Where else would you start a series of posts about Beginnings except Day 1?
Seriously though, I'd like to offer a range of ideas, advice and thought-provokers this week, along with the opportunity for you to send me your first 200 words for feedback later on. Possibly a la Snark. As in some straightforward give-and-take from me and other readers about what works and what doesn't in your opening. I'm also going to offer some prizes! The kind you win simply by chipping in with your comments and your 200 words (or feedback). They'll be books - what else? And I'll announce them next week. Here we go.
Why a Great Beginning is Important
Hands up if you've heard or read something like the following: "A totally engaging beginning is the key to interesting any agent or editor in reading your manuscript. You need to start your story with action, character and voice; you need to hook your reader on the first page, and keep them hooked." I think we've all heard this so many times that we yawn now, and we say things like "Yeah, but my story/novel is atmospheric and I have to set that up first" or "I need that bit of backstory and it fits on page one and it saves me doing a flashback later" or "this prologue is vital for the reader to understand the rest of the novel".
Can you hear the buzzer? It's buzzing you out of the game. It really doesn't matter how great your novel might be, if you can't write an engaging, active first page, no one is going to keep reading. Not the agent, the editor, or the person in the bookshop with $15 to spend and 5000 books to choose from. That may sound harsh. But anyone who has ever been an editor or slush pile reader of any kind, whether for a publisher, a magazine, an agent or a story competition, will tell you the same thing. If it hasn't grabbed them within the first page or two, it'll get put into the NO pile.
Yep, you've heard that before too, so I'm not going to labour the point any longer. I want to move onto the constructive stuff, not the doom and gloom parade. One of my favourite books is about beginnings - it's Hooked by Les Edgerton. And on page 7 Les says: "A good, quality story beginning is a microcosm of the work entire. If you capture the right beginning, you've written a small version of the whole."
Now this fascinates me. Les is saying that if you work really hard on your first chapter (or paragraph for a short story), and you learn everything you can from it in terms of establishing character, voice, setting, and then go onto scene construction, pacing, plotting and dialogue, you can apply what you have learned and succeeded in, and create a whole novel like that. Sounds simple. I agree with him about 80%, because Chapter 1 probably won't help you much with plotting and sustaining 90,000 words, but it'll be a darned good start.
The Contract With The Reader
There are two sides to this. On the reader's side (starting with the end first), what he or she does in a bookshop is attempt to decipher the book in front of them. Publishers do a lot of work to make this easier. They create a cover that says crime or romance or literary; they tell the bookshop where to shelve it; they write a blurb that gives you an idea of what the book will be about; they market the book as a specific genre. But the other thing they "help" with is the first page. Because after all that other work they do, the last thing they need is an author who begins their romance novel with an opening page that reads like a murder mystery.
That brings us back to you - the writer. It's a good question. Why would you start a romance novel with a murder or a crime? Why would you start a thriller with a long description of a city, no matter how interesting that city is? Why would you start your novel with two pages of dialogue, with no hint of who is speaking or where we are? Why would you start your novel with three pages of description of the major characters? (Please don't say because you are a great writer and you can get away with it!)
Take a look at what is currently on your bookshelves. Pick out ten novels at random and read their opening paragraphs. I have no doubt that the first thing you will think is: this beginning is too slow, too descriptive, doesn't start with the viewpoint character, has a prologue, etc etc. But very often the writers "breaking" those rules about beginnings are established. They already have a "contract with the reader" that will not be broken.
One example I'm reading right now is the latest Janet Evanovich novel about Stephanie Plum. There were a lot of paragraphs in Chapter 1 and 2 that I skipped, because JE was summarising stuff I already know from previous books. I gave her a bit of leeway, because in there was some humour and some action, and a promise of more of the same from previous books (but I am getting a bit over it all - I'd like Stephanie to break out now, maybe find a new job and/or a new disastrous love, but no doubt 1 million other readers would say no). I put up with it. But I'm getting less and less inclined to spend $$ on JE. She's wasting her opening chapter on things I bet 95% of her readers already know, so JE? Get on with the story!
It is easy to criticise publishers for "pigeon-holing" books into this genre or that, but let's face it, we all want to know what we are getting. What we are paying money for. I expect the first pages of a book I read, while standing in front of the shelves groaning with books, to promise me something, and to live up to that promise. A big part of that is to do with where I find it in the shop.
However, if I pick up something new, by a new writer, I'm keen to see what the contract is offering. Is it going to be an engaging character voice? A zinger of a plot? Lots of laughter? A new twist on an old story?
Ask yourself this: what does your opening page offer the reader in your contract? Are you promising them a certain kind of genre? A character they will love by page 2? An action-filled story that they will still be reading at 3am? A fantasy world that they will fall into and never want to leave? A story that reflects something happening (or that they wish would happen) in their own lives? A use of language that will stir their imaginations and their souls, and leave them gasping for breath?
OK, here is today's exercise. Please post in the Comments section. What is the contract you are offering your reader? Is it genre-based? Is it going to be about character and voice? When a reader (any reader, be it agent, editor or someone with money in their hand) picks up your novel and reads Page 1, what is in the contract you are offering them? Start your contribution with "This is what I promise you will get..."