So, I like totally forgot something I wanted to talk about in the previous post. That is, I wanted to discuss my decision to write a short story or to share the beginning of a novel. I can hear your brains saying, “WHAT!?” But let’s talk about this.
In the previous post I quoted Hunter’s creative requirements, but let me put it here again in case you missed it last time.
If you’re a fiction writer, send us 20-25 pages (a short story, the start of a novel, or several short stories that total 20-25 pages). Sending more than 25 pages won’t help your cause.
I have three choices here. First is to write a short story that is between 20 and 25 pages. This seems, to me, to be the least attractive option, mainly because a lot of tweaking and pulling and shoving has to go into something to try and make it between 20 and 25 pages. What if the piece feels good and ready at 18 pages? Do you try and add two pages? What if it’s just barely scraping by at 28? Do you try and take away three pages? With the former example, you could always just add a 5 or 6 page short story and have your total come out to a perfectly acceptable 23 or 24 pages. Then you have the option of letting the work stand as is fits best, without needlessly padding. That is a fairly attractive option. Or maybe you submit four 5 page stories? That’s good too. You can show your breadth. I feel like I’ve got about 47 of those due by the end of the year, so maybe some of those will go toward this purpose.
But what about the latter example, the 28 page story that you would have to seriously cripple to make fit within 20-25? You could always argue that you should be able to remove 3 pages from just about anything and help make it better. But then you’ll find another area that needs to be expanded upon, so there are your three pages back in action again. What to do? Well, you could expand upon the idea even further until it becomes the beginning of a novel or a novella. Then you don’t need to worry about crafting your resolution into a short space. Instead you have the opportunity to focus on doing the best writing you can, which is the whole point, right? Of course you pedantic bastards out there can argue that editing a piece to meet certain constraints is part of the writing process. That’s true, but for the purposes of this application it is better to provide samples of your voice and talent, than your abilities as a copy-editor. That can come later. For now it’s about the writing.
This all got me thinking. What happens in the first 20 to 25 pages of a novel or novella? And you know what I realized? I have no fucking idea at all. That’s not for lack of reading either. I just could not tell you beyond the broadest sense—characters are introduced, settings, maybe a plot thread—what happens. I don’t mean in terms of actual plot, like Dude goes to eat pie and falls down, but in a dramatic structure sense. I suppose we can think of it in the same way as we think of films, that being that the first 20 to 25 pages of a novel or novella is the beginning or whole of the first act, depending on the length of the work. Let’s go back to my film school text book on screenwriting for a definition and description of what happens in the first act.
Act I, the Setup, joins the story at a critical moment. The main character and the premise are introduced. Approximately one-third of the way into Act I, a catalytic event kick-starts the plot or another source of momentum for the story….The First Act ends with a turning point that takes us into the Second Act.
Let’s say that a novel is 250 pages long. Sure. That’s a fine metric. If the first Act is 1/4 of the novel, that’s about 62 pages—way more than 25. Still, the three act structure is a highly restrictive mode, best used only as a guideline for what to start with and how to get your plot moving along. Most novels, and many films, don’t even come close to fitting.
Then what is the best way to understand what happens in the first 20 to 25 pages of a novel? It’s to read the first 20 to 25 pages of well written novels. Duh. My next step is to go back and read the first 20 to 25 pages of a bunch of the books on my book shelf and make note of what happens in each. I will be posting those notes here (probably) as I go along, and for discussion, not that anyone discusses anything here. For me to discuss.
Does anyone have suggestions of books they think have amazing beginnings? I can’t promise that I’ll read them, but I’d love suggestions nevertheless. Here’s an incomplete list of the books on my shelves. See anything there you feel strongly about? Do you like to party? Help a ninja out.