Sunday, January 23, 2011

Opening No Nos


Writer's Digest has come out with a special issue called "Write Your Novel in 30 Days." It's not their monthly magazine, but a stand alone. And it's terrific. I say this not because I have a few articles in it (he notes with sly self-promo) but because it's really got great substance cover to cover.

One section has a collection of things not to do in your opening chapter, based on statements by literary agents. Here are some clips (I highly recommend you read the whole issue).

Excessive Description

"Slow writing with a lot of description will put me off very quickly," says Andrea Hurst. And this is something you'll hear all the time.

So how do you set an opening scene? Do it with an interplay of action and description. Get the action started first, then fill in just enough information to tell us where we are.

But you're a literary writer, you say? You love style? Well, if you're really good, like Ken Kesey's opening pages in Sometimes a Great Notion, go for it. But you can still start with action and drop in wonderful, styling description later.

Voice and Point of View Fuzziness

"A pet peeve of mine is ragged, fuzzy point-of-view," writes Cricket Freeman.

This is especially important when writing in First Person POV. We need voice, we need attitude. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Philip Marlowe in any of Chandler's books. Don't be bland.

Clich├ęs

My friend, agent Chip MacGregor, lists several, including:

1. Squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Done to death.

2. A trite statement ("Get with the program" or "Houston, we have a problem.")

3. Years later, Monica would look back and laugh . . .

4. The [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] land.

Other Pet Peeves

1. Descriptions making the characters seem too perfect.

2. Too much backstory.

3. Information dumps.

4. A grisly murder scene from the murder scene from the killer's POV.

5. Dreams.

6. Too much exposition in dialogue.

7. Whiny characters.

8. Characters who address the reader directly.

So there you have it, a handy list of no nos in your opening. Does that mean these are "rules"? I know how you rebellious and creative writers hate rules, so no, they aren't. But they will increase your odds of turning off an agent or editor.

So resist the temptation. When you get a deal, then you can fight to begin your novel another way if you see fit.

But first you have to sell, and these bumps will keep you from that goal.

Okay, let's talk. What do you think of these no nos? Do you have others?

What do you like to see in an opening? What hooks you?

29 comments:

  1. I like to see a scene unfold that grabs my interest right away. Not 40 pages later. Action or character that draws me into the story, switching my sense of time to match that of the author's creation.

    On the WD article, thanks for the heads up. Look forward to reading it.

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  2. We discuss many of these topics in my critique group. The one that bugs me the most of those listed is characters who address the reader. The character really doesn't know what I'm thinking, even though that's what the author wants me to think. Turns me right off.

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  3. I hear that prologues are also a no-no though I have been guilty of using them! My pet peeve is an opening that is heavy on the inner monologue. Unless the voice is really strong and interesting this can bog down an opening. Often it is also loaded with cliches as the writer attempts to give an impression of a hard-assed detective but produces instead a counterfeit of all the standard hard-assed ones we have read about in countless other books.

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  4. All great tips, Jim. For me, I love a strong first line. I probably put too much emphasis on it, but that's what will make me keep reading. Here's a terrific example of a great first like from Noah Boyd's latest thriller, THE BRICK LAYER. "As Mickey Stillson stared at the gun in his hand, he absentmindedly reached up and adjusted the fake ear that was his entire disguise and wondered how a born-again Christian like himself had wound up in the middle of a bank robbery."

    I dare you to put that book down without reading the next line.

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  5. Clare, there is sort of a meme out there against prologues, probably because they've been overused and not done very well (mostly backstory, etc.) If one has a good, gripping "prologue" however, just call it Chapter 1. Or don't label it at all.

    If it does it's work, no one is going to say, "Hey, wait a second. This is really a prologue!"

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  6. Great list. Thanks for the reminders!

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  7. Laura Jane ThompsonJanuary 23, 2011 at 9:33 AM

    Thanks for the list! It's always a slippery slope for me to read this type of advice because I'll start overanalyzing every aspect of my work, and I'll never actually get anywhere. So I have to filter it all to keep from driving myself crazy.

    Nevertheless, I do want to check out that issue of WD. Could you perhaps provide a link? I couldn't find it on the WD site.

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  8. So many first pages in genre fiction over-emphasize action for action's sake as an attention-getting device--like, The car veers out of control! The gun is pointed at his face! His finger squeezes slowly on the trigger!--that it's becoming a bit of a turn-off to me. What I look for in the first page is a sense of character and situation. A lot of books are putting action way before character, when the two should be woven together. I don't care about what a character is doing until I care about the character. It's a hard balance to pull off, which is why so few writers pull it off successfully. Books that don't establish a sense of character on page one seldom have a strong sense of character, overall. They tend to be the types of books that are all action, and I usually know on page one that I won't like them.

    Another turn-off is the "Just before she died" opening. "Twenty minutes before Sue Smith died, she took a wrong turn on Main Street." It's getting to be it's own cliche.

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  9. My pet peeve is opening paragraphs that are a weather report. Storm clouds gather, wind lashing, rain pelting--who cares?

    Now, weather with purpose is a different thing. If the rain on the lens of the rifle scope is keeping a character from making a shot, then that would be weather-as-action, and that's fine. But weather as a mood-setter just leaves me--forgive me--cold.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  10. Give me character, and lots of it. But show me, don’t tell me.

    Too many writers seem to treat character, action, and description as competing elements. They end up using these elements like a baker mixes ingredients from a recipe: action, followed by interior monologue, followed by more action, followed by “revealing” dialogue, followed by still more action, followed by an achingly beautiful description, etc.

    As a result, too many novels read like Lego-Land creations consisting of “pieces” of action, dialogue and description. And when stories are written in this way, there's invariably a lot of telling, and too little showing.

    But when a novelist does nothing but show me characters and their struggles—and leaves out everything else— the story is always better for it.

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  11. John G., I'm with you on that. Mix the weather with the action and the tone, keep it to short bursts.

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  12. Philip, yes, character + struggle is the essence of story. Anything else should somehow add to that, even description. Nothing that stands alone or apart.

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  13. I love something that grabs my attention immediately. I love a good prologue too, as long as it's interesting and leads into chapter one story action.
    By the way, my hubby picked up the Writer's Digest issue, "Write Your Novel in 30 Days." It looks great. Grabbed my attention right away.:)And it is packed full of great stuff, from JSB, and others.
    Great job, Jim!

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  14. I've read this list before, and I LOVE IT.

    4. The [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] land.

    That was ME when I first started writing. I thought I was so profound! :-)

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  15. Enjoyed the post, James. Good tips in there. I hate to admit I've done the sunrise bit before.
    One of my favorite things about writing, and the "no, no" I agree with the most, is making the character too perfect. What fun is that? People are raw and real and they have imperfections. So should any character that you write about, be it antagonist or protagonist. It is the flaws and little imperfections that make the character come alive off the page.

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  16. I started a youth novel with a kidnap scene to get right into the story but a couple of editors told me not to do this for a youth book because the readers don't care about those characters yet. So I introduced them to the readers at a day at the beach first.

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  17. I have to assume these are guidelines, rather than hard-and-fast rules.
    I'm thinking especially of the no-no relating to starting with a murder from the killer's POV. Do you guys think that an editor will see such a thing and run screaming or, if it's done well, will go with it?
    Love the blog, by the way. :)

    Mark

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  18. My last masterpiece had a prologue, extensive description of the scene and weather and then I even had Chapt. 1 start as a dream. Ouch!

    I was merely attempting to get all the no-no's out in one fell swoop.

    I have since edited all the crap out and started the "new" chapter one at the "old" chapter 3 and there is no prologue.

    Even though it didn't make the cut, I think the crap helped me to understand the character and situation myself so I could edit to start with a bang.

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  19. Mark, good question. These "memes" develop and get repeated glibly, so there may be more explanation needed. I think the key word was "grisly." It seems like a natural thing to grab the reader, but I can see how getting one's face rubbed in gratuitous violence at the start would be a turn off. And perhaps the killer POV at the start has been done a lot, and they seek something fresher.

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  20. Steve, that's a great move. I often counsel writers to toss out chapter 1 and start with chapter 2. Or sometimes 3. But all that work you did up front is not wasted, as you say. You get to know the story better. Write on.

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  21. Snow laden clouds drifted sullenly from the alpine palisades that surrounded the arctic metropolis. He looked down at the pile of entrails still steaming on the cold cement slab. The severed head, frost crystals glistening on the extruded tongue, stared back with glazed lifeless eyes. How they kept the guts hot yet froze the head he had no idea, and the thought of the process made his tummy do tiny loop de loops. He rubbed the remnants of the Guinness binge from his temples and thought back to the time two decades earlier when his step-mother stopped breast-feeding him at the too young age at seventeen.

    "OK boy'o," he muttered, "time to get on with this."

    He picked up the head and jogged back onto the pitch toward the half formed scrum. Ever since the apocalypse it was harder and harder to find a ball for the weekly rugby match.

    The abrupt rumble and rapid flapping sound of a Guinness Fart, the kind of flatulence that only a genetically pure Irishman can enjoy in its natural essence, jolted him awake. As the dream dissolved into wispy cobwebs that hung dry and sticky behind his eyes he turned and remembered his real predicament. He instantly began a laborious search of his muddled brain for a way to extricate his arm from the creature laying next him.

    "God," he whispered, "I hope that's a female. I really don't remember the mustache being there last night."


    You mean something like that?

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  22. Um, sure, Basil. Exactly like that...

    What am I saying?

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  23. Hey Jim,
    I loved the picture you used for this post. Too cute.:)

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  24. Jillian, thanks. "And a little child shall lead them..."

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  25. John above mentione weather report in the first paragraph and I gotta agree. Why whould I care for the weather? Show me something that will pull me right in - and in about 80% of the time that's a person.
    I also don't like prologues, dreams (esp if you find out in chapter 2 that it was only a dream) and I personally don't like the one on the list: years later she'll think this and that...
    I personally don't put such high emphasis on the first line as a reader but I have to be grabbed by the end of the first page or I'm not reading further.

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  26. (Sorry for the double posting, I'm a newbie!)

    John above mentione weather report in the first paragraph and I gotta agree. Why whould I care for the weather? Show me something that will pull me right in - and in about 80% of the time that's a person.

    I also don't like prologues, dreams (esp if you find out in chapter 2 that it was only a dream) and I personally don't like the one on the list: years later she'll think this and that...

    I personally don't put such high emphasis on the first line as a reader but I have to be grabbed by the end of the first page or I'm not reading further.

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  27. As a book doctor (just one rung down on the slushpile-consuming hierarchy of publishing) I see a lot of unpublished manuscripts and can pretty much echo everything on this list.

    The one I'll add is: car crash openings. Any time I see an opening scene set with people in a moving vehicle now, I'm pretty much guaranteed that the next page and a half will describe, in intimate and gory detail, a car crash.

    Done. To. (quite literally) Death.

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  28. I always think 'It was a dark and stormy night' a good beginning.

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  29. With my current story I went back and edited like
    Philip Hawley, Jr said...
    "Too many writers seem to treat character, action, and description as competing elements. They end up using these elements like a baker mixes ingredients from a recipe: action, followed by interior monologue, followed by more action, followed by “revealing” dialogue, followed by still more action, followed by an achingly beautiful description, etc."

    I handed my mother the first page to read just to see what she thought and she said it didn't flow, she liked the "before edits" page 1 better. lol

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