Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How Not to Begin Your Novel


Many agents only ask for a query in their sub guidelines. If I did that, I’d probably still end up requesting a partial in seven out of ten cases – simply because so many stories sound (potentially) awesome in the query letter. Of course, there are times when I know straight away that the story isn’t for me (when it’s a genre I don’t represent, the premise doesn’t sound like my cup of tea at all, or there’s no hook), but generally, I find it extremely important to get a sense of the writing, to see if the characters and story in the sample grab my attention. If the partial can keep up with the (potentially) promising pitch. That’s why I ask to see the first three chapters of the manuscript right from the beginning.

Over the years, having read thousands of opening scenes, I’ve developed a list of pet peeves when it comes to the beginning of novels. I thought I’d share some of them with you. Of course, remember there are always exceptions to the rule and you could possibly come up with a great counter-example to each one of the following points. This is just my personal list of pet peeves – either because I’ve seen these openings way too often or because they simply don’t work for me.

The main character wakes up. Let’s be honest… we’ve all been there. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, everyone has done it at some point. The thing is… it’s the easy way out. It’s just one of those things I see so, so often that I’m annoyed and bored the second I see it.

A dream sequence followed by the main character waking up. Especially when the dream is full of action and feels real. The second the character wakes up and I realise it was just a dream, I feel somewhat cheated. And bored by the waking up scene.

The main character looks in the mirror and starts a lengthy self-description. I mean, seriously… who does that in real life? Yes, I look in the mirror and may think, “Oh, I’m not looking my best today…”, but I don’t look in the mirror only to start an internal monologue describing and explaining every little feature of my face.

So, if your manuscript starts with the main character dreaming and waking up, followed by the MC looking in the mirror and describing themselves… congratulations! You’ve written my nightmare beginning.

That is not to stay that you can never ever begin your novel with the main character waking up, but please make sure that it is essential you begin your novel that way. Don’t just take the easy (read: uncreative) way out.

Lengthy descriptions. Whether it's about a sunset, a field, a room, a chair, the weather… any overly-detailed description that doesn’t move the plot forward is superfluous in my eyes. There’s setting a scene, and then there’s… boring. Do I really need to read five lines about the sunset’s different shades of orange? Don’t write what you’d skip as a reader. Especially not on your first page. You don't want to lose my interest before the story has even started, right?

Info. Dump. Please don’t use your first chapter to explain your character’s (or characters’) entire backstory before starting the actual story. I don’t need to know every single event leading up to the story you’re about to tell – at least not in the first few pages. Info dump makes a story slow and dry. Ask yourself which information the reader really needs to know right from the beginning and what other information needs to be weaved into the story here and there. Remember that your readers won’t necessarily need to know every single detail about your character(s).

When I, as the reader, have no idea what’s going on. There’s too much backstory, and there’s no information at all. This is one of those things that can happen when you start off with pages and pages of dialogue between characters the reader doesn’t actually know yet. If the reader isn’t grounded in the story at all, confusion takes over. When I don’t know what’s happening, I’ll lose interest. And you never ever want me, or any other reader, to lose interest in your character or story. I know it’s a fine line between too much and not enough information, and you might not get it right right from the beginning, but that’s what CPs and beta readers are for. They can help you work it out.

Nothing happens. I find this mind-boggling. Why would you ever think that a first chapter in which nothing – and I mean nothing at all – happens would be a good idea? I mean, when have you last enjoyed a first chapter in which nothing happened? Exactly.

If you ask me, writing a strong first chapter is the most difficult part of the whole writing process. We expect a lot. We want to be hooked, not bored. We want to get to know your character(s), but not too much. We don’t want the entire backstory dumped on us, but want enough details to understand what’s happening. We want you to set the scene, but no lengthy descriptions of nature or inanimate objects. 

I can only suggest you take another look at the first chapters of books you've read/ liked/ disliked. How did those authors tackle this issue? Why does this one beginning work better for you than the other? Be an observant reader -- I'm sure it'll make you a stronger writer.

Never forget there’s no right or wrong when it comes to creative writing. I might hate something someone else loves. So much comes down to personal preference, but it’s never a mistake to avoid opening scenes that are clichéd and/ or overused, or just don’t work. 

10 comments:

  1. Hi Ms. Weber:

    I still see plenty of books being published where the writer begins with the main character waking up (Mostly YA). What's your opinion on why agents still publish or don't have them revise that type of beginning?

    Thank you,

    dreamersspirit.

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    1. I can't actually think of a recent example right now to be honest. But there are cases where it can work. It all comes down to execution… and if it really is essential to that particular story. The problem is that most of the time it's not. Then again, as I mentioned, a lot comes down to personal preference. I know many agents and editors who don't want to see that particular opening… but that doesn't mean that we'll never see it again.

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  2. Thank you so much for this.

    What is your opinion on having a "dream sequence" in a prologue. I'm using quotation marks because the character believes that this is a dream that she's had repeatedly over a period of twenty years. Her "dream" is her reality.

    Thank you,

    Mherman

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    1. That's a tough one. Prologues themselves aren't always very popular with many agents and editors. Again, it all comes down to execution. But if it's a recurrent dream that's crucial to the story (and that's what it sounds like) then it can work.

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  3. I agree - the opening chapter has to fulfill so many agendas. The opening chapter of the Hunger Games is a great example of how to do it well. The writing is crisp and the chapter is chock full of hooks - many of the paragraphs themselves end with hooks which propel the reader forward.

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    1. You're totally right. That opening chapter is great.

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  4. I guess with readers being able to download kindle samples before buying, the opening sequence becomes even more important.

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    1. Yes! I totally agree with you. Personally, I rarely download sample before buying the book, but if I was, I'd not bother buying the book if the opening chapters are weak and boring.

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  5. I found the link to this article on Google + Author's Cave. I am so glad I did. I think your observations are a must read for all authors/storytellers. I'm experienced, published both in trad and indie--but what a terrific reminder not to compose lazy, boring openings. I recall an editor who got a spate of books that all opened with a funeral. If she'd had a shovel handy, she would've buried all of the authors. The next book she picked up started with dialogue and a fender bender. It was mine. She bought it. I love those authors who started their books with funerals. They sold my book for me! I am terrible with hooks. I just can't seem to get one right. I'm not even certain I know what a hook is. Every title I've ever submitted to an agent came back: "No hook." How I managed to sell those books is beyond me. I've noticed this: Sometimes a hook is in the blurb. Having read a blurb that tells me some action or activity is going to happen, I will read an opening that otherwise would not hold my interest. But the blurb has me anticipating the action. I'm reading for it. Anyway--great blog. Thank you.
    Jackie Weger

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    1. Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed my blog post. And thanks for sharing your experience!

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