The First Two Pages

  • By Art Taylor
  • November 26, 2018

Building community by continuing a mission

The First Two Pages

One year ago this month, I stepped in as curator of the blog series “The First Two Pages,” begun in April 2015 by short-story writer and novelist B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens. Bonnie died in August of last year and, in the wake of that unexpected loss, her husband, Solomon Dennis, and daughter, Rachel, asked me to continue the series, in which an author writes an analysis of his or her craft choices in the opening pages of a novel or story. (You can find an archive of the first years of the series at her author website.)

It’s been a pleasure to continue this project, both as a tribute to Bonnie and for the value of the series itself.

Each Tuesday, a new writer is featured on “The First Two Pages,” dissecting those crucial opening passages. I’ll let Bonnie herself explain the larger scope; this is from the guidelines she provided to participating authors and I still pass their way:

“I hope the posts on this blog will offer both writers and readers insights into how some successful opening pages were written. What kinds of issues and approaches did the writers consider? What sorts of decisions did they make? How did they create opening pages that made agents or editors keep reading? Why did these first pages work?”

Bonnie herself was a master short-story writer and a fine novelist, and she thought deeply about craft. As much as I admired her work on its own terms, that appreciation was deepened further whenever she talked about her goals for a piece and how she implemented those goals.

Almost sure, our friendship with one another deepened because of many shared thoughts about the craft of writing — including, for example, our mutual love of Edgar Allan Poe’s theories about the importance of the single effect in short fiction. For a great introduction to Bonnie’s excellent short fiction, please do check out her collection Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime from Maryland-based Wildside Press.

With “The First Two Pages,” Bonnie gave writers an opportunity to reflect on their own aesthetic preferences and choices; gave other writers access to perspectives and strategies that might inspire and enhance their own writing; and gave readers a glance inside the machinery of stories they’d admired.

In their essays, most writers have emphasized some of the conventional wisdom for catching readers’ attention and getting them to turn the page: introducing the main character quickly, starting in the middle of the action, presenting conflicts both external and internal as soon as possible, and then complicating those conflicts immediately — if not sooner!

(I can’t help but think about Noah Lukeman’s craft guide, The First Five Pages, and his admonishment that “Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript.”)

In the process, contributors to the blog have also shown how to flesh out characters efficiently and effectively; how to swiftly ground the reader in both a place and a time, particularly with the challenges posed by historical fiction; and, in the case of a series character, how to satisfy both first-time readers who need more information and longtime readers who don’t.

While I love these fresh takes on storytelling fundamentals, I’ll admit that the essays that have stood out most to me and that I’ve learned the most from are those where writers have had trouble with opening passages — check out Robert Mangeot’s essay on his story “Book of Hours” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine — or where they’ve struggled against and ultimately challenged tried-and-true tactics, as with Nick Kolakowski’s “A Nice Pair of Guns” in the sadly now-defunct magazine ThugLit.

“I eventually decided that opening in mid-story, with a lot of action, forced me to push way too much plot into the middle and end of the tale,” Kolakowski wrote. “I might have succeeded in grabbing the reader’s attention at the outset, but the story as a whole felt profoundly unbalanced. So when it came time to write the second draft, I decided to discard my fears about my hypothetical reader’s attention span, and begin at the beginning.”

(I’ll also admit that my own aesthetic leans toward the slow opening, and Bonnie was a champion of that approach, too; see my own “First Two Pages” essay on my story “Parallel Play” and Bonnie’s reflections on her Anthony Award-winning novella, “The Last Blue Glass” — both hosted at Bonnie’s site.)

Over the last year of hosting this series, I’ve learned a lot beyond writing tricks and techniques, too. For example, the blog’s success isn’t solely in writers taking lessons from one another, but also in writers learning about themselves.

Several times, contributors have told me they didn’t fully understand their own stylistic and structural preferences until they’d been forced to articulate those decisions for the essay. In reflecting on her story “The Best Laid Plans” from the Bouchercon anthology Florida Happens, Holly West writes, “Many of my choices were instinctual, and the reasons I made them only became clear as I began thinking about them in the context of this post.”

West is a fine writer, boasting a considerable career (and she’s a sharp editor, too; watch out for Murder-A-Go-Go’s in March 2019, an anthology of crime fiction inspired by the music of the Go-Go’s). But the series isn’t simply veteran authors passing along wisdom to aspiring writers or first-timers; authors at whatever stage of their careers have contributed keen essays.

Over the last couple of weeks, I hosted two authors with stories in the latest issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine: Josh Pachter, writing about “50,” the sequel to his first published story back in 1968, and Stacy Woodson, making her fiction debut with “Duty, Honor, Hammett,” featured in EQMM’s Department of First Stories and set in Arlington Cemetery.

Perhaps most importantly, “The First Two Pages” is about building community between writers and readers and encouraging everyone to add new works to the nightstand or the bookshelf.

It’s maybe natural that I’ve welcomed a lot of writer friends and acquaintances to the blog this year. Pachter and Woodson both live in the DC area, for example (and, incidentally, three other contributors to this latest EQMM have local ties, too, emphasizing our own region’s already vibrant writing community: Barb Goffman, who’s based in Virginia, Jehane Sharah in Maryland, and Sam Ashworth in DC, who translated the issue’s Passport to Crime Story — and I should add that Ashworth is a recent grad of the creative writing program at George Mason University, where I teach).

But Bonnie and I have also included writers from across the country and from Canada and England, too, and broadening the series even further has been a central goal. My first-time participation last summer in New Jersey’s Deadly Ink Mystery Conference introduced me to several writers whom I recruited for the blog and hopefully introduced in turn to even more new readers.

Essays by Carol Gyzander and James McCrone have already been posted, with Teel James Glenn’s post scheduled over the next couple of weeks — stay tuned! Speaking of broadening, those last three writers reveal a mix of genres: speculative fiction, political thriller, and a bit of retro pulp writing — masterfully so in each case.

As I move into the second year of curating “The First Two Pages,” I look forward to hosting many more writers, connecting writers and readers in an even deeper sense of community, and bringing in a greater breadth of form and genre.

If you’re a writer who wants to participate, do reach out to me at [email protected]. And writer or reader, please do check out the blog series here.

Art Taylor is an associate professor of English at George Mason University and the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel.

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