ‘beat’) is critical in poetry, but in prose… should we care at all?

Dictionaries, which, in fact, are perfect antithesis to poetry, say:

In writingrhythm is defined by punctuation and the stress patterns of words in a sentence. Long sentences sound smoother, while short sentences make your content snappier.

Well, honestly, this definition does not look complete to me. Some significant component is missing here, because this definition speaks only about the mechanics of writing, but says nothing about the author’s talent of creating individual ‘beat’ that makes every sentence sound like this author’s unique, personal accent.

When we describe our most favorite books of fiction, we often say, among other things, that “they are easy and pleasing to read and have a good flow.” Critics usually say that “this is all down to the structure and length of sentences”, as well as to the amount of syllables in each chosen word-combination, and the breaks / pauses which the author puts on certain places. [Richard GilbertBen Smith]

writing that flows

When the authors of prose discuss their work, they like to brag about ‘making it sound nice’,  but unfortunately, with tons of books being published today, readers are becoming less and less interested in having it ‘flow’. And writers in their turn, stop paying attention to the ways they put words together.

Still, some people are used to reading fiction aloud in their heads, I am one of them. This habit makes us look for the desired rhythm in the first place. We would never finish a book which ‘is not good in the sound and rhythm’, and to my mind, it is the sound and rhythm that immeduately gives away a talented author. It is the rhythm that will either keep the readers turning pages, or bore them to a stop.

Let us look at a few examples, I just made a little analysis for this article:

Rhythm and Sound in W.S,Maugham’s Prose

It’s a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.” W.Someset Maugham

.._._._._;._._…_, …_._.

[A] [Y] [A] [A]  [jU]  [E] [E] [A] [E]

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]  [e]-[e]  [a]-[e]

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, (pause) no one knows what they are.” W.Someset Maugham

.._ _._.._.; ._..(pause) ._._.._

[E-U] [A] [A]  [O] [O] [A] [A]

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]-[o]  [o]-[a]-[a]

Love is only a dirty trick (very short pause) played on us to achieve continuation of the species.” W.Someset Maugham

.._._._(very short pause) _…_…_._

[A] [eO] [Y] [A] [Y] [A] [Y]

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[y]  [a]-[y]  [a]-[y]

In W.Somerset Maugham’s writing, the rhythm is complex, but you can sense the patterns which he follows in every sentence. There is a whole set of such patterns, but the set is unique for every individual writer.

This is what we call ‘авторский почерк’ (author’s unique handwriting or style) in Russian, and I am sure this is true for every piece of literature in every language of the world: the combination of rhythm and sound is the main criterion of every talented author’s unique manner of writing.

Here are a few more examples:

Rhythm and Sound in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Prose

What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?”

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[o]  [o]  [o]-[a]

When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]  [a]  [a]-[a]

Morning comes whether you set the alarm or not.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]  [e]  [a]-[a]

Of course, rhythm is especially important in certain genres of prose, like fantasy, or — if we think deeper — also in mystery, in suspense, in romance, in… ah, everywhere!

Look at Neil Gaiman’s sentences: aren’t they truly poetic?

Rhythm and Sound in Neil Gaiman’s Prose

It is a fool’s prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [u]-[o]   [a][u]   [o]-[y]

Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[e]   [a][e]   [a][e]   [a]-[e]

‘Sometimes that’s enough to see you safe wherever you go. But mostly, it’s not.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]   [a]-[o]   [o][o]

Well, every talented author has a unique signature rhythm that keeps her readers turning pages. I think every writer should continuously explore their personal rhythms of writing. It is also very useful to study reader responses to different rhythms, melodies of speech and beats if we want to develop unique ways of writing and become recognizeable by our writing style.

writing-roller-coaster

‘One Man’s Meat…’ (A few words about clichés)

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Every EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher always feels happy to find a new frequently used word or a popular phrase and share it with her students. As I was looking through recent publications about the art of writing this morning, I ran across an article called ‘The List of Clichés You Should Strike Down in Editing‘. The article offers great tips on writing for authors and provides “a non-definitive list of clichés to avoid”.

My first thought on seeing it was: “Oh, it is good to know for my future writing experiences.” But the longer I studied the list, the more interested I became.

“Wait a minute,” I said to myself, “as a foreigner, I didn’t even know that some of these word combinations have a reputation of hackneyed phrases, and probably people in other English speaking countries wouldn’t find them ‘hackneyed’, either.

hackneyed (1)

Then I thought that, as long as these phrases have gained the reputation of being used too often, they are probably well-understood and accepted by thousands of people, which means… that my students need to know them!

Really, what can disgust an editor becomes a desired tidbit for a teacher and her students. Here is the list from the article. Learners of English, enjoy!

Chip off the old block
Loose cannon
Ace up his sleeve
Scared of his own shadow
Add insult to injury
Avoid like the plague
Let the cat out of the bag
Bad to the bone
Cross that bridge when we come to it
Bald-faced liar
Trial by fire
Bark is worse than his bite
Beggars can’t be choosers
Armed to the teeth
Bee in her bonnet
Ugly as sin
Bent out of shape
Bend over backwards
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
Let off some steam
Burning the candle at both ends
Caught red handed
A checkered past
Until the cows come home
Take the bull by the horns
Fit as a fiddle
Chomping/Champing at the bit
Come hell or high water
Cute as a button
No stone unturned
The devil is in the details
All your eggs in one basket
Don’t rock the boat
Down in the dumps
Beat around the bush
Driven up the wall
Keep an ear to the ground
Level the playing field
Barking up the wrong tree
Everything but the kitchen sink
For all intents and purposes
Force to be reckoned with
In the nick of time
It goes without saying
Knock it out of the park
Neither here nor there
Bite the bullet
Nothing to sneeze at
Older than dirt
Open a can of worms
Pleased as punch
Quiet as a mouse
Weed them out
The whole hog
Go the whole nine yards
Work like a dog
Get up on the wrong side of the bed
Yanking your chain
Nip it in the bud
Tough as nails
At the end of the day
When push comes to shove
No use crying over spilt milk
Back to the drawing board
Phone it in

hackneyed

Very Short Prose: A Present

I ran across this photo and could not help writing the story below.

ivanka_trump_in_chinchilla

Ivanka Trump in chinchilla

A Present

He carefully put a large silver box on the table. Its silky red ribbon trembled enticingly.

Must be a fur coat, she thought. Oh, my God, he is awesome!

“Make a guess. What is there?” He asked.

She frowned feigningly and touched the box with her perfectly manicured fingers.

“Something furry?”

He nodded.

“Something delicate?”

“Very!”

His eyes were glowing with fondness.

Must be chinchilla, she thought. Those coats are devilishly expensive!

“You did remember I wanted it, didn’t you?” She said, and pulled the red ribbon.

He nodded again. He waited.

Oh, she was so excited!

“Darling, I’ll marry you! You are wonderful!” She cried out.

The ribbon slipped down, the box opened up.

She recoiled. She stared at the gift. She fell speechless.

Two small furry balls with shiny black eyes were staring at her from the box.

i-chin

Learning to Outline

book_outlineIn the Soviet time, when I studied at school and later at university, no one ever bothered to teach us any methods of writing. We never did any training in organizing or planning compositions, not to mention such things as structuring book plots or writing marketable outlines. As far as I know, the situation has not changed much since then in the post-Soviet educational establishments, so many of my compatriots, even those with diplomas of journalists (no universities have ever had any programs for fiction writers here) have a good understanding of how to plan, or structure, or organize a text. So, I have been learning to do this from A to Z, previously as an academic books author and now as a beginner in fiction writing.

I really loved to study K.M.Weiland’s book “Structuring Your Novel” and I have her brilliant novel structure scheme on my table all the time:

RESIZED-structuring-your-novel-visual-chart-screenshot My other favorite guide is the 3-Act Structure guide, which is skillfully described by Emma Johnson  and a number of other experts in methodology of writing.

Three-act-structure_1

Yes, I prefer to call it by a boring word methodology, because in fact, it is always a method that turns any action into a skill.

Method is the only tool that can turn a spontaneous action into a skill.

In my culture the learners of this kind would be called “samouchka” (“самоучка”, Rusian: a self-studying person), which means that I often have to develop my own methods of doing things. So I do.

I have developed a convenient scheme of outlining fiction books for potential marketers, based on the existing novel structuring methodologies, which I mentioned above. Below, is my little scheme (or model):

A Novel Outline Model

With [some unusual condition that distinguishes him] [the main character’s name] is looking forward to a [the main character’s primary intention or goal]. Instead he walks into [First Disaster], and [Point of no return].


[The second main character’s name] has been [the 2-nd main character’s condition in the beginning of the book]. But [his/her initial intention/goal] is confounded by [the conflict of the story].


[The main character’s name] becomes involved into [Second Disaster (The Midpoint: the main character’s push to action, his move to different circumstances)], so he/she is seeking [the main character’s new goal]. Instead, he/she discovers [the 2-nd Pinch point event, when the antagonist’s power is reaffirmed], and faces [Third Disaster (an event that provokes the inexorable course towards the Climax].

I have played with the model, trying to create outlines for my books, and it seems to work well! With this structure (plus some time spent on polishing of the outline) I can create outlines a lot faster than just by doing it out of my mind. You are very welcome to try it, and please, tell me if you can think of improvements for this model.

I will greatly appreciate any comments and suggestions. Thank you!

author

My Prosaic Haiku: ‘End of the World’

doomsday

The missiles were approaching. People panicked.

“Dammit,” men whispered.

“Oh, Lord,” women sobbed.

“Get me more funding! Quickly!” Yelled the Minister of Defense.

“Didn’t I warn you?” Shrieked a Nobel laureate.

“Oh, God. Why now?” Cried a middle-aged woman in a wedding dress.

Senators and their secretaries sobbed silently.

Only the President retained his composure.

“It’s over, but I am with you, my friends,” he typed and twitted the message.

For sure, a man like him was not elected for nothing!

____________________________________

Haiku is a very short form of Japanese poetry, it is characterized by juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them. I call my short ones ‘prosaic haiku’ because they are short (usually less than 100 words) and because they also include juxtaposition of two ideas, which may not be obvious at the first reading.

Verbal Art Made Visible

a-of-w

I’d like to begin this one with a quote:

“Conflict generates energy and that energy, at its best, reveals a universal truth. In almost every iconic masterpiece you will see this equation at work. Writers would be well served to seek out some of these iconic visual works and examine them closely.” Annie Weatherwax

These words belong to an artist, who found her way to writing fiction by studying masterpieces of visual art- a necessary component of education for every creative person, which so many representatives of the verbal arts world ignore today.

Conflict is a critical condition for plot development in fiction writing. Tension, its inevitable product, helps keep the story dynamics and thus, ensures its ripeness and thoroughness. As Annie Waterwax notes,

“Tension is a primary component in all forms of art, achieved by the conflict between opposing elements. It’s the tension that holds our interest. In a masterpiece, the energy created by that tension reveals a universal truth. And a masterful artist does this without the viewer knowing it. She slips the message into our collective subconscious unnoticed.”

This peculiar talent of knowing how to send ‘the message into our collective subconscious’ is often overlooked by writers as something irrelevant, and the reason why they cannot do it is lack of general aesthetic education. Sadly, fiction writing is rarely mentioned as an art form today (in my opinion, it still is); the widely accepted ‘standards’ of fiction writing focus mainly on genre, plot and structure requirements, while the artistic beauty of writing is just a nice additional bonus, welcomed mainly by publishers, because majority of readers are rather attracted by fast-pace plot development and intrigue than by the way it works to enrich our aesthetic personality. Overwhelming majority of people today prefer visual arts and music to reading, while appreciation for the beauty of writing style and its harmony with genre and structure of the story is regarded as an extravagant whim of the few.

a-of-w2

Still, knowing a lot about art in general helps every writer, because it broadens their imagination and develops their artistic taste. I am glad to see that the most appreciated fiction writers today (irrespectively of the genre they write in) are always people of good aesthetic taste (quite often, they are passionate art lovers). 

Putting it simply, developing a good aesthetic taste is a way to see more beauty around you, and- yes, one needs to learn to see beauty! And beauty is exactly that energy, mentioned above, which reveals universal truths to a person. Without learning about it, an author lacks necessary means of high-quality writing.

Our imagination is born deep inside our mind, in the storage of memory, knowledge and life experiences which we have accumulated during our lives. If we have a good deal of beautiful images, associations and emotional memories stored there, the final products of our imagination have more potential to be beautiful, too. Only an author who has a good taste for visual (musical and other) arts can create really beautiful verbal pictures and deliver them to other people’s minds. I think we should always remember this when we sit down to create our masterpieces in writing.

a-of-w3

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Concrete Dreams

Fiction you can feel.

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Crash cut to Kevin Bacon dancing in an abandoned warehouse.