Pub Rants

The Number One Thing

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STATUS: BEA tomorrow. It’s going to be a long one and I’m not sure I’ll be able to blog so have a good weekend.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LET’S DANCE by David Bowie

As y’all know, today I was at the Backspace conference. Jeff Kleinman, Scott Hoffman, and I did a workshop called 2 minutes, 2 pages in the afternoon. The purpose is to pretend we are sitting at home with our feet up reading the slush pile. As the author reads the work, we say “stop” if we wouldn’t have read on and then try to explain why.

It’s a tough workshop. We try and be honest but constructive but as a writer, you can’t be faint of heart in participating.

After the 3 hour session, I can say without a doubt that this was the biggest issue we found in the pages that were read. The openings lacked a sense of urgency that would have propelled the story forward or would have engaged the reader immediately in the story or the characters presented.

In other words, most opening scenes had nothing at stake.

Now don’t mistake me and assume that you have to have an action-packed scene or bombs going off or some hideous moment occurring. Having something at stake can be a small thing, such as a missing photo, but it’s not small for the character in the story. For example, you could have a woman searching for a missing photograph and perhaps this photo is the one surviving shot she has of her father and so there is real panic that it could be missing—maybe even forever. That she can’t find it, that she can’t remember when last she saw it, that maybe there is something coupled with it that makes this missing photo even that much more crucial to have at this moment in time. There is something at stake for the character

See the distinction?

A lot of the opening pages we saw were really back story disguised as an opening chapter—which makes Carolyn Jewel’s guest blog earlier this week that much more pertinent.

25 Responses

  1. Angela Corbett said:

    I didn’t realize how much back story I was putting in my first few chapters until I read one of your blog posts a couple of months ago about what will cause an agent to stop reading. I revised my manuscript and now my first chapters are a lot more interesting and the story has a quicker pace. Thanks for the advice Kristin!

  2. Tara Maya said:

    I’ve attended that conference in previous years, and the format is terrific. Yes, it’s hard on agents and writers both, but it’s an excellent way to learn. I applaud you for going! Wish I could have been there.

  3. The Writers Canvas said:

    Thanks for clarifying that it doesn’t need to be bombs going off or a major street chase just to get someone’s attention. I like the photo example you offered.

    So many writing workshops say “start with action” and then they insist on the character walking the plank in the first paragraph–literally, a plank.

    I completely agree that one can’t dump backstory in the beginning. However, my issue with those books (or films, even) that start right away with some explosion or car chase–I haven’t really met the character yet, I don’t know anything about him/her, and therefore I don’t have the emotional investment.

    Thanks for your example–I appreciate it!


  4. Dawn Maria said:

    As I prepare to go through my first chapter again, I will take what you’ve said to heart. We often hear the same advice said in many different ways, but until someone uses the language that resonates with you, you might still be missing the point. For me, the words “most opening scenes had nothing at stake” hit me right between the eyes.

  5. Anita said:

    I’m crossing my fingers people get what you’re saying and don’t think they have to start with a BANG. As a big-time reader, I’ve got to say, BANG is the new BORING. I’d recommend people look at first chapters of great books, classic books in their genre. They all form a question in the reader’s mind, a question the reader HAS to have answered…like the one in your fab example.

  6. Justus M. Bowman said:

    I’m glad you made the distinction between “urgent” and “explosive”; novice writers are apt to misunderstand. But, a man like myself, who has 0 novels published, easily understands everything. Hubris!

  7. Dara said:

    I think the first five pages–nay, the first one or two–are the hardest to write. You have to grab the attention of the reader in that short amount of time while making them connect to the character AND being careful not to expound on backstory.

    Of course, the rest of the book has to be captivating too, but the initial pages are the hardest for me–I think sometimes I psyche myself out with writing them 😛

  8. Anonymous said:

    I do get what you are saying, but to play devil’s advocate, your example of a missing photograph leaves a lot to be desired. It says nothing about the character except she’s unorganized, and unless, she’s going to hunt down her father’s murderer, it gives no hint of what the book will be about.

    Plus, there is the backstory issue again — you’d have to tell a bunch of backstory to explain why the photo was so important — father dead, only photograph, she’s daddy’s little girl, etc…

    And, we’re back at square one. Which is why this is so tough.

  9. anniejones said:

    It’s definitely a tightrope to walk and one that is never easy to navigate. Hmmm, maybe I’ll open my next book with a character on a tightrope!
    Thanks for the common sense explanation, as always, your blog has given me plenty to think about and apply.

  10. David Dittell said:


    In screenwriting, we have a 10-page rule: if you can’t hook your reader and set up your entire story in the first 10 pages, you still have work to do. It’s hard to get a reader to give your entire script a read, and while I think the following 80-110 pages are equally important (meaning, don’t let up now!), those first 10 pages often determine whether you end up in the pile of junk or not.

  11. Ebony McKenna. said:

    This is fantastic advice.

    High stakes mean the story gets off to a good start and the reader begins to care.

    I believe all stories need to say what’s at stake very early on. Whether children’s books, science fiction, romance, literary etc. It doesn’t have to be the fate of the entire world – but high stakes should change the main character’s world.

    To paraphrase Donald Maass – So what? If it’s not high stakes, then who cares?

  12. Joe Saundercook said:

    I chatted with you briefly in the hallway yesterday at A-A Day, and I just wanted to reiterate my thanks to you and your compadres for taking the time to slog through all that material and give us your feedback.
    You, especially, had a great stage presence — you were very direct and quick specific examples, never mumbled or waffled,and we could hear you back in the cheap seats! It was definitely worth a return ticket next year.
    Thanks again.

  13. Torsten Adair said:

    Another bit of advice for any scene… enter late, leave early. In comics and in films, talking heads are boring to read/watch, and difficult to present in an interesting way. Prose is a little better, as one can insert facial reactions and inner thoughts. Write a scene as if you’ve entered a theater late.

    The best two pages? To Kill A Mockingbird. Sucked me in at work, had to force myself to stop reading.

    Is it bad to start with a great scene, then flashback? Or start with the ending of a novel (like a detective solving a murder) and using that as a springboard for the story you plan to tell (the detective at her high school reunion)?

    Heh…. “You had me at ‘Hello’.”

  14. Evangeline said:

    What I wouldn’t give to attend a workshop along those lines! If only the majority of writer’s workshops were less lecture and more hands-on.

  15. Gilbert J. Avila said:

    What’s your take on George Chesbro’s opening gambit: The first chapter of his novels would always be an action-filled life-and-death situation, and then chapters 2,3, and 4 would be the events leading up to chapter one–which was really chapter 5. Would that have pulled you in at a “2 pages, 2 minute” event?

  16. Backfence said:

    I’m curious, Kristin. In the 2 Minutes, 2 Pages Workshop, did any make it the whole two pages without the dreaded “Stop”? If so, I’d like to hear more about those ones.

  17. Little Ms J said:

    I lived through this to tell the story. It was painful (someone said demoralizing, but I had better feedback), but entirely necessary. While I didn’t get to read for Kristin I did share the kvetching and wound licking that ensued after the agents left.

    Great to meet you in person, Kristin!

    Little Ms J

  18. Amanda Green said:

    The 2 minutes, 2 pages test is great. Thanks for mentioning it and for reminding us that our characters have to have something at stake, something we can identify with or care about, in order for the reader to continue turning the pages. If you don’t mind, I’m linking to this post in Sunday’s Mad Genius Club blog ( Thanks.

  19. Kate said:


    I wonder if you were acquainted with Amos Eddy, Chair of the OU Meteorology Dept, before his death.

    Perhaps there’s something in a love for atmospheric disturbances that lends itself to broadening the horizons of a person who loves words, stories, and make-believe.

    I enjoy the newsletter, but wish we could respond to those articles.

    Happy Summer Conferencing!

    Kate Lacy

  20. Anonymous said:

    Have you read the first two pages of “A Tale of Two Cities?” If Dickens were alive today, he’d be unpublished.

  21. Anonymous said:

    Have you read the first two pages of “A Tale of Two Cities?” If Dickens were alive today, he’d be unpublished.That’s true–because writing styles and reading tastes have changed. If Dickens were alive today, A TALE OF TWO CITIES would be a much different book. Heck, Dickens would be a much different guy.

  22. siebendach said:

    It was extremely easy to get your fiction published in Dickens’ time, at least in England or America. Literacy was exploding, and there was very little competing with literature for funds spent by the public on entertainment. There were no movies or internet, and theater was mostly for the urban rich. Even the poorest street people could occasionally afford a “penny dreadful”, and the books bought by the poor were too physically flimsy enough to be passed around much, so new books weren’t competing with older copies of themselves in a discount bin.

    Dickens’ talent is not proven by the fact that he was published, and successful, during such a period in history that was so easy for fiction writers. His talent is proven by the fact that his works have endured so long and so well.

  23. Anonymous said:

    I’ve been a reader of both classic and modern fiction for thirty years, and I’ve found first pages are rarely good indicators of a book’s full readability. It takes at least 25 pages for a story to find itself and begin to flow. So many books that start with a yell, end with a whimper long before the story is actually over.

    When I pick up a potential purchase, I read the blurb, hopefully short and to the point, and then I open the book in the middle, because that’s where the voice should be at its strongest and pulling the reader over that halfway mark to the end.

    Most readers will give a book the benefit at the beginning and read on over slow pages, but at the halfway mark, that benefit dissolves.

    Slow beginnings should not be dreaded, slow middles and limp endings though, should be hugely feared.


  24. CPBlackburn said:

    I sat in on the workshop and got some feedback from Kristen and the guys from Folio. You don’t go to these workshops to have sunshine blown up your, well, you know…
    The whole purpose of these workshops is to go and receive the objective feedback to make your writing standout. I got a very valuable lesson in my “STOP!”. This past month has been spent revising and tightening story and it has been a month well spent. I now have a book that I am itching to send queries for. The workshop was a fantastic experience and if I do not have an agent before the conference next year (please God, let me have an agent!), I will be returning.