I was just in Salt Lake City for a wonderful workshop with Alane Ferguson sponsored by the Utah/southern Idaho region of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). During this self-titled Boot Camp, Alane tackled 15 manuscripts’ first few pages.
I took notes, and here’s what I discovered, from which we all might learn.
Common mistakes and comments:
- Great description and lyrical prose is a lovely talent. However, without plot structure and character development, it gets you nowhere. (Kind of obvious, but still, almost every single manuscript received this comment, and these were really good writers.)
- No matter how you start a story–whatever genre, whatever age group–if we don’t get to know the character enough to care, you have lost your reader.
- Conflict and tension must enter very early on. It’s not enough to just introduce the character and allude to the plot. We need to get a sense of the conflict.
- You make a promise to your reader within the first few pages. You have to write the book that keeps that promise. So make sure what you promise is what you intend to deliver. In other words, don’t start the book with a character who isn’t the main characters; don’t start the novel with a love interest (or other element) if that’s not the main focus of the plot; don’t promise a story about one thing when the rest of the book is going to be about something else.
- You cannot tell a story using only one technique: just dialogue or just narration or just internal thoughts. Your story has to have a careful blend of dialogue, action, narration, and internal emotions of the the character. It’s a skill that you can learn, but you have to do it deliberately and it has to be woven with skill. It doesn’t work if you have a scene of dialogue then a scene of action. No. All the techniques have to be woven into each scene.
- Story is essential. A lot can be overlooked if there is a good story. However, if story is missing, no matter how great your writing is, no one will want to read it.
- READ YOUR GENRE. (Again, this seems pretty obvious to me, but you’d be surprised how many people have no idea what the conventions are for certain genres, especially within the children’s age groups.)
Of course, you can pull of breaking these rules if you are experienced and if you do it for a specific reason. Practice following the rules until you have mastered them, then you get to experiment.
Alane was a fantastic cheerleader for each and every manuscript, giving encouraging advice even for beginning authors. I learned by watching her excellent critiquing skills how to be positive to each author no matter what.
By the way, here a some of my favorite books by Alane. http://www.alaneferguson.com/Forensic_Books.html.