The Importance of Constructive Criticism

Sunday, February 02, 2014
Revisions will always have their ups and downs.

Have you ever picked up a book and been completely hooked by the first page, even the first paragraph? Here are a few examples of first pages that have hooked me in the past few months:

“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust . . . I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.” From Paper Towns by John Green

“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something so lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily. I’d know her head anywhere.” From Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

If you’re anything like me, you’ve read numerous articles and blog posts about great openings. You may have even listened to authors, editors and agents talk about it in workshops and conferences. I know I’ve talked about it here before. With that being said, I still think we sometimes get so wrapped up in our own writing (the plot, the character development, etc.) that we forget the importance of a great opening. Especially if, like me, you’re still trying to find your place in the world of writing fiction.

This past week, I sent out a few queries for my middle-grade novel. When I saw a response pop up in my inbox from one of the agents an hour later, I inwardly groaned to myself, thinking, “here we go.” But I was pleasantly surprised with what the intern who read my opening pages had to say when explaining why they had decided to pass on my submission. She wrote “It seems like you start the manuscript too far before the actual story (i.e., where things get interesting) starts.” Considering an editor at another publishing house also told me that “This is a fascinating premise . . . but in the end I’m afraid I’m just not drawn to [the main character’s] voice enough to take on this project,” I had an important epiphany.

First of all, I am thrilled that two industry professionals actually took the time to read my submission and tell me why it didn’t grab them. I realized that it is time for me to stop sending out queries and go back to my story. My opening pages aren’t hooking anyone, but I know there are parts later in the book that will. It’s time to figure out how to move the action from the middle of the book way forward and stop spinning my wheels.

I’d love to hear your experiences with opening pages of your writing projects. How do you make sure you wow your readers with the opening page? Have you ever realized you were burying the best part of your story in the second half of your book or article?

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer and editor who also blogs at Renee's Pages.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--I'm working on a manuscript that had the same opening for over a year--it was funny--and I stubbornly kept that opening there...because I almost always lead (or lede) with my funny foot.

But since my story has several different "voices" (a la Jodi Picoult's novels--kind of)I realized that I was not giving the reader enough to care about--until later in the story. So, my snarky beginning is now a little later--and I'm (hopefully) giving the reader a reason to care...and a reason to read on.

Congratulations. Congrats on being at the point where you're sending it out, congrats on getting such great, constructive feedback, and congrats on having the momentum to revise it and tweak it even more. I look forward to reading the finished novel.

Unknown said...

Oh, I had a tremendously embarrassing experience with my first novel. I submitted the first 15 pages to a contest that offered detailed feedback and the chance to have your work specially submitted to a publisher if it won. The judges pretty much universally agreed that it was cleverly written, but they tore it apart for failure to show, not tell. They were right, of course. I had started the story in the wrong place, and as a consequence I was rushing to get through the introduction and on to the meat of the book. And that made for way too much narration and not enough action.

Seeing my work ranked second to last in the contest results verged on humiliating. But, boy what a difference that feedback made. I knew that the beginning of the book was its weakest part - but I didn't know how to fix it. This time when I went back to rework the opening chapters, I really felt as if I knew what I was doing. And it paid off - now I've got folks reading the full manuscript based on those first chapters. So, however painful it sometimes it, thank goodness for constructive criticism!

Renee Roberson said...

Sioux--It's so important to listen to honest feedback from readers, especially regarding openings. Kudos to you for realizing your beginning needed more zing, and for keeping the opening you loved, just moving it to a different part of the book. Sounds like the best of both worlds!
Lori--I'm so glad you didn't just scrap your novel after that contest experience like so many writers would be tempted to do. Sticking with it and keeping an open mind is the most important thing you can do in that sort of situation--and look at how it has paid off for you! Best of luck with the exciting interest in your book.

Margo Dill said...

I think all of my beginnings are rewritten hundreds of times. My critique group and I were recently discussing the beginning of a new YA I'm writing, and I realized while talking to them that it was all wrong, so we brainstormed a new one which I wrote this week. The problem is we can spend SO MUCH TIME on the beginning because it is so important but just remember everything is subjective, so eventually you have to let go. :)

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