Q. You didn’t comment anywhere on starting a sentence with the word but. Are there any rules concerning this?
A. I didn’t comment on beginning sentences with but (or and), because I didn’t notice that as being a bad habit in your writing. Starting sentences with these two words is not technically verboten, especially in vernacular writing, but overuse should be avoided. Although using and and but like this is one way of writing transitions, employing them repeatedly is taking the easy way out and risking reader-annoyance. The writer must always keep the narrative moving forward, repeatedly telling the reader to “come this way now” from one fact, thought, or idea to the next. Transitions insure this forward motion, acting like the couplings between the cars of a rolling train. Transitions are required in compound sentences, in paragraphs, between paragraphs, between one section and the next, and between chapters in a longer text.
Various words and phrases, most of them more interesting than and or but, make effective transitional elements, depending on your needs. Here are examples of some textual needs with a few transitional words and phrases that do the job of keeping the narrative moving forward:
To establish time: now, then, until, that day, the next morning, years later, usually, later, afterward, eventually, meanwhile, finally, soon, frequently, occasionally, at last, thereafter.
To link cause and effect: inevitably, as a result, because, that caused, naturally, therefore, that produced, as a consequence.
To summarize: therefore, consequently, accordingly, in short, at last, so, finally, all in all, hence, yet.To consider alternatives: even if, even though, of course, doubtless, certainly, on the contrary, yet, however, still, notwithstanding, nevertheless, conversely, on the other hand, though, although.
To restrict and qualify: in some cases, should, unless, when, occasionally, rarely, only if, even if, even though, in no case, in case, provided.
To refer back: they, those, these, that, most, he, she, it, none, nobody, each, all, few, some, who, whom, many, all but two, everything except, except for, without exception.
Q. Is there a “best” time to submit proposals to publishers—a “season” like there is in the film industry?
A. People in the publishing industry slow their work in the summertime and from Thanksgiving until after the first of the year.
Q. What is the best way to write the end of a scene?
A. Scene conclusions need to wrap things up. The lines that close the curtain on a scene don’t have to be complicated or fancy. This is a concept that is easier to illustrate than to explain. Here are two examples from my client Brent Ghelfi’s published novel Volk’s Game:
I push him into the street and toward his flat. He wobbles off. He’s ruined for the night, and maybe for good. I set off in the other direction. Time to see Gromov now, while the anger is still fresh.
These few short sentences conclude the high action of this scene and anticipate some interesting action in the future (a confrontation between the protagonist and a bad guy).
The driver swerves the van to a lurching stop halfway onto a wide sidewalk. The door slides open. Two blue-suited commandos leap inside and prod handheld machine guns into our ribs.
Strahov nods sagely. “You took the wrong ride.”
This ending includes a surprise (a reversal) and a question: What’s going to happen next to our hero and his girlfriend?
A scene should end neatly and completely, rather than just dropping off. Make sure that you’ve given each scene wrap-up a sense of completeness and closure, so that readers don’t feel that they need to hear or see something more. Often just adding a sentence or two will do the trick. Try to write the ending from the perspective of the viewpoint character. If you can include a cliffhanger, an emotional punch line (in dialogue or narration), an important question, a hint of interesting action to come, or some especially lyrical writing, so much the better.
Q. Can you give me some tips about how to begin my novel?
A. Keep in mind that your first few pages have a big job to do. They should:
Establish point of view (POV) — Who’s telling the story?
Establish the Setting — Where? When?
Establish Tone — The narrative voice
Introduce the Conflict — What’s at stake for the protagonist? What does he or she want?
The conflict can be introduced directly or indirectly. Do that in the first sentence, if possible, or hint at the lead character’s main problem, along with encapsulating the whole meaning of your story—or do all three, if you can. Some examples:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . . —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge. —John D. MacDonald, Darker Than Amber (1966)
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. —William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)
You can find many more great first lines by doing a Google search.
Novelist Ann Hood said that the first page must be like your first kiss or your first date, with all the promise and expectation of what’s to come. Read Chekhov’s short story “The Birthday Party,” if you can. Notice how he manages to pack a lot of information into the first paragraph, including clues about the conflict. Other contemporary first pages worth studying are in Memoirs of a Geisha, Bright Angel Time by Martha McPhee, and The Odd Sea by Frederick Reiken, among many others, both old and new.
Q. As an editor, can you fix everything in my book?
A. Since I started Thayer Literary Services in 1997 I have to tell you that I have never seen a first-novel ms. that can be transformed into a marketable book with a quick fix. Literary agents say that they reject 99 percent of the mss. sent to them (although I think the percentage is higher). That’s because most of those mss. require too much work to “fix,” and that isn’t their job.
Writing is as much about revision as anything else. Or, as I say over and over again, “writing is rewriting”—just part of the job description. Amy Tan, for example, labored through more than twenty rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club, and she wrote 700 manuscript pages before she discovered the character who became the protagonist for her second novel, Kitchen God’s Wife. The point is that if you want to be a writer, you have to be willing to engage in the process of revision and keep plugging away for quite a while. A good editor can help a great deal, but the author has to do the spade work.
When I work with a writer, either experienced or not, that process typically begins with my reading the ms. and writing a critique, which helps the writer produce a second draft that is much better than the first one. Then I read the second draft and make more suggestions for improvement. The goal is to improve the ms. to the point where it’s ready for line-editing, which is the “fix everything” stage for the editor. At this point, though, not many things should be left to fix. This is more like the final polishing stage.
If you want a professional editor/writer to revise and rewrite your whole first draft (which is getting very close to ghostwriting), you could do that, but it would be very expensive. Unless you are fortunate enough to have a fat savings account, I doubt that you would be willing or able to pay the thousands of dollars required to pursue such a course.
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