Yesterday I posted a scene from one of my WIPs -- The Man Who Ran Away. It was a snippet I had prepared to enter in a 500 word writing contest, but the email went awry and it never made it in. (pause to make frowny face)
But just preparing it was good for the story. It's one of the reasons I often enter such informal little contests -- even though I am not interested in the prize (usually attention from an agent or editor who judges the finalists).
The thing about these snippet and excerpt contests is that you really have to punch your prose up unless it was written specifically for the contest. Small bits of a novel never work as hard as the same number of words in something that stands alone -- especially in a competition. There is no context to help things along. Every word matters more.
So if you want to get attention in a competition, you crank it up. You heighten and simplify the meanings. You make things more clear. You cut out things that need explanation and don't add to the scene. Subtlty only survives if it does no harm. (And if you have a tight word count, just taking up space can be harm. Although if it adds to the sense of voice, it may carry more than its weight.)
It may put the scene over the top, but I have had good luck in these competitions by taking it up as far as it will go sometimes.
And often, after the contest is over, you have to crank the scene back down again for it to fit with the novel. Maybe not a lot -- you put back in things you removed because they were confusing. You remove unnecessary explanations. Sometimes you just toss the contest entry and go back to the original text.
I have not decided yet about the scene I posted yesterday. I'll have to work on more of the book to be sure. I think, though, that cranking it up really works for this scene.
In some ways, it's a less important scene: it's just a transition. It's a capper for the previous scene: George's reaction to what happened before. Yeah, sure, it also sets up the next chapter, the introduction of Karla. It's a "segue" that creates some anticipation or tells us the direction of the next chapter -- every chapter has one.
But it was only when I started punching it up for the contest that I realized that this is actually a critical moment. If this were a TV show, this is the end of the "cold open" where the credits and the exciting theme music begins. It's an unconsious signal (as well as a conscious one) that this is what the series is about.
In the context of a single book, it is maybe not as critical -- a little anticipation works just fine, you don't need a heart-pounding theme by Lalo Schifrin. However, if someone has read the first book, they know where George is headed at the same moment George does. And for the loyal audience, this kind of anticipation almost requires a certain amount of exaggeration.
Think, for instance, of The Moving Finger -- a Miss Marple story in which Miss Marple hardly appears. Halfway through the book, the vicar's wife makes a dramatic announcement: "What we need is an expert!" And the protagonist says, "But Scotland Yard already sent us an expert." At which the vicar's wife scoffs. "No, no," she says. "What we need is an expert in Evil!"
In terms of a standalone story, this dramatic teaser doesn't make much sense -- so this little old lady with a negative view of humanity shows up and unmasks the killer, so what? -- but in a series, this is an acknowledgement of what the reader is waiting for. It's what the experienced reader already knows. And even though most new readers may not fully "get" it, they will usually recognize a series flag when they see it. "Ah ha," they think. "Whoever this person the vicar's wife will bring along deserves more attention than your average bear."
I don't know just how I will fine tune this scene -- will I crank it up more? Crank it back down? I do think that this may be a part of a pattern for the series, though. The first chapter will set up the plot, and the first character (either George or Karla) and will intentionally hold back on the other character. (There may be reference to him or her but it will only be at the end of the chapter that we will get a dramatic shift which reveals Karla in her clown shoes or George and his way out-of-proportion reactions.)
I don't plan to make it too ritualized. I expect it will evolve as I look for new and interesting ways to introduce them.
But now it's late and I'm tired. I'll do a regular update tomorrow.
See you in the funny papers.