books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, March 14, 2010

TEN WAYS NOT TO START YOUR NOVEL

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.

21 comments:

  1. Well, thankfully I have never used any of those openings for any of my stories. I don't think it has to do with being brilliant, more to do with not knowing any better, or worse.

    And as to your rant, I am in full agreement about letting time go back to its natural course. I also want to say, I only changed the clock in the kitchen last fall, all the others were kept at the "right" time.

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  2. so many rules! I actually like the my name is openings when I read them (just read Percy Jackson - most awesome)

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  3. So glad my novel doesn't have any of those openings (finally doing something right!).

    Here in Germany, there is a big push to do away with daylight savings and stick with the summer time all year (Piedmont Writer's "right time"). Of course that would mean a 9am sunrise in December... eek!

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  4. Okay, used a couple of them. I'm now working pretty frustratingly on solving exactly one of these opening problems. Come to think of it, all three of my novels start with musings. Yikes.

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  5. as always an excellent and extremely useful post - thank you!

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  6. 7) I think if you do dialogue RIGHT, you can give your reader a reason to care about them by what they say. I love stories that open with dialogue.

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  7. TerryLynn and Fawn--You're right that nothing's wrong with most of these openings. It's just that agents (or their assistants) say they're tired of them. I figure if I can avoid annoying slush readers on the first page, it's way to get my foot in the door. THEN I get to annoy them. LOL.

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  8. You've put together a good list here. I think you hit the nail on the head: everyone tends toward the same approach, so you have to try something offbeat to really work well.

    Thanks also for stopping by my place and for the follow. I appreciate it!

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  9. Good suggestions. Of course, many of these continue to be used successfully, but it takes craftmanship to make them work well. The banality of an opening is what puts off most readers because if it starts weak we figure the whole thing is going to be weak.

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  10. Anne--I liked this one so much, I included it in my Friday Link Love post. Thanks again.

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  11. Yikes...my short story opens with an internal musing and novel with a dialogue (job interview, actually). I'm off to change them.

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  12. I had a novel that opened with too many ancillary characters. I ended up cutting a bunch of them and de-naming the ones that were left so only the protagonist stood out.

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  13. Teebore, that's exactly what I always used to do. In short fiction too. "De-naming" is an important editorial tool. Painful, but essential for clarity and pace.

    ReNu--that's for you, too. It is so painful to part with all those carefully chosen words, isn't it? Think of it as thinning seedlings in a garden. But maybe you can plant them someplace else...

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  14. I think opening with action is fine - if it is perfectly and immediately clear who the bad guy is.

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  15. I think it would be helpful to me personally if, along with giving bad examples, you also give examples of what works. [Not in a "so I can copy-paste" way, but in a "this worked for this book because..." way.]

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  16. That's nearly imposible! "Don't have any action till you introduce your characters!" "Don't introduce all your characters at the start or tell the readers what your character's name is!" I've probably used many of those.

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  17. Lady Tam--I recently read a blogpost with the openings of some of the great classic novels. You could see immediately why they work. Can't remember which blog, of course, but you might find it googling around.

    Sasha--They do keep the bar high for us, don't they. I think it's only your protag that has to be introduced first--not the whole cast. That could get tedious. Like a curtain call before the performance.

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  18. Great list, although it left me checking off which of my short stories fit in which "avoid this" category.
    So many of the classics broke these rules and they worked because they were fresh and unique. But I get why you can't use that approach any more.
    Thanks.

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    1. Lori--The rules are a little different for stories. You certainly can open at a funeral if the story is set at a funeral. Same with transportation. The problem with these in novels is they can be used for info-dumps.

      You also make an important point: some openers are so brilliant that too many writers have used them before you. Cliches become old for a reason. They worked so well the first time. And the hundredth and the thousandth...

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  19. I have a novel where the opening action starts in bed. I've had to be careful to omit any adjacent mirrors, dreams and alarm clocks to avoid red flags such as these.

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    1. Mark--Hey if there's action in the bed, you could have a steamy bestseller there. And it would even be okay to have a few mirrors. LOL.

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