First, completely off topic here, I’d like to say—after stumbling out of bed an hour early and changing the time on all 30 of my clocks, electronic devices and watches—that Daylight Savings Time is WAY more trouble than it used to be, because we all own so many time pieces. The folks who thought this up did not have clocks on their coffee pots. And our internal clocks are a bigger problem: we now know that changing sleep patterns weakens the immune system. Besides, we all should have CFL bulbs by now, so how much energy are we saving? I think the time has come to go back to all-year, nature-based time keeping.
OK. Rant over. Now to today’s topic:
FIRST PAGE NO-NOS
When we start writing fiction or memoir, some ideas seem to come to us logically and naturally. Unfortunately, the same ideas come logically and naturally to everybody, which means slush readers see the same stuff a hundred times a week. I read a lot of tweets and blogposts from agents and editors complaining about hackneyed openings.
Here are some starting scenes they’re bored with:
1) Weather reports: the famous opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night” may keep contemporary audiences aware of Lord Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, but not in a good way.
2) Morning wake-ups: waking from a dream or getting ready for work/school hits the snooze button for your readers.
3) Trains, planes and automobiles: if your character is en route and musing about where he’s been and where he’s going, you’re not into your story yet. Jump ahead to where the story really starts.
4) Funerals: Writer’s Digest’s Jane Friedman recently blogged about this. Apparently a huge number of manuscripts—especially memoirs—start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement.
5) "If only I’d known…" or "If I hadn't been..." starting with the conditional perfect may seem clever to you, but unfortunately it does to a lot of other writers, too.
6) Personal introductions: starting with "my name is…" has been overdone, especially in YA.
7) Dialogue: introduce your characters first—before they start blabbering—so we have a reason to care what they say.
8) Group activites: don’t overwhelm your reader with too many characters right off the bat. It’s like meeting a bunch of people at a cocktail party: you don’t remember anybody’s name if you hear too many at once.
9) Internal monologue: don’t muse. It’s boring. Bring in backstory later.
10) Too much action: Who knew? They keep telling us to start with action, action, action, but in another post Jane Friedman says this is bad advice. She says without introducing a character first, your scene “has no center.” The reader doesn’t know who to root for. We need to be emotionally engaged with a character before we care how many trolls he slays.
I admit to having used most of these openings in a work of fiction at some point or other, and I’ve seen them all in published novels. I guess that’s the problem: we tend to copy the successful books out there, and don’t realize that everybody else is doing the same thing.