I returned from a writer’s conference a little over a week ago. Every June children’s writers converge on the Coronado Springs resort in Orlando. It doesn’t matter which workshop you sign up for, the highlight of each is a first page critique.
The first page. The beginning. It’s so important that many writers revise it so much they never write the rest of the book. Others struggle with revising beginning so much that the manuscript never gets submitted. The beginning must grab the reader. And, since the first reader is often an editor or agent, this conference focuses on first pages. In fact, this conference has the beginning whittled down to the first 250 words.
These are submitted anonymously and every workshop includes time for the presenters to critique the crucial opening scene. It’s amazing to hear how writers introduce their stories—and what the facilitating agent or editor and writer have to say about it.
This year I attended the YA workshop with author Kathleen Duey and Knopf editor Michele Burke. They discussed YA voice. They showed us four novel openings and all the info packed into them. Then we wrote a new scene from our WIPs in which we brought a character on-stage in about 10 lines.
Feedback was insightful. Something clicked for me as I listened to the comments on my scene. I realized my character needed to react to this alien world. That reaction could show more than simply describing her surroundings. The same thing happened during the first page critiques. I learned as much from the comments about other openings as I did about my first page.
In previous years I’d felt frustrated in trying to fit in ALL the details the editor or agent was expecting: genre, age and description of character, setting, motivation, hint at conflict, a hook scenario, and reason to flip that first page and continue reading. That’s a tall order for 250 words or fewer.
This year I got it. It’s amazing what can be woven into 250 words when you focus on seeing the situation through the lens of a teenager. Maybe since voice is so vital to YA fiction, the showing vs. telling is easier to accomplish. Maybe it was because Michele and Kathleen showed us how to approach all these necessary details through the lens of the main character. Kathleen was especially helpful. She verbally “rewrote” lines to move telling into showing. Instead of being told to do something, we were shown how we might accomplish it and transform our first pages.
This alone was worth the conference fee. This alone motivated me to revise my project and continue work on another.
I’m looking forward to more writing time in July. Still, I can’t wait until next June’s conference.