Sunday, March 18, 2012

11 Ways not to start your novel

I'm about to read a lot of first pages from hopeful authors. I've done countless critiques over the years, and so I both look forward to and dread this job.

Opening up the pages of a book is a bit like opening up the front door for a blind date--except that it requires no effort on your part . . . such as doing your hair, or sucking in your stomach so you look thinner, or whatever else you do on your blind dates. (Really, it's none of my business, and I don't want to know.)

The point is, you're hoping for something good and you're often disappointed. In the gentle-hearted spirit that I am well known for (Oh, all right, Sarah Eden still refers to me as Attila the Hun because of a certain edit I did for her) I'm going to offer fellow writers a few tips.

Here are a few ways not to start your novel.

1) With your character waking up.

I wake up at least once a day. You could say I am a veteran at waking up. I never like it when I do it, and I probably won't like it when your character does it either. Give me something more exciting.

2) With your character running away from someone or something.

One would think that this would nicely take care of my first objection, and it would--if I hadn't already seen it about a hundred times. A good chase scene is nice, but not at the beginning of a book because A) I don't know enough about your character to care if they get away and B)I'm pretty certain your main character won't be killed off in the opening scene as that would make for a very short novel. So it isn't really a high tension opening anyway.

3) With huge chunks of back-story.

Yeah, I know, Charles Dickens gave us character life sketches right off, but styles change and this sort of thing doesn't work now. We also don't wear top hats anymore. Go figure.

4) With action that is so confusing I don't know what the heck is going on.

Sometimes an opening starts with people being bombed, or someone being attacked, or just people sitting around talking about other people. Whatever it is, it has to make sense. I'm already doing the brain-intensive job of transforming printed words into a lush and vivid landscape in my mind. Make it easy for me. This isn't the place to be obscure or mysterious.

5) With so many characters I can't keep them straight.

It's always better to start with a limited amount of characters until the reader has time to get people straight. Opening with lots of characters feels like one of those parties where you meet fifteen people at once and you know that no matter how hard you try you won't be able to remember any of their names tomorrow.

6) With a mean character.

Hey, if I'm going to step into a character's skin and be that person for hours or days, I don't want to be someone I don't like. Ditto for stupid characters. And while you're at it, please make me pretty too.

7) With a run-on sentence.

This is akin to getting your first glimpse of your blind date and noticing his shirt is dirty. If he didn't take the time to fix that, the rest of him is probably not going to be much better.

8) With a statement that doesn't have anything to do with anything else.

For example, if you start your first chapter with the sentence: Betty's ghost was not the forgiving type. (Which, by the way, is a great first line. I should use it sometime.)You should let us know about the ghost and why it's holding grudges fairly quickly. Don't go on and on describing Veronica and her trip to the mall. Your reader will be gritting her teeth and thinking, "Who's Betty? Did Veronica kill her? What is her part in all of this? Is this author trying to irritate me?"

Probably not, but the result is the same anyway.

9) With a bland sentence.

I have enough bland sentences in my life already. They're sort of like dust and they settle on everything. If the first sentence isn't good, what are the chances I'm going to find captivating ones later on?

10) With a flashback.

If you need to flashback in the first scene, you probably haven't started your book in the right place. Plus, editors and agents tend to hate flashbacks. Many of them were bitten by flashbacks at some point in life, so you really can't blame them for this prejudice.

11) With the phrase,"The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit." (Apologies to Scott Westerfeld) Okay, it's original, but I have a large supply of cats, and now any time one of them throws up, I think, "Um no . . . I don't think I've ever actually seen the sky that color . . . I wonder what Scott's cats have been eating?"

You just don't want to do that to your reader.


Lolawid said...

Hilarious!! Ok, I'll have to remember your pointers. Thanks!!

Stephanie Black said...

This is awesome! Thank you! And I fear I'm making mistake #5 in my WIP . . . oops.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Good stuff here. I writer friend tried to make the point of not having the character be waking up in the beginning to her teen daughter who had done just that. The mom wanted to show her and pulled our three recently released book (at the time). All three of them had the main character waking up! I can't remember what two of them were, but one was The Hunger Games. lol

Anna Maria Junus said...

And every rule was made to be broken. You just have to do it right.

I know I broke the flashback rule in my only published novel. The flashback was a paragraph long and it directly related to what the character was doing at the moment.

Sarah M Eden said...

Dear Attila the Hun,

Thank you for pillaging, plundering and otherwise reducing to ashes that long ago manuscript. The pain subsided, but the lesson stuck. Your merciless destruction of my dreams led me to discover an unfortunate tendency in myself as an author, one I have needed to correct again and again. The mantra "Fix this or I'm letting Attila have at it" has served me well these many years. Though I still call you by the name I christened for you, I do so lovingly, in honor of the many manuscripts your advice has saved from my ineptitude.

(Okay, enough kissing up.)

Yeah. I call you Attila the Hun. Wanna make something of it?!

Jeremy Bates said...

My pet peeve is the introduction of too many characters from jump. It's the same with movies as well. It is so confusing and moreover, very difficult to keep track of or remember defects in the characters.

Wait, you don't wear a top hat anymore? What's this world coming to?!

CJ Hill said...

Lolawid, Stephanie, and Donna--thanks for your comments! Glad to be of help.

Ana Maria--You're right. Sometimes you can break the rules, but do so only if you can do it well. (I had an editor ask for a flashback in How to Take the Ex Out of Ex-boyfriend. He was right. It was needed.)

Sarah--I love your for making me laugh.

Jeremy--yeah, the top hat is gathering dust, but I'm waiting for that look to come back. After all, leggings came back . . .

Julie Wright said...

great list! And yeah . . . I've never seen a vomitous sky either but maybe in the future there is a vomitous sky due to pollutions and stuff . . .

Leann said...

Oh wow... I see two of my BOB entries in your "what not to do" list....

I have a "go-to" critiquer who we lovin refer to as "The Slasher"