Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Column: An Effortless Read by Karen Albright Lin

I returned from the 2011 Colorado Gold Conference with a head full of inspiration and a heart filled with gratitude for our amazing Colorado writing community.

One of several workshops I attended stood out because it addressed head-on a difficulty I’ve been having with the beginning of my book. Sara Megibow (from the Nelson Literary Agency) taught a workshop entitled:

Bang! Zoom! Pow! Those First 30 Pages and Why They Are So Important and How to Make Them POP

I’ve been to many similarly titled workshops and have found most impart the same information. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to have it all reinforced again -- especially in light of the feedback I’ve been receiving about my book, Mu Shu Mac-N-Cheese. It works extremely well except the very beginning.

My query letter is effective; I’m usually asked to send full manuscripts. My voice, I’m told, is courageous and works well with the characters and storyline. I’ve even been told by agents that it is a marketable, commercial novel. So what about the beginning is holding it back from earning representation in this tough market?

I have a lot in my first chapter, clearly too much. Mario Puzo got away with it, and one agent suggested I study the beginning of The Godfather. Puzo detailed the back-story of the various characters who sought the aid of the powerful Godfather. The lesson seemed to be that I needed to give the reader more to latch onto about the motivation of the few characters I introduce in the beginning of the book. I was also advised that my voice was so strong that it “overwhelmed the narrative.” That was more difficult to decipher. My critique groups helped me interpret this. I have a rather unusual way with language sometimes. Maybe it is the poet in me. Maybe it is my twisted sense of metaphor. Maybe I try too hard to have an atypical approach to word play. I think it is all of the above.

Back to Sara’s helpful advice. She explained four things that automatically earn rejections from their agency.

1) Data dump
2) Work not written with genre requirements
3) Awkward dialogue
4) Weak character or voice

Great advice. But none of these seemed to address the dissatisfaction over MY beginning. I’d pretty much pounded out the above common problems working over the years with my critique partners and taking a long detour writing screenplays.

Then Sara talked about what makes a beginning POP. First:


She emphasized that the inciting incident shouldn’t be in a prologue, and, in fact, “mainstream fiction shouldn’t even have a prologue.” My book is mainstream women’s fiction and the story takes place twenty years after my Midwest-raised protagonist marries into a traditional and dominating Chinese family. In the PROLOGUE, my protagonist meets her future husband on the dance floor, beginning the dance of their marriage. It’s only one page long. One page. One page! ONE page!!! It sets up the marriage! Right?

It seems I’ve started my book with one of those gnarly, dreaded darlings. And that I should work the information in, as needed, later in the book. Ironically, I taught a workshop at the conference about back-story in its various forms and specifically about writing flashbacks. I warned against flashbacks that come too early. Guess I’ll have to review my own notes.

Chop off my prologue, and luckily I still have a strong inciting incident. That is not the problem. Sara’s last observation about beginnings that POP was less straight forward than items of craft and as elusive as voice.


We’ve all experienced it. We open a book and force our way through the first few pages, slogging along, debating whether or not to take more of our precious time to unravel a tangle of too many ideas, dense prose, flowery overkill, or a mess of complicated sentences. Hers was not a surprising suggestion. But somehow, the way she stated it became an aha moment for me. I and my critique partners know my book so well that we don’t recognize the introduction of too many conflicts, each on the heel of the other, and the story promise with too many angles. The morass of too-tight writing.

I cared too much about getting it right, about dragging the reader in with so many questions to be answered, and not one spare word. I’ve over edited the beginning of Mu Shu Mac-N-Cheese to the point of being dense compared to the rest of the book that manages to breathe. It wouldn’t be too far off to call the beginning constipated while the rest is…well… smooth moving.

I now have a plan of attack. Not an easy plan, especially for this freelance editor who usually deals with tightening chubby prose. But what in a writing career is easy? I am going to make my entire book breathe.

Make it an effortless read.

Thank you, Sara.

(Originally posted at the Sisters of the Quill blog on September 15, 2011)

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at