Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Friday, September 9, 2011



I have created this post in response to the success I've had at several workshops and conferences with what at first seemed to me a brave experiment: to see how much useful critical commentary and helpful (to the author) feedback could be extracted from just a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress.

The first time I performed this experiment was at the New York Round Table Writer's Conference, at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Library in Manhattan. I asked participants at the conference to submit—ahead of time and anonymously—the first page of a work-in-progress into a pool from which I would later draw at random.

About twenty authors submitted. During the conference these authors joined me in a large room packed with about seventy people. Since the submissions were made anonymously, I had no idea which faces in the room belonged to the authors whose works I would be commenting on.

One by one I extracted pages from the pile of twenty, copies of which were available to those in the audience. Together we read the pages. I gave my comments first, and then I opened the floor to discussion.

The experiment couldn't have been more successful. Just as I'd suspected, each of the first pages presented specific problems and solutions that opened up broader areas of discussion. I got the sense—as did everyone in the room, I think—that most if not all of the challenges pertaining to each of the works-in-progress we examined that afternoon were concentrated into those first pages, so that—had the full manuscripts been available, there would have been scarcely any need to read on. Most of what those authors needed to hear about their works they heard that day—enough, anyway, to return to their writing desks with a solid sense of what, if anything, they needed to do by way of revising or continuing to revise their works.

In one or two cases, what the authors heard was, "This is ready for publication." Always nice to hear.

My purpose with this blog is to offer other authors the same same opportunity to submit the first pages of their in-progress works and get feedback—first from me, and then, through comments, from others who may offer insights supporting or contradictory to mine. As the Italians like to say, "Tutto fa brodo"—everything makes broth.

There is no cost. I ask only that those who submit their first pages for discussion here allow the pages to be posted, and understand that the discussion is to be open to all followers of this blog. Also, I ask that any first pages submitted here be made available for use in a future print and or book use, with the same theme, structure, and purpose.

So—do consider sending me your first page. First pages (only, please!) should be sent to me as word.doc attachments. For my contact information please see the submissions sidebar at the top side of this page, or click HERE.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Taking a Break

"Your First Page" followers will have noted a hiatus in my postings. The silence you hear is in fact the sound of your editor at work on his own fiction, toiling at Draft # (fill in outrageous figure) of his novel-in-process, making glacial progress. If you've submitted your first page and have yet to hear from him by way of a critique, this is why. Be forgiving: for he must write.

By way of compensation--and as proof of the above—I offer my own first page (after prologue). Have at it. Go ahead: make my day!

As for when I'll resume the blog, that will depend on the kindness of my muse, agents, editors, and how busy I find myself otherwise.

Meanwhile I invite all new visitors to this blog—as well as those who aren't new—to read and comment on the existing posts. And do check out the column in The Writer magazine.

Also, for any of you who may be interested, my O'Connor Award-winning short story collection, Drowning Lessons, is now available in paperback from the University of Georgia Press. And my first memoir/essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, is due out in the Fall of 2011 from the Uiversity of Iowa Press / Sightline Books. Look for it!


—Peter Selgin

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Painting the Nude

I remember the first time I was confronted with a nude model. I was a freshman at the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, nineteen years old. The drawing studio was on the top floor of an old building with arched windows. I stood behind my drawing horse—a wooden platform with a graded surface—with my newsprint pad ("penny paper," we called it) and charcoal sticks and pencils. This would have been in September, but I remember the studio being cold, perhaps because come November it would be an igloo, with us all huddled in winter coats and scarved, our breaths fogging an atmosphere already murky with charcoal dust. Ms. Helmann, our instructor, didn't let us draw faces or genitals. "Distractions," she called them. "No lines," she used to say. "There are no lines in nature, just planes and shadows; a line is a concept. We're not here to draw concepts. You can do that at home."

One thing I remember about those drawing sessions: they were not the least bit sexy. No matter how good-looking the model was (and some of them were quite good-looking), after staring at them long enough through curtains of dust, with eyes aching, feet sore, and fingertips blackened with charcoal, you grew blind to abstractions like "beauty" and "woman," which was the point. You got so you only saw light and dark, shapes and values, negative and positive spaces. That these shifting patterns of light and dark added up to a beautiful girl was beside the point; anyway you were too busy drawing to notice.

Most writers, when writing about visual artists, what they do, and how they think while doing it, get it all wrong. For one thing they assume that the artist is consumed with the significance and meaning of his subject—which may be so, but not while he's working. While painting or drawing he's concerned with one thing only: seeing. He's measuring shapes, shadows, proportions. Labels don't exist. This is as true whether the subject is a haystack or Marilyn Monroe.

Of course, the artist may be an amateur, or a charlatan. That is the conclusion pointed to by this first page, since—first of all—no serious artist tackles his very first nude in oil on canvas: he'd have sketched her first, many times. That he's already gotten around to "jabbing paint into her eyes" also raises suspicions. By then our tongue-tied Picasso would have had to at least sketch in the rest of her, and should have calmed down. As for his speechlessness, it seems as suspect as his art. To have talked her into posing for him in the first place, he must have a way with words, or is his affliction triggered only by those "surfing" freckles?

Much that seems forced here might be alleviated given the proper context. But since we're given no context, we can't be blamed for imposing our own. Are they in his studio, or her boudoir? Is he a professional, or an imposter? Whose idea was it to paint her in the nude? Nor do we know, apart from his stupor and her freckles, who these two are, let alone what they mean to each other.

Imagine how much better all of this might have worked were we told from the start that he met her the week before at the Brass Jail, a local bar where, under the influence of one tequila shot too many, he foisted himself off as a portrait artist (N.B. he installs mufflers for Meineke, but he has doodled on a napkin or two). Over a few more drinks he talked her—and himself—into a commission, for which in the intervening days he has invested a small fortune in paints, brushes, easel, et cetera, and even squeezed in an art lesson or two. And now—

Well, you get the idea. And you get the scene, too, which isn't so bad after all, now that it comes with some context.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Brighter than Bright

Everyone loves a love scene, especially one where, for a change, it's the man who's reluctant. As an opener, who but the stoniest puritan can resist this:
It’s New Year’s, the girl sitting next to me keeps patting the space between my knee and my crotch, but I don’t feel a thing. Not a damn thing.
The scene: a New Years Eve party; the mileau: the 70's or late 90's—so one assumes, since the music alternates between Nirvana and "Stairway to Heaven," and everyone's stoned or getting there. The sense memory of those days is in itself enough to give this reader a dope-induced headache. As for the narrator, he's way ahead of me—as narrator's should be. "Jesus," he says. "I wish I had some aspirin" . . .
Corks pop, and this huge pressure fills my chest and I push myself up, I can’t deal with this now, all these smile-plastered people partying and dancing, but the girl pulls me down by my belt and her tongue probes my teeth. I kiss back. We make-out for a while. It feels okay, so I slide my hands down her back to the edge of her panties. But then she kisses deeper, and harder, a lamprey sucking me down her gullet, and my heart races but for all the wrong reasons. I pull away.
I've heard probing tongues described in several ways, but "a lamprey sucking down [a] gullet" isn't one of them—not that I recall. Nor can I remember the last time I felt so sorry for a guy who's biggest problem (aside from a headache) is that some "cute, with a Christmas-in-the-Caribbean tan" woman wants to make out with him. Poor put-upon fella! Yet we buy it; or anyway I do, for the details are too many and too specific ("My fingers trail abstract circles over the skin below her throat") to shrug the scene off as adolescent male wish-fulfillment:
She tilts towards me, fingers glued to my leg, and talks and talks, but between the music and my pounding head, her words blow past my cheek. Her lips stop moving and she tilts her head, like she’s waiting for me to say something. My breath catches.
The best thing about this opening—apart from it's being well-written, with an artlessness that makes it look easy, is that it never takes a predictable or wanton turn. Okay, so the guy doesn't especially feel like making out, but, hey, "it feels okay," and so he goes along for the ride, until the lamprey attacks, and then he demurs. We wonder why—and also, for that matter, why he's not stoned like everyone else? What is his problem? "This is a fucking party," the scorned lover reminds him. And we're right there with her, for we, too, want an explanation. For which we must read on.

And the pared-down, rapid-fire, un-self-conscious style is just what's warranted here. Folks, this isn't War & Peace, or Ulysses; it's a callow dude making out at a New Year's Eve party. Style and substance are perfectly wed, for the substance here is the narrator, who, along with his author, is as guileless as can be.

But what about that Rilke quote topping the page? What are we to make of the combination of Rilke, marijuana, and casual sex? It's the one place where the author gives the nod to high art. What is your most suffering experience? To believe this narrator, it's being forced to make-out to strains of Nirvana with a pot headache when you'd rather be home reading the Duino Elegies.

Smoke & Mirrors

Some readers of this column will remember The Honeymooners, in particular Ed Norton, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason)'s sidekick, the vest-and-tee-shirt wearing municipal sewer employee played to a fare-the-well by Art Carney. In one of his better schticks, Norton would confront some trivial undertaking with extravagant overtures, rolling up his sleeves, loosening his shoulders, licking his lips, approaching the task like a pool player trying for a 3-ball shot the hard way, until frustrated Ralph would bellow, "Will you CUT THAT OUT?"

Reading this ornately vacuous opening, I feel like Mr. Kramden. Or—to borrow another analogy from Hollywood—like Dorothy confronting what she thinks is the Wizard of Oz, when in fact she's seeing a sham operated by a humbug.

In The Wizard of Oz the illusion is achieved via smoke, flames, a thunderous basso profundo, and 1939 cinema's equivalent of a hologram. In this opening it's obtained through language as oozing and pungent ("gnawed at the gnarled roots of my soul" "a landscape that the sun shined on" "juice of the mundane") as an overripe camembert, language that doesn't convey content so much as it camouflages and conceals the lack thereof.

In the absence of a story, we get a narrator narrating—rolling up his sleeves, clearing his throat, wetting his lips and rubbing his hands together ("Will you CUT IT OUT!"). The prose—though metaphorically overdone—is amusing in its way. To be sure, a strong voice is achieved, but one wonders: in service of what?

Picture Orson Wells stepping—like The Third Man—out of the Viennese shadows, or Vincent Price peeking around a velvet curtain with one funereal eyebrow raised. Both men had magnificent stage presence, and so does this narrator. All he needs is a good story to tell.

Of that, alas, there is no trace here.

Tell, Don't Show

You know the old chestnut: "Show, don't tell." It's what our English teachers from eighth grade onward have always told us, and what I tell my students, too, when they fail to render through drama material that ought to be dramatized.

But there are times, too, when the opposite needs to be said, when fleshing things out in the form of action and dialogue lends little or nothing to a moment, and may even detract from it; when ideas or information are best conveyed expediently, through summary.

This first page offers such a moment. While driving somewhere, John Baran, the protagonist, gets a call on his cellphone, one that "send[s] a chill through him." Having switched to "hands-free mode," he learns from his CEO's secretary that a man named David has suffered a massive stroke that has left him completely paralyzed in Philadelphia Hospital. Who this David is we don't yet know, but we learn that he and John met each other while being trained "as members of the Army's Special Operations Command" at Fort Benning.

The phone conversation conveys information, but in the absence of character, with John asking obligatory questions to which the secretary responds as generalized secretaries will, with secretarial propriety. As dialogue, then, the conversation fails, since whatever else good dialogue does it should also reveal character, and, as a consequence of doing so, entertain. But the secretary has no character—certainly she's not developed as one—and so what we get here is at best a Q & A session designed to deliver exposition to the reader, at worst an example of what Frank Conroy of the Iowa Writer's Workshop used to call "ping-pong" dialogue ("Hi, how are you?" "I'm fine, and you?" "Okay.")

Since the two main components of drama are dialogue and action, and since the dialogue here leaves something to be desired, we're left with action, that of someone talking on a phone while driving, a static action, at best, in which the setting—the passing (Philadelphia?) scenery that might have lent some grit, is entirely absent. Hence drama without drama, or only the intrinsic, implied drama of a man reacting to the news of an associate's paralyzing stroke. And being intrinsic and implied, it is best dispatched through summary.

The author's decision to dramatize this moment, while understandable ("show, don't tell!"), is misguided, and the result—while technically competent—is gratuitous. The moment doesn't demand dramatization.

One solution: enter the story later, with John's arrival at the hospital, when he first sees his old friend lying paralyzed in a hospital bed, the genuinely dramatic scene to which this superfluous drama points. The drive, the phone call—these things belong in the background and are best left to the reader's imagination, and should be left there.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Woman of Valor

Nature abhors a vacuum and so does good writing. When writers fail to specify, when they leave the devil—in the form of details—to readers, they have only themselves to blame when those readers fill in the blanks with less-than-authentic material. In fiction what rushes in to fill the vacuum is cliché.

And cliché is the Number 1 enemy of good fiction. As Martin Amis has said, clichés don't just take the form of familiar phrases or figures of speech. There are also "clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart." Like a cancer, cliché, according to Amis, "spreads inwards" from a book's language to its soul.

But clichés don't thrive exclusively on pedestrian language; in fact they're known to flourish in the absence of words. I'm not (heaven forfend) talking about language for its own sake. I mean language that specifies, that lends authenticity through judiciously chosen details.

Hannah Tinti's Home Sweet Home" tells the story of Pat and Clyde who "were murdered on pot roast night." What raises Tinti's story high above the typical murder mystery is her emphasis on character, on providing each character in her tale with a set of ironclad specifics that render a generic reading impossible.

Take Pat, for instance, the adulterous housewife who falls victim to her lover's vengeful wife. On the eve of her murder she is
thinking of James Dean. Pat had loved him desperately as a teenager, seen his movies dozens of times, written his name across her notebooks, carefully taped pictures of him to the inside of her locker so that she could have the pleasure of seeing his tortured, sullen face from East of Eden as she exchanged her French and English textbooks for science and math.
Another writer might have written "as a teenager she had loved James Dean" and left it at that. But Tinti goes further—and further still ("When she graduated from high school, she took down the photos and pasted them to the inside cover of her yearbook")—to substantiate this particular specimen of a star-struck teenager. Similarly, in The Corrections, when Jonathan Franzen takes us on a tour of the flotsam in an aging couple's attic, he presents us not merely with a box of old recipes, but "recipes on brown paper calling for wilted lettuce." The level of specificity matters. Among other things it makes the difference between a good writer and a great one.

Over this nominally well-written first page the generic rules. Except for the temperature (which, though much is made of it, "hardly register[s]" with the protagonist) little is specified. A woman wanders through a generic library, scanning its generic stacks in search of a generic "list of book titles." She's looking for books about getting pregnant, but the author fails to share with us either the titles on Rebekkah's list or those she encounters on the shelves.

It's too bad, since it drains the scene of tone and texture, but also because it sacrifices humor, since those titles would surely occasion a chuckle. Even when Rebekkah pulls the first book on her list from a shelf, beyond its having been "recently published" we're left to imagine everything about it, from its cover illustration to its title. Another opportunity lost. A perfunctory scan of fertility book titles demonstrates that truth—if not stranger than fiction—is certainly as funny. Imagine Rebekkah's inner take on some of these:

The Rough Guide to Pregnancy and Birth
The Mother of all Pregnancy Books
Taking Charge of Your Fertility
The 5 Best Ways to Get Pregnant

Because the scene is rendered generically, there are no titles for Rebekkah to respond to, and so the chance to display her wit is likewise squandered.

Nothing wrong with engaging readers' imaginations and letting them do some of the lifting. But if readers are to do a good job—not the hatchet job of cliché —we have to provide them with some tools. A few telling details go a long way, blossoming in the reader's mind into lush renderings. Think of specific details as the ropes, nuts, cams, and hexes mountain climbers use, with the summit of vivid description their devoutly wished-for goal.