Friday, May 26, 2017

The Importance of the First Two Pages

A few years ago, I attended a conference session in which several authors met with two New York agents. Each author read the first two pages of a work in progress and the agents reacted. I read an early draft of two pages from Burnt Siena beginning with a loving description of Siena, Italy, and ending with my heroine’s discovery of a body. The criticisms were, “Well, obviously you want us to know you’ve lived in Italy…” and “I don’t like your protagonist.” Not very encouraging, but then those two agents didn't like anything they heard that day.  

In my writing process, I often write a first scene and junk it later, realizing that the real story starts later, or that the first draft sets the scene or introduces the plot too slowly.

So with Catacomb, I discarded a scary preface I really liked, deciding it belonged later in the book. Instead, I began the story in the middle of an interaction between Flora Garibaldi and her policeman boyfriend:

It was a fine day for an argument.
“You did what?” Flora yelped.
“I called your boss and got you some time off,” said Vittorio Bernini.
“Why on earth? And who are you to jeopardize my new job? Why, you interfering so-and-so!” She refrained from calling him a bastard as the blood in her veins heated up.
“Calm down, cara.” Vittorio stopped and put his hands on her shoulders, holding her steady in one place. “There’s a good explanation.”
Flora, normally susceptible to the warmth of his hazel eyes, fidgeted under his hands and glared at him. “So explain. And it had better be good.”
He took her arm. “We can’t talk here.” They were in the middle of a piazza in Trastevere, the old part of Rome “across the Tiber.” He steered her to a cafĂ© with spindly metal tables outside, choosing one at the back where other conversations would muffle their own. “Espresso for you?”

“Make it a macchiato.” She preferred strong Italian coffee with a little swirl of milk.
Flora Garibaldi drew out a chair and sat, looping her purse around one knee. The soft air of late April wafted around her, lowering her internal temperature. Maybe she wouldn’t boil over--yet. Vittorio had just done what he always accused her of doing, acting first and not thinking about other peoples’ reactions until it was too late. Now she was on the receiving end, and she didn’t like it.


Thus I introduce the two main characters and an ongoing conflict between them, namely Vittorio’s tendency to let the demands of his Carabinieri job override his personal relationships. Because these are my heroes and I want readers to empathize with both of them, I also mention one of Flora’s faults—her habit of rushing into things that has put her in danger in the past.

I can’t resist describing the luscious Italian setting—and I think most readers want to know where they are—so I insert a short paragraph while Flora waits for her drink:

As she waited for him to fetch their coffees, she decided that despite the occasional clashes of personality and inherited expectations, their first few months together as a couple had been quite satisfactory. They’d found a small but charming apartment, a third-floor walk-up with a tiny balcony, in Trastevere. Flora loved the area, with its cobbled streets and sunset colors on the painted stucco buildings: burnt orange, pale red, salmon, and gold. The non-existent grid plan of Rome no longer bothered her. Now, she reveled in the odd, triangular piazzas where she least expected them, the meandering streets, and the quiet, flower-filled corners of residential neighborhoods. She’d even adopted the Italian custom of putting out leftover dishes of pasta for the stray cats, some of the thousands of cats who weren’t living in the ruins of the Colosseum but stalked the unwary small rodents in every corner of Rome.

This sets the stage for the entire book, which takes place in modern Rome both above and below ground. The premise: Flora and her policeman boyfriend search for a cache of Nazi-looted art that the Monuments Men missed.

My next challenge is how to convey information about stolen art, Nazi hideaways, and the Monuments Men without doing an “information dump” and boring the reader.

I decide to parcel out some of the necessary facts in a brief conversation between the two protagonists while including a humanizing detail: Flora’s greed for sweets. Other information will be woven in later, in discussions between policemen and the international group of scholars and specialists convened by Vittorio and Flora to help with the search.

The key: weave the technical details into the plot while making the reader greedy for more information. Example: is a short story by Michigan and Chicago writer Barbara D’Amato. In “Of Course You Know Chocolate is a Vegetable,” the reader gobbles up information about the chemistry of chocolate, coffee, and a certain medication to solve the death of a particularly despicable literary critic. Highly recommended reading!

1 comment:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Sarah,

I love the way you handle the beginning of your novel. Like you, I find myself writing and rewriting beginnings. They are for me the most difficult. We need to catch our readers from the opening paragraph and then hold them. Not an easy task!