First Page Do's and Don'ts

by Susan J. Zall
Creator of Writer's Infusion

These days, when it’s so easy to click a button to move onto something new, it’s more important than ever to capture the reader’s interest from the very beginning.


Much of what I’ve learned, I credit to the Writer’s Idol session run by Grub Street of Boston. This event consists of three literary agents listening to the first page of a person’s book, followed by a critique that is often direct, bordering on brutal. If you can withstand the criticism, however, the feedback is terrific.

Here are some techniques to do this, and some habits to avoid. Thanks to the WI gang for help with this list.

  • Read the first pages of your favorite books. Then go to your local bookstore and read the first pages of bestsellers that seem interesting. What caught your attention and made you want to read more? Or, what made you put the book back?
  • How is your book different from any other? Voice? Character? Unusual location? Let that come through.
  • Allow the reader to attach to a character. It’s just confusing when we have to remember 5+ names within the first 1 ½ pages.
  • Voice—that elusive attribute that makes your character unique—is key.
  • Leave out unnecessary description. Detail can distance the reader from the story. If you’re so busy telling the reader about that cool car (or book or dress or sword), they’ll lose interest in the characters and story.
  • If introducing the ordinary, teach something new.
  • If submitting the first few pages of your book with your query, have them copy edited. There’s nothing more annoying than misplaced commas, no commas at all, spelling mistakes, etc. Also, make sure it’s formatted properly. Half an inch indent at the beginning of each paragraph, 1” margins, generally 12 point font, etc. Don’t give the agent an excuse to toss your manuscript.
  • Don’t try to cram too much into the first page. Bring us in, but don’t overwhelm us.
  • Unless imperative to the voice and/or character, don’t swear on the first page.
  • Per usual: show, don’t tell. Don’t give us a summary/info dump. Bring us through the scene step-by-step.
  • If action is backstory, it’s difficult to make it seem like your story is moving forward. Thus, make sure the content on the first page(s) isn’t better served later in the book. This is called backstory; Jenn wrote a great blog about backstory on our website.
  • Don't start with long descriptions, dreams, weather, alarm clocks, or a character looking in the mirror.

Questions? Anything to add? Let us know!

Editing Those Beloved Words

by Susan J. Zall
Creator of Writer's Infusion

Let’s talk about words - specifically, those words you don’t need in your story, and those words and phrases that can be replaced with more precise language.

The editing process for many is the toughest part of writing. But to me, it’s the most satisfying because it improves your manuscript. What are the advantages?

1.       Your story reads better.

2.       When you send a query to a literary agent, word count is important. Many have word count guidelines you don’t want to exceed.

3.       It’s satisfying to tighten up your manuscript! It’s similar to organizing your closet, or writing a list. It’s neater, more organized, more effective.

So how do you weed out those unnecessary words? What phrases can you rewrite? Well, you can start with my list, if you’d like!

Here’s one example: small cottage. As a general rule, most cottages are “small”, and that’s how your reader will picture it – as small. Delete it! To determine how many times you’ve used a particular word, do a word count (highlight the word and choose the “Find” function, or use your quick keys to do it (highlight the word and hit Ctrl-F)). Those overused words will pop out in yellow highlight, possibly making you cringe.

An example of a phrase that can be re-written… Don’t write: She could still feel the pain in her arms and legs. Instead, write: Pain lingered in her arms and legs.

Let’s keep going. I’ve got plenty to include, and Jenn added a bunch:

Words that clutter: just, really, still, so, to her, to him, to herself, to himself, but, *ness, asked him, asked her, even, matter, that

Don’t write: “Let’s go to the store,” she said to him.
Write: “Let’s go to the store,” she said. Usually, you won’t need the “to him” phrase.

Time-related words:  all of a sudden, moment, in a moment, in a minute, right now, in order to (I will red line this expression anywhere I see it!), then, several, several times, start, then, first, suddenly, finally, eventually

The senses: feel, feels, feeling, felt, hear, hears, heard, see, saw, look, looks, looked, seem, noticed, watched

Don’t write: Joe saw Sally in the hallway near the lockers.
Write: Sally leaned against the lockers in the hallway.

Afraid of commitment words: seem, begin/start

Don’t write: Joe seemed to be upset. This tells the reader nothing. Show his body language or facial expressions. Check out The Emotional Thesaurus for terrific examples; the link is on the Resources\Writing Tools section of our website.
Write: He slammed his hand on the table.

Don’t write: I began to run.
Write: I ran. (although run is a weak verb - that is another blog!)

The verb “to be”:  am, is, are, was, were, will, would, it was, there is, there was, being

The verb “to have”: has, have, had

The verb “can”: can, could (This indicates that you may be using passive voice.)

Weak sentence starters: unfortunately, incredibly, hopefully, the fact that, actually

Knowing: know, knew, known, realized, wondered, thought

Don’t write: Jackie knew she only had ten minutes to get to the crime scene.
Write: Jackie had ten minutes to get to the crime scene.

Ambiguous words: maybe, usually, perhaps, possibly

Weak adjectives: really, very, small, large. These adjectives don’t help the reader visualize what you are describing. Refer to the “small” example earlier in this blog.

Adverbs: totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously – in general, any words ending in “ly”. Personally, I think it’s okay to use adverbs sometimes, but try to find a stronger verb instead whenever possible.

Don’t write: walk slowly
Write: hobble, lumber, plod

Jenn would like to add that she doesn’t like the expressions “Nowhere to be seen” (passive) and “made his way around” (We challenge you to find a stronger verb.).

Ask someone to read your story and note any unnecessary words as part of their review. Beta readers love to catch our mistakes! 

Share your overused words with us, and we’ll start a list on our website.

Remember, be kind to yourself. Editing takes time and patience.

Keep writing!

Backstory: The B-Word

writers group critique group

By Jennifer L. Rogala
Writer's Infusion Critiquer

Let’s talk about the use of the B-word: when it’s appropriate to use, and when it’s not.  I’m talking about Backstory. Or, as my friend David Sahl calls it, “Aching Back” Story.
Backstory is your characters’ experiences that occur before the start of your current story. These circumstances shape how characters think and respond to situations within your narrative.  Consider your character’s fatal flaw or weakness. This flaw is the inner issue they must continue to face and eventually overcome to accomplish their goal. At some point, you may want to clue the reader in as to how the character developed this flaw. Where in the story this information is revealed can add emotional depth, or pull your reader out of the story.
Stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol aren’t good examples for this discussion since the past shares equal time with the present story.  In Dickens’ classic tale, the past is every bit as much of the story as the present.  I’m limiting this discussion to stories that remain primarily in the present, but dip into the past every now and then.
Readers don’t need to know your character’s history at the start. Allow a slow reveal. It’s okay, even preferred. Keep the story moving forward.  Withholding information can add suspense, curiosity, and anticipation, which makes readers keep turning pages. Once the reader cares, the backstory will be more meaningful.
If I start a story about how 12-year-old Joey developed a fear of heights when he was eight, after a turbulent flight home from Disneyland, why would you care? But, what if I tell the story of shy Joey who desperately wants to ask Millie to the school dance? He gets invited to go swimming at the local pond, and Millie happens to be there. All the other boys are jumping off a steep cliff into the pond, and Millie is impressed. Once Joey’s anxiety sets in, then, the scary flight home from Disneyland is fresh in his mind.  Now, his fear of heights is important, and adds tension, because something is at stake. Will he be able to jump off the cliff and impress Millie? Or will he be embarrassed in front of everyone, and lose any chance that Millie will go to the dance with him?
If you start your novel with backstory, you risk not engaging your readers, and they’ll close the book. It’s tempting to start with what you think they need to know first, but backstory is rarely done well as an info dump at the beginning of your novel. 
When used wisely, backstory will add depth to your story.  Peppering it into your novel only when essential to the current scene will enhance the reader’s appetite for knowledge.  Placing it at the right time in your story, can increase tension, reveal motivations, and impact your characters’ and readers’ emotions.
When tempted to add backstory, flashback scenes, or snippets of memory to your story, ask yourself these questions: 
-    Does the reader need to know this now?  If not, wait until this information becomes crucial to the story.
-    If I take it out, does the scene still move the plot forward?  Does the story still make sense? If yes, then this is probably the wrong spot in your narrative to add the backstory.
-    Does this flashback stop the momentum of the story?  If yes, you are risking pulling readers out of the story and breaking the spell they are under. There better be a good reason for doing it at that moment.
-    Who wants to add this backstory in now, the character or the author? The right answer is always the character.
Your characters have histories, and as the author, you need to know them. But, your reader doesn’t. And, our characters may not be ready to reveal their history, either. Let your characters drive when and if something from their past should be revealed. In the case of Joey waiting for his turn to jump off the cliff into the pond, he’s anxious, terrified, and feeling all the emotions he experienced on the plane. His memory is triggered. Joey brought the flashback in, not the author.
I have a fabulous recipe for Pumpkin bisque. The instructions say to add cream at the simmering stage, refrigerate overnight, and reheat when ready to serve.  Instead, I wait, and add the cream during the reheating step. By delaying the addition of the cream until it’s absolutely necessary, the taste and texture of the bisque is much better. 
Listen to your characters. Trust your readers. Then, the backstory in your novel will be like the cream added at the perfect time to make savory bisque. And, your readers will ask for seconds.

Little Hypocrite in the Big City

By Jennifer L. Rogala
Writer's Infusion Critiquer

Several years ago, I reread the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic Little House in the Big Woods. I don’t remember loving or hating the book when I first read it way back in the fourth grade, but I was surprised by my horrified reaction to the book after reading the first chapter as an adult. I didn’t know how my animal-loving kids would react, or if I would even let them read it.
The book starts with five-year-old Laura describing the family’s preparation for the coming winter. The prep is necessary for their survival and takes weeks to complete. One task is butchering the pig. Laura doesn’t want to miss out on Butchering Time because it’s “great fun” for everyone - except the pig.
First, they slaughter the pig by slicing its throat. Then Pa boils the body until it’s scalded, scrapes any hair off the skin with a butcher knife, hangs the carcass from a tree, and carves out its insides. Then comes the “great fun” part. Pa takes the pig’s bladder, blows it up like a balloon, and ties the end with a string so that Laura and her sister Mary can play ball with it. They roast the pig’s tail on a stick and eat it the way we do marshmallows at a bonfire. My first reaction to this scene was horror. My kids would be devastated when the pig dies. Remember Babe? Remember Wilbur, Piglet, and Porky?
The gore continues when Ma takes over. She scrapes the pig’s skull and boils it so all of the meat falls off the bone. She finely chops the meat, seasons it, and lets it cool. This is called head cheese, which is a jellied, seasoned loaf made of the pig’s head meat - including the tongue and brains (Eww!). Ma chops anything that’s left and molds it into sausage balls. The bones go to the dog. Nothing is wasted, and Laura ate everything on her plate. I can’t even get my kids to eat the crust of their sandwiches.
By the end of the two-day pig slaughter extravaganza, they have bacon, sausages, head cheese (Eww!), jars of lard, cracklings, and kegs of white, salted pork. In the attic hangs smoked hams and shoulders.
Although my initial reaction to the pig slaughter scene was horror, by the time I finished the book, I had a renewed appreciation for pioneers like the Ingalls family and the hardships they faced just to survive. My children would learn so much from the Ingalls' hard work and perseverance.
I’m lucky to live in the big city. While I have the benefit of driving to the supermarket, Pa had to walk six miles through the snow carrying furs on his back to trade for sugar and salt at the closest store. My kids can grab a candy bar from the checkout aisle, but Laura didn’t get her first piece of candy until she was five, and it was so special to her that she couldn’t bring herself to eat it. And while my family has access to forms of entertainment that are too numerous to list, Laura had only one doll, no books, and was stuck indoors for three months every winter.
I realized what a hypocrite I was. What was I thinking? I mean, I eat bacon at breakfast, grilled chicken for lunch, and turkey on Thanksgiving. I buy a real tree every year for Christmas. I wear leather shoes and suede jackets. I take medicines that were tested on mice or rabbits. I watch football and admire the beautiful spiral Tom Brady puts on the pigskin.
I’m not about to switch to a vegan diet or clear out my medicine cabinet. But I have found myself reevaluating what I considered inconveniences in my life. Tasks like laundry, grocery shopping, and loading the dishwasher don’t seem so daunting anymore. And yes, my daughters will read the whole Little House series. Shame on me. I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake, and I was considering creating a do-not-read list for my kids. I was going to, gulp, censor a Classic like Little House in the Big Woods. Now that was the biggest horror for me.


Murphy's Law

Hi Everyone,

When I was in college, I was a member of ASME, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Being a member meant that you 1) had hope that someday you would actually graduate to become an engineer, and 2) had exclusive access to the ASME conference room, an area that was about 10’x12’, with a file cabinet, a table and chairs, and a door that locked. Hmmm…

I’m bringing this up, because every time something goes wrong, I always remember the poster that hung on one of the walls in that room. It was titled “Murphy’s’ Law for Engineers,” and as you can guess, it listed several things that would go wrong if even the slightest possibility existed that it could go wrong.

I thought of the poster this past Saturday, when we all arrived at the library to film our next four episodes. I had picked up the camera equipment the day before – camera, tripod, newly-charged battery, microphones. I slid the camera into place and was about to turn it on when I realized that it already was on, which was unusual, but I didn’t think much of it, until I flipped open the LCD monitor. The room came into view on the monitor, and then about 1 second later, the battery light flashed with a warning that the battery was almost dead (it didn’t say that, exactly, but you get my drift.). Naturally, I flipped the camera off and on again, because the possibility of the battery being dead was not one I could entertain.

Unfortunately, it happened again.

It was at this point that I remembered the poster. Specifically, “The 2nd worst thing you can hear the tech say is "Oops!" The worst thing you can hear the tech say is "oh s**t!”

That was me, and I wasn’t saying “Oops.” Yup, the battery was almost dead, and our first guest was arriving in less than fifteen minutes.

Another Murphy’s Law: “It is never wise to let a piece of electronic equipment know that you are in a hurry.”

We all scoured through the camera bag, looking for another battery, the charger, a plug…we found the battery charger, figured out how to slide the battery in, and for a few seconds, we actually believed that that thing was going to charge itself up in time. You might think, why not just plug the camera in? Funny thing is, the camera doesn’t “just plug in.” You have to know that this other smaller adapter fits into the camera where the larger battery normally goes, and then you have to connect it to the battery charger, which then plugs into the wall…

Dave, Sue and Ed checking out the camera

Dave, Sue and Ed checking out the camera

I would NOT PANIC. We would work it out. And we did! Yea, Ed!

Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll check the ‘on’ switch and grab the spare battery.

P.S. After that, everything went great! The next episode will be posted within a few days.

Keep writing:).

Filming: Take 2

Tonight, as I pulled the camera out of the bag to set up, Ed asked me if we could plug it in. It was at that moment that I saw the battery right next to the camera, sitting in the charger, and remembered that I was supposed to charge it prior to tonight's filming. Luckily, it had enough charge on it to get us through the two episodes that we ended up filming tonight. I wish I could view them right now, but I have no idea how to watch them on the $5,000 camera we borrowed, so I have no idea if our heads were cut off or if Dave and Ed (who sat at opposite ends) were even in the video. I hope so, because they might kill me otherwise. In any case, I'm hoping it went better than our first filming session.

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Creating a Logo

What a process.

Everyone told me to wait. Okay, I knew I didn't need a logo yet-I had no idea if Writer's Infusion was going to take off, and since I'm in between jobs (that's about to change-halleluya!), I had to launch Writer's Infusion with as little money as possible. 

But... I really wanted a sweatshirt.

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