Curt Covert

Making Stuff Up as I go… The Novels, Games and Works of Curt Covert

Archive for the tag “writer’s craft. writing”

‘The Ultimate First Paragraph’ & A New Appreciation for Literary Agents

I have to tell you about a rather inspired and very enlightening contest, which recently asked aspiring writers to share their novel’s “Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph.” Up for grabs was an impressive Grand Prize, the opportunity to have an agent consider your manuscript. Wow. Offered up by Nathan Bransford, a children’s author, one-time literary agent for Curtis Brown and blogger extraordinaire, the contest drew roughly 900 entries, which were posted for all to see.  And that was the best part. Nine hundred beginnings. Nine hundred authors trying their damnedest to hook you with a handful of words. I heartily encourage you to give it a read through. You may discover what I did. (http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2013/02/the-5th-sort-of-annual-stupendously.html)

It was eye opening, reading paragraph after first paragraph. What does it say to you? Where do those first words take the reader? Does the first paragraph describe the setting? Are you placed right in the action? Is the voice of the main character your introduction to the world? With so many different beginnings, many trends popped up. Pitfalls became quickly obvious and clichés were exposed to the sun. In between, there were some great stories, that had only just begun, by some talented new authors. I found it riveting reading and very, very sobering.

After reading the first two hundred, I suddenly gained a true appreciation for what agents and publishers go through. I found myself, after the first two sentences, deciding if the book was ‘for me’ or not. It was just that quick.

Crap-in-a-hat! If that could happen to me in such a short amount of time, imagine an agent, with years in the business, flipping through the slush pile. My god! That story better impress right out of the gate. Not that I didn’t intuitively know that already, but I can tell you it made a big impression on me and had me reexamine my own book’s beginning with new vigor.

Nathan said, “A first paragraph is a surprisingly important part of an entire novel, because it has to do so much. It eases the reader into the novel. But the reader literally has no idea where they are. The paragraph has to carefully guide the reader through the paragraph and into the world of the novel. Flow is important, crucial details are important, and voice is important.”

At no other time had that been so apparent to me. How did my first paragraph stack up? Had I done a good enough job on the first chapter overall? Well, my entry, which you will see around the #216 mark, was disqualified. Technically, my first paragraph had been two sentences, simply for dramatic effect. That didn’t stop me from completing the thought with the ‘rest’ of the paragraph after hitting the ‘return’ button. XXX BUZZ XXX Hey, that’s two paragraphs, mister. I lose.

But honestly, I won. I decided I could do better yet. After the contest ended, I completely rewrote the beginning of my story, taking every bit of insight I’d gleaned and put it to use. I am so much happier with the chapter as a result. Nathan’s fun little contest really forced me to work harder on perfecting my story’s beginning and will no doubt make me a bit more understanding when it comes to receiving rejections. And who knows, with all that extra effort, maybe it will just pay off in the end.

Now go read those Ultimate First Paragraphs. You won’t be sorry.

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Why I Can’t Wear Sunglasses. A Writer’s Epiphany.

I won’t wear sunglasses. Never could. I’m just not cool enough.

It’s funny how certain items and words become layered with meanings in the collective conscious. And for one reason or another, I’ve always associated wearing sunglasses with motorcycles, celebrities and rock stars. Trying on a pair left me feeling like a poser. Sure, it’s ridiculous. I’m well aware. But I’ve just never felt comfortable in them.

Honestly, I’ve always felt the same twinge when describing myself as a writer. Not that I don’t qualify. I write all the time. I even get paid for it. It’s just that when I think of a WRITER, my mind immediately leaps to Hemingway, Emily Dickenson, Kafka… you know, Writers.

You want to have fun? Do a web search for images of ‘writers.’ Never mind; I’ll save you the time. This is what you’ll find…

Half-crazed madmen. Suffering infuses their every word. Writing is pain, an obligation, a compulsion that tears at them. They chain-smoke their way through writer’s block, struggle with the weight of the world on their shoulders… you know, Writers.

A lot of the writers I’ve known have talked about it in the same way. Writing was a struggle. It was emotionally draining on them. All I could think of in response was, Sounds awful. Why the hell would anyone want to be a writer?

Yet, here I am, writing away and having a blast. I look forward to it. As I write, it is almost as though I’m reading the book for the first time. The characters surprise me. The story keeps charging forward, twisting and turning in ways I hadn’t expected. I’m just trying to keep up half the time. I set the stage, but the characters decide what happens and shape the events. They certainly seem to know the story better than I do, so I just let them go. It’s fun.

Clearly, I am doing it wrong. I’m just not this dude.

All of which makes calling myself a writer feel like wearing an ill-fitting shoe. Not only does it pinch my toes, it looks ridiculously out of place on my foot.

But then, something interesting happened the other night. I had just spent two hours on the hot seat, having my writing group provide feedback on my first draft, and had jumped into a story about how I first learned to lucid dream as a kid. As I finished, one of the women in the group was looking at me funny. I couldn’t quite read her expression. She looked stunned, with a hint of annoyance, yet still warm and friendly. “My God. Do you even hear yourself?” she said. “The sentences just fall out of you fully formed.”

I didn’t know how to react, still unsure of where she was headed with the comment. But what she said next led me to an epiphany as I replayed it in my mind going home. She said I was a natural storyteller and did not wonder that it showed in my writing.

Storyteller.

Now that brings up much different imagery, doesn’t it?

Google thinks so, too.

What a pleasant looking fellow. This is a guy who enjoys what he does. He’s an entertainer. He’s not trying to create art; he’s trying to engage an audience, artfully.

So why do the two words connote such disparate things in our minds? Is the oral tradition and performance of a story so different than the authoring of the story? Don’t you have to be a storyteller in setting the words down in the first place? Yeah, of course you do.

Perhaps, then, it is simply an attitude. I often hear people say they are working on a book. In college, people talk about wanting to become writers. Writers are constantly at work on their craft and measure themselves by those who have distinguished themselves as literary giants.

Well sure, we all want to be better writers. It’s just the word perhaps, the vision that seems so out of whack. But what if one replaced the desire to be a writer with the desire to tell a story? To not work on a book, but delight in telling a tale? It just sounds like more fun. And maybe, that’s the only difference.

Certainly, the thought made a difference for me. Driving home, I realized how right Katie was. For people who know me, you know that you can seldom strike up a conversation with me without being subjected to a story. Sorry. I can’t seem to help it. But yeah, storyteller pretty aptly describes how I see my role. Perhaps that’s how I fit into the writer’s world.

Though… I suppose I could get used to the term ‘Author’ pretty easily, should I be so fortunate. For the word author conjures up a whole new vision in your head, a person who has had their story published, having been recognized for their own unique voice. And that is a title anyone can wear with pride.

Even for a guy who can’t wear sunglasses.

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