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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, September 4, 2011

13 Ways Not to Start a Novel

by Anne R. Allen

Starting the first chapter of a new novel is usually pretty easy for me. My muse has uploaded a shiny new story into my head and I’m all revved and ready to go, so I get those words down as fast as I can. (Then I usually bog down around page 100, but that’s another post…)

But all that first draft scribbling usually doesn’t have much to do with the final product. When we’re first diving into a novel, we’re not thinking about our readers; we’re telling the story to ourselves. All kinds of information will come up, but be aware you’ll want to cut most of it or move it to another part of the book when you edit.

And when it comes to that editing—the first chapter presents your biggest challenge. I’ve often spent more time on a first chapter than the entire remainder of the book.

On that first page, we have only a few lines to grab the reader and keep her from putting the book back on the shelf. We have to present an exciting hook and fascinating characters that will suck readers in immediately—but not overwhelm them with too much information.

We also want to promise something unique—not the same/old same/old they’ve got on the shelf at home.

But when we start writing fiction or memoir, some of the ideas that come most readily have unfortunately come readily to a whole lot of writers before us, so they’ve become clichés.

On top of that, the contemporary writer has an added problem. Because we’ve almost all grown up with television, we have the screenplay or teleplay format hardwired to our brains. But novelists have no cameras or music to convey emotions; no close-ups of a character’s face to show internal conflict. A lot of openings that would be brilliant in a movie are snoozerific on the page.

This stuff is on my mind because I have been working on manuscript evaluations for the Central Coast Writers Conference on September 16th-18th  (Yes, there’s still time to sign up! More info on tech day with Agent Laurie McLean and Smashwords founder Mark Coker here

As I’ve been reading first pages, I’ve been seeing openings that aren’t terrible, but aren’t grabbers, either. This is usually because they’re overdone or they’re copied from another medium where they work better.

Here are a few openings to avoid::
1)     Weather reports: the famous opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night” may keep contemporary audiences aware of Lord Bulwer-Lytton’s otherwise forgettable 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, but not in a good way.

Opening with meteorological events isn’t only a problem with people who’ve read too much Victorian literature. Our television-saturated brains tend to think in terms of the “establishing shot” of a screenplay. But a novel needs more than pictures to connect with the reader. It needs human emotion.  

2)     Morning wake-ups: showing your character waking up or getting ready for work/school hits the snooze button for readers. In a movie or TV show, you can show one character getting ready for work and it’s interesting. In the cable TV series, Dexter, the serial killer/protagonist's morning ablutions open every episode. But in a book, where you couldn't have the creepy-comic music and double-entendre blood orange shots, the same scene would bore us silly.

3)     Dreams: some people call this the “Dallas” opening, because of the TV soap that got written into such a corner the writers had to pretend a whole season was “just a dream.” Writers sometimes try to hook readers by opening with a scene of surreal horror—but if it all turns out to be a dream or a videogame on page three, the reader feels tricked.

4)     The death of the protagonist: This is apparently very, very big with the paranormal/horror crowd. If your MC is a zombie, vampire, or other member of the undead community, think of something else. This has been done, um, to death.

5)     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.

6)     Funerals: Slush readers say a huge number of manuscripts—especially memoirs—start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement. But most readers aren’t eager to embark on a literary journey with a miserable MC.

7)     “If I’d known then what I know now…” starting with the conditional perfect may seem clever to you, but unfortunately it does to a lot of other writers, too. This is cliché territory—don’t go there.

8)     Personal introductions: starting with “my name is…” has been way overdone, especially in YA. Again, not a bad idea, but too many people thought of it first.

9)     Minor characters speaking or thinking. The story-telling old man, the child—any detached observer telling the tale will only distance the reader. Whoever/whatever we meet first becomes foremost in our minds, and readers will want to go back to that character. Make the first person you meet an important member of the cast, not a spear-carrier.

10) Reader-Feeder dialogue, also known as “As you Know, Bob.”

“I must retrieve the elusive magical jewelry item,” says Bob. “Without it, I cannot access my rightful powers—and my evil Uncle Murray will usurp my domain.”

“But as you know, Bob,” says Sidekick. “The magical jewelry item is in the hands of the four skanky queens of the Bingo Borogroves and guarded by the Dire Dragoons of Doom. We will be risking our very lives.”

Sidekick is not saying this for Bob’s benefit. He’s saying it for ours. Conversational info-dumps are never a good idea.

11) Group activities: 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.

12) Internal monologue: Musing is boring. Especially reader-feeder musing. “Back when I was younger, I would have slain the dragoons with my magic sword, but when my parents were killed in that chariot crash on the way to get Borogrovian take-out, and my Uncle Murray had me locked up in the Dark Tower of Doom, the skanky queens stole my magic sword and melted it down to make a necklace and a pair of matching earrings…” We don’t need to know this all on the first page. Bring in backstory later.

13) Too much action: Writing gurus keep telling us to start with action, action, action, but this isn’t actually such good advice. We need to be emotionally engaged with a character before we care how many dragoons of doom he slays.


What about you, scriveners? What openings press your snooze button? What scenes do you see overused in your genre? Is there any opening that automatically makes you put the book back on the shelf?

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Blogger Ruth Harris said...

LOL. Totally excellent! This should probably be listed as 12A but beginning with the main character contemplating him/herself in a mirror is also a Very Bad Idea.

Under Funerals, I'd also list births. Births work much better in media res when we have a stake in the mother/father/kid. Example: The Godfather's christening scene.

One last thought: Unless you're writing an epistolary
novel, starting with a letter is usually a no-no.

September 4, 2011 at 10:52 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

I love this, and totally agree with lots of points on here. That said, sometimes it's fine to see these, if only rarely; Stephen King's NEEDFUL THINGS starts of with a narrator character introducing people that'll be in the story, and that was quite an interesting read - although that section did go on too long.

I did read a novel recently that started with character deaths - and not just one, but many. I can tell you that I was not impressed with said novel from the outset (and that didn't change as I continued, either).

September 4, 2011 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger Gwen@ChewDigestBooks.com said...

Oh my, I just started a character study not only doing #2, but having her looking at her brother's reflection in a mirror while getting ready to go to work like Ruth mentioned. Fail!

September 4, 2011 at 11:33 AM  
Blogger Ranae Rose said...

Forget alarm clocks and dreams. I like to start my books off with things like naked men streaking down the street and a long-lost lover suddenly returning from the supposed-dead. LOL I like to think stuff like that is more fun. ;)

But really, good post. In a full market, it's important to be original.

And congrats Anne and Ruth both on the great book news. Best of luck with both your releases! :)

September 4, 2011 at 12:10 PM  
Blogger KarenG said...

Hi Anne, thanks for stopping by the BBQ! I hope you're enjoying it and meeting some new people!

September 4, 2011 at 12:43 PM  
Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Congratulations, Anne!
And oh crap, my next book starts with a couple lines of internal dialogue...

September 4, 2011 at 1:48 PM  
Blogger Stephen T. Harper said...

Hi, all. If you don't mind, I'd like to take slight issue with this post. As general rules of thumb, I can see how these 13 make perfect sense, but also as general rules, they may be missing something rather important. You could sum them up as one rule, "don't be boring" especially in your first paragraph.

It doesn't matter what you are talking about so long as you really have something to say. For example, if you are writing about the weather because you have nothing else to talk about, you will be writing a book that annoys people who must read dozens of books for contests or in slush piles. But you are unlikely to attract an audience beyond that small handful of pre-committed readers. On the other hand, if you are writing about the weather because "Something Wicked This Way Comes," or you are John Steinbeck describing how the Dust Bowl was formed in Oklahoma, it could be very interesting indeed.

Boring is boring and interesting is interesting. There need be no rules if you really have something to say. I think my point is, don't write anything with the idea of navigating through slush piles. Have something to say and be fascinating about it.

Sorry to be contrarian. Just my two cents for the sake of conversation. Do love the blog. :)

September 4, 2011 at 2:06 PM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

Love the covers! Congrats to both of you. Can't wait to get my hands on a copy.

As a reader I am put off by action without empathy for the main character, or any character for that matter. I need to care about someone, not be blown up in the first three sentences.

As a writer, my problems lie in backstory. I never thought about it that way, Anne, but you're right, I'm writing for myself and throwing backstory in the opening is what usually keeps me grounded throughout the rest.

Thankfully I have an amazing beta who tells me what to cut.

Great job.

September 4, 2011 at 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Karen S. Elliott said...

Excellent post! I'm keeping this for future reference, and I have shared it to a couple writers' groups on FB.

September 4, 2011 at 3:05 PM  
Anonymous Kelly Hashway said...

Great post! I've seen all these examples being done and overdone. There are better and more original ways to open a novel. We are writers; we should be able to be more creative than simply mimicking what's been done before.

September 4, 2011 at 3:08 PM  
Blogger Ranae Rose said...

Stephen, I agree that these are general rules of thumb and that there are, of course, exceptions. For example, as a reader, I love dark and stormy nights. If a story opens up with a description of a storm, I'm probably automatically interested. (Of course, I consider that to be a personal quirk and it certainly doesn't apply to everyone, but you see what I mean.) And one of my books does open with a storm. Not with me describing the weather exactly, but describing the sensations the main character is feeling (the bite of rain on her cheek, the smell of lightning in the air) because she's stuck in it.

September 4, 2011 at 3:25 PM  
Blogger Debbie Brown said...

I have to agree with Stephen; it depends on the story. My first two words are "Chilly winds filled the once-shining black carriage".
I think that a lack of the weather report would have removed a colorful fact from the introduction and made it blah. It helps to establish that a Victorian carriage was not a comfortable ride. The paragraph talks of the protag traveling from London to Northumbria- important to the story, to who she is and where she had been and where she was going. The reader is take up a hill to a castle backlit by a large full moon. The whole paragraph sets mood and starts the reader to wondering. Her entering the servant's door would not have had nearly the mood.

I've read before that you don't start with the weather, but I think storms and clouds and chilly winds give a dramatic feel. Other weather reports can give a sunny feel, a refreshing dew-drop feel, etc. I think they are not only ok, but helpful. But again, it depends on the story.

I do appreciate the points you have brought out, having much to learn.

September 4, 2011 at 3:47 PM  
Blogger Catherine Al-Meten said...

Great points, and some of the responses to your post made me laugh. I think some experienced writers can get away with a cliche now and then. And some readers will read through the first chapter or so in hopes things will get better, but these ideas provide some good guidelines.

September 4, 2011 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger Donna Hole said...

I have lots of pet peeves for story beginnings, but they differ from book to book. Sometimes, these openings are fine; it depends on what the second paragraph - or second page - references. I rarely put a book down before reading at least the first chapter.

I make some of these "errors" in my women's fiction novel. The first book opens with a lot of people at a houseparty, and the thiird opens with the MC waking from a nightmare.

I'm hoping I pull it off, but all three novels sit in a drawer without one request for partial from all my queries. It's possible agents don't make it past the first line of text in the sample.

Congrats to you and Ruth both on the publications. That is exciting news.


September 4, 2011 at 4:53 PM  
Blogger Kara Lennox said...

I would add, anything in a bathroom. No musing in the bathtub, especially no gazing into a mirror as a cheater way to describe the POV character.

I actually don't mind a sentence starting out with the weather. I prefer to have a slight amount of scene-setting to ground the reader before launching into action.

Great blog!

September 4, 2011 at 5:02 PM  
Blogger Patricia said...

This is a great informational post! I immediately thought through each of my novels to see whether I'd made any of these mistakes for openings. Thank so...

September 4, 2011 at 5:20 PM  
Anonymous D. August Baertlein said...

Anne, I was all set to buy my 2nd book in 2 days based on your recommendation, but I have a Nook not a Kindle. Is there any way to get Ruth's book on Nook? It sounds fantastic.

BTW We Are Not Alone: The Writer's Guide to Social Media is taking some of the fear out of this whole cyber-mingling thing. I mean really! Here I am making a comment on your blog -- which I’ve been enjoying in stealth for months. Thanks for the great discussions!

September 4, 2011 at 7:20 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Oh my goodness! I go out to listen to some music on a Sunday afternoon and come back to all these lovely comments.

Ruth is right, of course, about all of it. I'm going to address that mirror thing in the next post. And births--worked for Henry Fielding in Tom Jones, and for Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy (If you can say Tristram Shandy works.) But if you're not writing an 18th cent. novel, it's better not to compete. Ditto the letter thing. Thanks, Ruth!

I'm so happy to see all these new names--especially people who are de-lurking. Too tired to respond to everybody tonight, but I'm so grateful for your comments!

To those who say, "yeah, but--look how these famous writers have done every one of these things." You're absolutely right. But that's why we can't. You're setting yourself up to compete with the masters. We gotta come up with new stuff. Which is really, really hard.

September 4, 2011 at 7:42 PM  
Anonymous Sara Flower said...

This was great! It is easy sometimes to fall into the trap of cliches or things that have been done to death.

It`s important to remember that we always need to come up with new ideas in order to compete.

September 4, 2011 at 8:22 PM  
Blogger Lester D. Crawford said...

I am giving thought to the first line of my first chapter. When I start the next pass through the story, I will experiment with the beginning. At this time, I am thinking of jumping straight into the instigating incident with the following line.


September 4, 2011 at 9:59 PM  
Blogger NikkiF said...

As with all rules, know them, understand their rationale, and if you're going to break them, do it with style. e.g. Orwell's 1984 starts with weather but in the same breath startles the reader by having weird clocks (similar start in Philip Reeves' Mortal Engines, with mobile cities that attack each other). My favourite opening sentence though is Robertson Davies' Murther and Walking Spirits, in which the protagonist is shot dead, despite it being a first person narrative. But the key thing in both is the shock to the reader that rouses curiosity.

September 4, 2011 at 10:58 PM  
Blogger Lae Monie said...

What about Popcorn Press? How do you find them? What is your criticism, if any, about them? I've checked their site and read the president's statement. It seems intriguing and certainly up my alley. If you were to give one advice about them, what would it be?

September 4, 2011 at 11:52 PM  
Blogger Spook said...

The "hi my name is" approach bores the snot out of me. However, I rather like narrators (in comic or satire books) who narrate their riduculous backstories concisely, with humour - a bit like you did there, but usually with some sarcastic input. I love to feel like the character's talking to me, and if it's funny I'll go right into that story like a stoat in a rabbit hole :)

September 5, 2011 at 12:35 AM  
Anonymous mark williams international said...

Each point worthy of a full post on its own!

From my creative-writing tutor days I can only agree with everything and would add a long list more if space permitted.

Perhaps most significant: "Because we’ve almost all grown up with television, we have the screenplay or teleplay format hardwired to our brains. But novelists have no cameras or music to convey emotions; no close-ups of a character’s face to show internal conflict. A lot of openings that would be brilliant in a movie are snoozerific on the page."

Oh so true! There is an enormous amount writers can learn from TV or film screenplay techniques.

What they share with novels is the need to tell a good story.

Sometimes new writers are so busy chasing the word count they forget about the good story bit.

September 5, 2011 at 12:58 AM  
Blogger Cathryn Leigh said...

Epp, I just went and looked over my Trilogy beginnings and I'm too close to the main character to judge is they are any good or not. (What do expect when she's been gallivanting about in my head for 6 plus years.)

Book 3 does start with #3.
Book 2 with #5 (farm carts count I suppose).
Book 1 - well the beginning of that one's up in the air. Originally it started in the thick of things, but apparently there wasn't quite information so I might add too it.

This writing thing is hard. *grin* so many thing to remember, but so much fun stuff to learn!

:} Cathryn Leigh

September 5, 2011 at 6:25 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

As a reader, I usually open new books at random, so the first page actually doesn't need to hook me at all. As a writer I know that's unusual, so I try to start out stories with suitable hooks.

I find, though, it's close to impossible for me as a writer to tell whether my story is interesting or not--I think it's interesting, but I'm looking at the idea behind the book, not the book. I can use such rules of thumb.

September 5, 2011 at 7:52 AM  
Blogger Yvonne Osborne said...

I think I've avoided all of these no-no's. At least I don't have to worry about the zombie/vampire cliches. I also think chapter breaks are important. My first chapter on my current was fifty pages at first. Isn't that ridiculous?? Shorter chapters make a work read faster, don't you think? I'm happy to say it's now 28but I'm thinking to break at page 5. Great post!!

September 5, 2011 at 7:57 AM  
Blogger Forbiddenhero said...

I don't really care about all of this, but hey, it's an easy grade. This assignment is about somebody who's made an impact on my family before I was born. I just want to get this done, so here's the jist of it. This little girl was picked up by my now dead uncle. He loved her, or so I was told. He had my mother take care of her while he was away doing whatever. Then he died, and left the little kid with mom. Then the girl died because she wasn't a human. She wasn't important, but people thought she was. I don't care. Just fail me already. I hate this class anyway.

That's how I've started my current story. I'm not sure if that fits into any category or if was even a good/bad way to start it at all.

September 5, 2011 at 9:01 AM  
Blogger Ann Best said...

I'm excited, Anne, for you upcoming novels!

And I agree with this list of things to avoid. I especially hate "info dumps" in dialogue. I've seen this recently.

It's something you have to feel your way into--the beginning. Story and character are both paramount. But characters first, I'd say. We want to know WHO we're reading about, and then WHAT HAPPENS to them--as well as WHERE it happens.
Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

September 5, 2011 at 9:07 AM  
Anonymous Andy Frazier said...

Superb advice to an as yet unpublished author, thanks. I whole hearted agree with all of these and yet I am sure I have broken a few of these rules.
Getting replies from agents who just say “it is not right for us” is degrading. If only some agents could provide some constructive comments like this, it would surely improve the quality of the submissions they receive. Bad news is so much better if it arrives with an explanation. The excuse that they get hundreds of submissions per week is of no concern to me, it’s their job.

September 5, 2011 at 9:14 AM  
Blogger jbchicoine said...

Congrats on your releases! :)

As far as what irritates me for 'starters'? Can't say that any of the above are all that offensive to me. I know many of them are overdone, but if it's engaging and moves the story along, I'll go for the ride. The problem is if it doesn't continue to hold my interest--I do get bored easily...lots of unfinished novels on my shelf...:(

September 5, 2011 at 9:47 AM  
Blogger Elena Solodow said...

Nathan Bransford did his first-paragraph contest last year, and everything on your list was extremely accurate when it comes to openings. I'm struggling with my first chapter right now - it's always hard to find that balance.

September 5, 2011 at 10:17 AM  
Blogger Juliette said...

I really want to read the novel about Bob and Sidekick and the Borogrovian takeout and the Dark Tower of Doom now ;)

September 5, 2011 at 10:40 AM  
Blogger Cre8tve1 said...

To say what not to do is much simpler than giving sound advice on what to do.

Ours has become a naysayers culture that does little to enable positive growth and development.

Want my interest? Show how-to rather than how-not-to.

September 5, 2011 at 10:41 AM  
Anonymous LJ Quillyn said...

Fantastic post!! I'm working on the beginning of my novel right now, so this was very timely! Great advice!

September 5, 2011 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Lots of varied opinions here. I thank you all for the comments. I’ll try to do more of a group response here for brevity’s sake.

For people like Donna and Andy who are in the agent query process, it’s important to know that breaking these rules may get you rejected, no matter how well you do it. This list comes from complaints I’ve read on lots of agent sites. They’re looking for reasons to reject you, so if you can possibly go another way, do it.

If you’re planning to self-pub, you can get away with breaking more rules—as long as your story gets going with a bang. Readers tend to be more forgiving—think of all the “no-nos” in the first Harry Potter book—if you have an original, compelling story. But still, it’s good to be aware of what agents and writing schools tell us not to do.

Stephen and the others who say “but Stephen King/Dickens/Agatha Christie does it!” You’re absolutely right. But it’s exactly because the masters have done something that it will have been copied thousands of times. Cliché works against you. So does setting yourself up to compete with an icon. You’re also right that it’s all about not being boring.

Anne Gallagher’s comment is excellent—action without empathy is off-putting. You need to care about somebody before you care if he slays the dragoons.

That’s why Ranae is right—if your primary focus isn’t the storm, but the emotional effect of the storm on the protag, you might get away with it. That’s not a weather report, it’s emotional connection.

Kara—I totally agree about the bathroom.

D. August—Ruth will be getting in touch with you about the Nook. Isn’t Kristen Lamb’s approach to social media fantastic? She’s helped me so much.

Lester—That would work great if the protag is a shape-shifting crow :-)

Nikki—Again, Orwell and Davies are masters. You can get away with so much more when you’re already famous.

Lae—Popcorn Press found me (the power of social media!) So far things have been great. But they are very small, so they take very few new authors.

Spook—when you’re writing humor—especially a spoof—you can get away with a whole lot more. Especially with MG or YA.

Yvonne—That’s a really important point about chapter breaks. James Patterson’s chapters are three pages long. Lots of white space is inviting to a reader.

Forbidden—It’s interior monologue infodump, but it’s clever infodump. It might work, but you’d have to jump into action in the next paragraph.

Jb—You're absolutely right, and this is a big problem. New writers will work so hard on making the first five pages grab you that they forget they have to keep the momentum going. Just moving the snoozy stuff to page six won’t do much good.

Elena—First paragraph contests like Nathan’s are probably the best way to learn what works and what doesn’t. Once you’ve read 50 entries or so, you get the feeling of what agents go through. You can see patterns—what’s original and what’s ho-hum. You can find them in his archives. Worth a look.

And to everyone else who’s finding these helpful—thanks so much for commenting! Often tweaking an opening makes all the difference and it helps so much to know what agents and editors are looking for.

September 5, 2011 at 10:57 AM  
Anonymous Lys said...

Oh man, I'm going to have to think long and hard about a few of these! I have around ten active novels that I've been working on for years, and while I definitely avoided the obvious intro troubles, I learned a thing or two here that has me worried for almost half of my projects! Haha, I guess I'll have to make a judgement call on whether or not to keep some of them. Several of my openings are humorous and reveal a lot about the characters, but one in particular, a serious story that opens with a death and thus a brief funeral scene, is now up for contemplation. I've had the story in mind for six years, and the first and last line of the book came to me before anything else. I'm not sure if I can bring myself to deviate too far. The story is very much about the death and how it directly influences the main character. It isn't a very cheerful novel (coming of age and coming to terms with one's sexuality in a small, conservative town), at least not at first, but maybe it's too miserable as is.

Otherwise, there were things mentioned that I hadn't used, but hadn't considered before as far as intros to avoid. So I found the article very interesting.

September 5, 2011 at 11:16 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Juliette--Maybe I'll have to write that thing about Bob and the Dragoons...

Cre8tive--you're right that it's easier to tell the don'ts than the dos, although next week I'll have some dos as well as don'ts for introducing the protagonist.

Truth is--there are as many good ways to start a novel as there are good novels. No room for that here. But go check out the sneak peaks of the bestsellers on Amazon or browse in your bookstore (if you're lucky enough to still have one.)

Lys--If your books aren't done, you don't have to be thinking about perfecting the opening yet. I always write my final first chapter last.

September 5, 2011 at 1:23 PM  
Blogger Stephen T. Harper said...

Lively discussion you've got going here today, Ann.

"Stephen and the others who say “but Stephen King/Dickens/Agatha Christie does it!” You’re absolutely right. But..."

Just to clarify: I didn't mean to imply that just because someone else did it, that makes it alright to work with cliches. The authors I mentioned wrote something very interesting. That's what I'm advocating - Be interesting and be brave about it. The fact that the interesting things they wrote also happened to violate one of the these rules only goes to show how important "interesting" is. Believe me, I hate weather reports in books too. But that's because nine times out ten, the person doing the weather also has nothing interesting to say.

I'm not trying to say there is anything wrong with the advice in this post, either. Everything you said is true. But I do think it can be a dangerous habit for a writer to try to outthink the slush pile or strategize about pleasing contest readers. Not that there is anything wrong with those readers, but they are not your audience. And if you are thinking too much about them, then you might be thinking too little about what you have to say.

You're going to have to be good to attract an audience. If you write from the heart and be brave about it, you've already got a leg up. If you write from fear of what someone else might think...

As a anecdote to explain... I'm procrastinating right now because I'm writing a screenplay for a producer with ideas that are a little different from mine. At the moment, instead of writing from my heart, I am writing to get a particular reaction from him. And frankly, I'm not enjoying it, not writing as well as I usually do, and am now posting about it on this blog when I need to be meeting a deadline.

Ah... just had a mini-epiphany in real time, live, right here on this blog. I'm going back to work now and write this thing better than I've been doing it. If I do that, chances are he'll love it anyway. Thanks. I feel better now. Good luck everybody, and keep writing!

Hmm...now maybe a nice long description of the weather would help.... :)

September 5, 2011 at 3:36 PM  
Blogger Amalie said...

Excellent post. I eyed it vigorously to see if I'd ever committed one of those unOriginal Sins, and yep, I did! First attempt at a novel, totally started with a dream segment. Not a ... alternate reality dream segment, but one that was equally confusing, I think.

I'm a late straggler from Karen's BBQ. Nice to meet you, and congrats on the books. Love the top banner, btw.

September 5, 2011 at 5:25 PM  
Blogger LR said...

Hey Anne. I agree with you about too many characters right at the beginning. It's a drag. :)

Happy writing.

September 6, 2011 at 2:52 AM  
Blogger bel said...

Oh thank goodness! I'm right on track, then. :)

September 6, 2011 at 8:31 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Stephen--You bring up a very good point. Too many of us start worrying so much about the "agent rules" that we end up writing something bland or confusing and trying to please all of the people all of the time. You're right that the "trick" is to be bold and original, not think too hard about following rules.

Amalie "Un-Original Sins" Brilliant!

LR--I'm just rewriting an opening of one of my own books that throws too much at the reader too fast. I should have heeded Stephen's warning above. In trying to jump "in media res" instead of the natural beginning, I overwhelmed the reader.

bel--I'm so glad. I wish I could say the same for all my WIPs!

September 6, 2011 at 10:07 AM  
Blogger Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Meh, I used to follow these lists of rules and sometimes I do make up my own lists of what not to do in my own work, but in general I don't believe in rules for fiction. I think it's different for everyone what works and what doesn't in their own work. I'll bet someone like Neil Gaiman could do everything on that list and pull it off. :)

September 6, 2011 at 1:41 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Michelle--When we're as famous as Neil Gaiman we can do whatever we want. And who's to say we won't get there? :-)

It's absolutely true that there are no rules for *literary* fiction. But there are very, very rigid rules for genre fiction, and if you're trying to get an agent, you've got to follow them. Much more now than a few years ago. It's why I've been getting so many rejections even though agents said they love my work. I just had one try to get me to write my romantic comedy/mystery as a category romance because you're not allowed to mix romance and mystery. So following this kind of rule will save a lot of time and heartbreak for new writers who want to go the trad. pub. route.

September 7, 2011 at 1:50 PM  
Blogger Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Ah, I seen what you're saying about genre fiction, yes. For me, though, I have a very tough time forcing myself into a box with those rules, so I just don't. That might mean I never sell huge, huge, huge, but so be it. :)

September 7, 2011 at 1:54 PM  
Blogger Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

I mean I "see", not seen. Typos. Now grammar rules - those are essential. :)

September 7, 2011 at 1:55 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Michelle, I'm sure that's why we're both going with small presses. They tend to allow a lot more creativity.

But I ran after that agent/Big Six dream for so long, not knowing why I was getting rejected. It helped when I found out what rules I'd been breaking.

September 7, 2011 at 2:07 PM  
Blogger Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

That makes a lot of sense, absolutely. I didn't mean to knock the post or the list. It's excellent stuff to take into consideration - and we need lists in order to choose what works for us and what doesn't. I guess I get hung up if a writer believes they have to put their work in a box in order to be happy.

September 7, 2011 at 2:10 PM  
Blogger Debra Brown said...

Unless there is a good reason for a rule, why ruin a great story by following it? Good heavens, if I had to take the romance out of my mystery story, it would be quite bland. As would taking out the weather and all the other mood factors.

September 7, 2011 at 7:14 PM  
Blogger Debra Brown said...

I just received an email with my comment and thought, ooh, that sounded rebellious. I realize that I am the unsophisticated one, here. I didn't try for the big six and never considered doing so. It was not out of attitude, but out of writing to be published after losing my job to the recession. I guess I am a little confused about some of the rules; going to a university to study the subject might have changed that. But I do wonder why one can't have mystery and romance in the same book? I could tell you of quite a few that do and are doing well.

September 7, 2011 at 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Sara Grambusch said...

Gosh this is pretty funny. Those do all seem very cliche listed out like that. I think some CAN work but it's few and far between now that they've been done so much. I dislike "dawn of time" intros which try to talk about abstract issues before getting the story. It can be confusing and unrelated. Great post!

September 8, 2011 at 9:05 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Michelle--Some people feel safer in boxes. Others of us are rebels. Running around outside of boxes can get us in trouble, but I think it's more fun. :-)

Debra--the no-cross-genre rule isn't one I've ever paid attention to, because I write what I like to read, and I love chick lit mysteries and romantic suspense. But the rules of publishing fads are very different from the rules of what makes compelling fiction. It's just about sales statistics. Which are often very flawed. So I ignore the fad rules--like no chick lit mysteries--but I do pay attention to the rules for openers, because they resonate with me as a reader.

Sara--Your right that some of those work, and there's also a strong tradition of opening with an abstract statement, like "It is a fact universally acknowledged that..." or "All happy families are alike..." It's still an impressive type of opening, as long as the philosophizing is happening in somebody's head and it leads into a scene.

September 8, 2011 at 1:25 PM  
Blogger Debra Brown said...

Thanks, Anne. That makes sense to me. If it is going to bother most readers, it is good to be warned away. Rules for the sake of rules- well, actually, that is what my second book is about, lol.

September 8, 2011 at 9:33 PM  
Blogger Ghostie Girl said...

If I did a tally of how many beginnings I had used, I would have a large collection of what would look like a barcode.

There isn't really an ideal way to start a novel though and it mostly depends on how the author pulls the start off.

The novel I'm working on starts off with the main character trying to break into a house. It used to be weather related though. I have a soft spot for weather references. :)

September 10, 2011 at 6:30 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Debra--I'm a firm believer in breaking rules. But we need to know what they are in order to break them.

Ghostie--LOL. I have file drawers full of them myself. Amazing how many writers are in love with those weather reports!

September 10, 2011 at 9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your list. No one likes a boring opening, but then again I want to feel I know and like the protag before something bad happens to them. Mind you, Dan Brown has made a decent living (!) breaking this list. Angels and Demons, for example, opens with Langdon dreaming then being woken by the phone ringing. But I'm definitely not Dan Brown, so I'll take your list to heart!

September 10, 2011 at 2:11 PM  
Anonymous Nigel Blackwell said...

I like your list. No one likes a boring opening, but then again I want to feel I know and like the protag before something bad happens to them. Mind you, Dan Brown has made a decent living (!) breaking this list. Angels and Demons, for example, opens with Langdon dreaming then being woken by the phone ringing. But I'm definitely not Dan Brown, so I'll take your list to heart!

September 10, 2011 at 2:12 PM  
Blogger Jane Isfeld Still said...

The comments here are quite an education in themselves. Your book looks like a MUST READ!! I write humor but love most genres. If you like to laugh come once a week and check me out :)

September 10, 2011 at 2:25 PM  
Blogger The Meanderer said...

Hi, really liked the post here, but I'd like to point out that some of these only work in particular voices.

For example, starting with a weather report might be pertinent if you're writing a first person stream-of-consciousness - but wouldn't work, as well, if you're writing third person omniscient narrator.

In the end, there are more factors than "Don't do this, it's overdone."

There should be different lists for each voice, or at least the two major voices. First person and third person. First person is easier.

First person: You can only show/tell the reader things that your character would naturally talk/think about (depending on type of first person).
For example, there is no way that a person who spends hours a day with horses would stop every time they see a horse and think about it in minute detail. Neither should your characters. They'd skip over what a horse is, and get on with the task.

Cheers, though, for a thought-provoking list!

September 10, 2011 at 3:57 PM  
Blogger Debra Brown said...

Thanks for your replies to my thoughts. I guess it is that it is already overdone. We can't all be Snoopy. Hmmm. Still, it sets the atmosphere, so I need to weigh and balance the factors.

September 10, 2011 at 6:26 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Nigel--Thanks for sticking with it to jump through the blogger hoops and make your comment. It's true that Dan Brown breaks pretty much all the rules of good writing. But he's an amazing storyteller, so he gets away with it. But most of us can't.

Jane--Checked out your site. You look like a hilarious comedy writer!

Meanderer--It's true that when you write in the omniscient narrator voice you can get away with a lot more. But an omniscient POV is almost never a good choice for a debut novelist. It's very hard to do without confusing the reader, and it's a red flag for agents and editors. You have to be either very, very, good or very, very famous to get away with an omniscient POV if you want to publish traditionally.

Debra--If you're a debut novelist, it's smarter not to handicap yourself by doing something editors hate.

September 10, 2011 at 9:43 PM  
Blogger xxx xxx said...

An excellent list! In the past I have made many of these mistakes. Luckily, I have Kristen Lamb as a good friend so they were only made the once. Still love to read posts like this though. It keeps the no-no's fresh in my mind.

September 12, 2011 at 2:21 AM  
Blogger Ghostie Girl said...

I have always wanted to be a meteorologist. I guess I can be one as a writer haha!

September 12, 2011 at 1:35 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

It seems I can't leave your blog! You have such amazing stuff here. Thanks.

September 12, 2011 at 6:53 PM  
Blogger alenaita4040 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

November 27, 2014 at 11:38 AM  
Blogger josie smith said...

There has been a story that started with a death and it was because of this that I continued to read it (and the next 8 books), it was the complete shock of it that captivated me. If done right a death can generate curiosity.

Gordon Edgley's sudden death came as a shock to everyone - not least himself. One moment he was in his study, seven words into the twenty-fifth sentence of the final chapter of his new book (And The Darkness Rained Upon Them - italics), and the next he was dead. (A tragic loss - italics), his mind echoed numbly as he slipped away.
Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

July 28, 2015 at 8:34 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Josie--When it comes to humor, all rules go out the window. That is one hilarious opening line "Gordon Edgley's sudden death came as a shock to everyone - not least himself." LOL.

July 28, 2015 at 11:03 AM  
Blogger cpbookworm said...

Occasionally, starting with weather can work. In every one of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, the main story kicks off with a wind blowing somewhere, which is not The beginning, but it was A beginning.

August 3, 2015 at 4:40 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

CPBookworm--Absolutely. I started my new novel "So Much for Buckingham" with the weather. The trick is to make it short and fresh.

August 3, 2015 at 4:50 PM  

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