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.

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’

write

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

Suspense… in Life and in Fiction Writing

 I have been reading about the role of suspense in fiction writing and, as it often happens in the world of writers, I found a number of excellent articles describing features and merits of suspense, but none of them provided a decent definition of the term. Some works characterize suspense as a “sense of anticipation or worry that the author makes the reader feel” (https://prezi.com/wyt6zmamrm9w/elements-of-suspense-in-literature/ or http://elementsoflit.weebly.com/foreshadowing-and-suspense.html), which provides general understanding of the role of suspense, but is a bit misleading because, according to this description, suspense is a human feeling: an emotion, that’s all.

The scheme which I posted above presents suspense in one row with other genres of literature: mystery, horror. It is not the first time that I see attempts to present suspense as a whole separate genre of litreature:

“So, you’ve been working on a new novel… what genre? Historical again?”

“No. Suspense.”

“Ah, I see.”

Maeve Maddox, the author of the article ‘Is Your Novel “Mystery,” “Thriller,” or “Suspense”?’ (https://www.dailywritingtips.com/is-your-novel-mystery-thriller-or-suspense/) calls suspense a separate genre of fiction, with a note that “sometimes the three are presented as separate genres, and sometimes they’re lumped together as Mystery/Suspense, or Suspense/Thriller”. This shows that many authors and critics today have realized that suspense is not necessarily a mystery or horror, it is something different, because its meaning has changed for the reader. The reader sees suspense as a puff of obscurity on her face.

Suspense2

Suspense is not necessarily a mystery or horror, it is simply a puff of obscurity on your face.

“SUSPENSE: the main character may become aware of danger only gradually. In a mystery, the reader is exposed to the same information as the detective, but in a suspense story, the reader is aware of things unknown to the protagonist. The reader sees the bad guy plant the bomb, and then suffers the suspense of wondering when or if it will explode.” (Maeve Maddox; Please, find the link above)

This description corresponds well with the above scheme and also shows specificities of suspense as a high-grade genre of fiction literature. So I have been wondering: isn’t it a sign signaling to all authors that a new genre has been born and is actively building its way into the list of “traditional” genres of fiction? Can I write in a letter to a literary agent: “My novel is a suspence with some elements of fantasy”, or would it be safer to call my novel a “suspense fantasy”, where the main accent falls on the word “fantasy”?

Can we call suspense a genre of fiction? If yes, how ripe is the genre today? Somehow I have no doubt that suspense will soon form into a separate, widely accepted genre of lirature, because in the 21-st century people who read are seeking for fast-paced, action-packed, yet emotional fiction, and suspense is exactly what they need, because it apeals to the readers’ hearts.

In their reviews of suspense, some authors just leave it without a definition and move right on to discussing the distinguishing qualities of suspense fiction in comparison with other genres. Here is, by the way, a very good analysis by Stephen James, called Six Secrets to Creating and Sustaining Suspense, available on Writers Digest at http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/6-secrets-to-creating-and-sustaining-suspense. In this article, the author looks at four factors necessary for suspense – reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger, and escalating rension – which are regarded as the author’s roadmap to the readers’ hearts. Then, the author suggests six ideas, or tasks, which a writer should set and achieve to create a good suspense effect in a piece of fiction:

  • put characters in jeopardy;
  • include more promises and less action;
  • keep every promise you make;
  • let the characters tell readers their plans;
  • cut down on the violence; and
  • be one step ahead of yur readers.

These tips, along with the detailed explanations provided in the article, must be very valuable for every author, as they set direction for an author’s effort, and still, these are just tools of suspense as a writing method, they are not the laws of a genre… yet.

Stephen James concludes his article with the words-

“No matter what you write, good prose really is all about sharpening the suspense.”

Well, if this statement is true, it does not make suspense a separate genre yet, but it surely makes it even more: a cross-genre requirement, a condition of achieving high quality of writing, a goal to which every author should strive, regardless of the genre they are trying to conquer.

Well, to me, the question is still there: what place does suspense have in contemporary literature? Is it already a separate genre or is it rather a method of writing?

Do you believe that in a couple of years, when more suspense masterpieces have arrived, all book stores will install shelves with a one-word sign “SUSPENSE”?

If you have answers to these questions, please, share. I will appreciate any comments on this. Thank you.

suspense3

Today, suspense is a method of writing, which is making its way to become a separate genre of fiction.

 

I, a Passer, Close to Everyone, Alien to All 

I, a Passer, Close to Everyone, Alien to All. (“Я – прохожий, близкий всем, всему чужой.”) M.Voloshin

These beautiful lines belong to Maximilian Voloshin,  a Russian poet of Ukrainian-German origin, commonly known as Max Voloshin (1877 – 1932). I just finished re-reading Voloshin’s Faces of Creation (“Лики творчества”), a profound and masterful study of evolution of some art movements, a book which I had admired as a student, and now re-discovered again, nearly 30 years later.

Voloshin_06

“Art is intimate. Art is the artist’s appeal to another
man. The secret of artistic pleasure is always committed
only between two people.” M.Voloshin

Voloshin_01 Max Voloshin was one of the significant representatives of the Symbolist movement in Russian culture and literature. He became famous as a poet and a critic of literature and the arts.

Voloshin_03

His poetry is as symbolistic as his paintings, yet it is so besutiful that I keep rolling his words over in my mind again and again. Here are a few lines I particularly like; I tried to interpret them into English for you:

Так странно, свободно и просто      So oddly, so freely, so just

Мне выявлен смысл бытия,              I can grasp secret meanings of things:

И скрытое в семени “я”,                      The semen, revealing my kinks,

И тайна цветенья и роста.                The magic of rising and rust.

В растенье и в камне – везде,           In every creation or being

В горах, в облаках, над горами       In the clouds, beyond, and above

И в звере, и в синей звезде,             I can hear the song of agreeing

Я слышу поющее пламя.                  with the rapturous fire of life.

Voloshin_04

Voloshin was known for his brilliant translations of a number of French poetic and prose works into Russian, but amazingly, the Wikipedia article about him hardly even mentions the fact that Voloshin – a critic, a poet, and a philosopher – was also a great artist himself. As a tribute to his artistic talent, here are a few images of his works.

Voloshin_02 “The unconscious is, perhaps, the only reality,” Voloshin used to say. (“Бессознательное – это, может, единственная реальность.”) He believed that when a person’s conscious skills grow, the subconscious “burning” inside her dies out. (Сознательное мастерство растет, подсознательное горение идет на убыль. ) He himself, however, was the master of both, and his beautiful art is a prfect confirmation to this.
Voloshin_05

 

 

 

 

 

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