Monday, July 28, 2008

Great Beginnings - Day 1

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..."


Natalie Hatch said...

This is what I promise you will get, you'll be transported back to a time when life was simpler, where honour couldn't be bought, and where families stuck together when facing insurmountable odds.

Time to Dream, 80,000word historical:

"The blacked out windows of the Rockhampton National Dance Hall might hide the light, but any passing invader could find it by sound. Music was blasting out. The beat was alive causing cares and inhibitions to be thrown away for just a short time. Some lights could be seen twinkling as bodies jumped and swung past the open entrance. There were already people milling around outside trying to cool off. A few couples were trying very hard to find a more romantic place in order to spend time together.
Heather knew some of those girls would be getting themselves into hot water pretty soon, and once Beatrice Price knew, then so would whole district. Rockhampton’s small town society ostracized those who didn’t conform to their rules. She was determined she would not succumb to any stupid behaviour.
Jeeps started arriving with loads of sexed-up American GI’s whooping and hollering up the street. It was sure to upset the locals, who were sitting down to listen to their favourite radio show. One thing was for certain, the boys were here for a good time, if not a long one.
They were a conglomeration of khaki suits with slicked back hair, big smiles and big plans for the evening."

Lisa Cohen said...

This is what I promise you will get: a character whose strengths and struggles you will identify with as she fights to overcome her fear. Yes--there are bad guys with guns, experiments on mind control, and conspiracies, but the greatest challenge she faces is herself.

I'm finally understanding that this story *is* about my protag triumphing over her own fear and it has allowed me to begin the process of a massive edit to clarify her journey.

Esther.Jade said...

This is what I promise you will get: a tale of a girl caught between three civilisations struggling for pre-eminence. In a world where the scales are evenly weighed, and each civilisation sits on a knife-edge, her choice may change everything, or nothing. Can she bear the consequences if she tips the scales? Can she face living with her choice if she ends up on the losing side?

That was a very tricky, but helpful, exercise!

Anonymous said...

This is what I promise you will get: a character struggling to solve the murder of a friend while learning how her past and the fears and beliefs it raised have impacted her in the present.


Kristine Overbrook said...

This is what I promise you will get: A broken yet strong heroine, who will do what it takes to destroy evil and save the world. And a sensitive and equally strong hero that will do whatever it takes to save her.

Creative A said...

This is what I promise you will get: an edgy Si-Fi premise, a strong and intricate narrator, motivation and action, and lots of twists. (The twists part doesn't happen in the first page, but at least by the end of the first chapter.) And going with what everyone else did, here's a short description of my novel:

First the creature was spawned, then it escaped, and now it’s about to be terminated – unless the son of a murderer can face the product of his own memories.

Question...are we supposed to post our first 200 words here in the comments, or email them to you or something?


Sherryl said...

Thanks, everyone. It's so useful to see how people approach this exercise. Down to the nitty-gritty, it really is about "you pay money, I promise to give you *this* - all the way to the end".

Natalie - you've also posted your 200 words. I'll get back to this part later in the week. Email address for sending your 200 will be posted at the end of Day 3.

ljcohen - yes, I know what you mean. When we finally nail the answer to that question: What is my novel *really* about, we take a huge leap forward.

estherjade - the possibility of loss is always greater than the chance of winning, isn't it? That's where the story tension comes from.

anonymous - would you say your story is crime, mystery or suspense? Or maybe psychological thriller?

Kristine - yours sounds like fantasy - am I right? I think part of the contract is being clear about what genre your story is, or if it's cross-genre. You had me intrigued to know how your male character might fail.

creative a - I like the sound of the first twist by the end of Chapter 1. Stay tuned for the email address for the 200 words on Day 3.

Anonymous said...

This is what I promise you'll get: an engaging narrative told in the POV of a young girl as she learns to control her overactive imagination to achieve her dreams of becoming a goalie on a girls ice hockey team.

Sherryl said...

Ah yes, girls' ice hockey team. I'm already half-way hooked! As the reader I'll expect great insights into what it's like to play ice hockey as a girl too (something I'll never do but find interesting).
You're promising me a sports story, and maybe an underdog story too.

Kristi Holl said...

Sherryl, great post! Loaded with good stuff. I love the HOOKED writing book too. I am brain dead from a lot hours put in to finish a book project, so I won't add my "promise" because "This is what I promise you would get: a snooze of an idea." You don't need that! Great ideas here.

Natalie Hatch said...

Sorry Sherryl, I didn't realise we were saving them, got excited, you know, kind of like the puppy peeing on the new carpet, ooops.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sherryl - Thanks for looking at everyone's "what I promise" exercises! In response to your question (i'm the anonymous SRW from above), it's a mystery.

I really enjoyed seeing what everyone came up with.


Anonymous said...

This is what I promise you will get: An immortal superhero whose only desires are to be human, mortal, and perfectly ordinary - oh and a girlfriend would be nice.

I really liked reading everyone else's on here. This is a great exercise. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This is what I promise you will get:
A strong female based fantasy; a woman who can overcome her own fears. She is strong and independent (almost to the point of endangering herself). She likes the company of others, but cannot put risk putting them in danger, though, because there is someone after her. She has to defeat them before she can do anything of her own.

ManiacScribbler =^..^=

Sherryl said...

Kristi - I hope you feel inspired again soon, instead of brain-dead!

Redduck - a reversal! A superhero who doesn't want to be one. Expect the unexpected. (And I think I might be expecting humour - is that part of the contract?)

ManiacScribbler - she sounds like the kind of character whose strength contributes to her problems - it's the shadow side of your character, and provides the vital light and dark that interests us as readers.

Anonymous said...

I've had the window with this workshop open all day yesterday but we're in the midst of moving and only now got to read it!

This is what I promise you will get when you read my novel: a fallen world approached delicately (maybe even lyrically) with sympathetic characters and a plot requiring moral choices sometimes of a desperate nature.

Anonymous said...

This is what I promise you will get: a twisted and intriguing killer pitted against a strong an engaging heroine struggling to face her past and the love that left her behind.

Sherryl said...

Jess - I like the sound of lyrical. Is this fantasy or SF? It sounds other-worldly.

seanachi - An intriguing killer will need a strong backstory woven into the plot, and it sounds like the heroine is the same. Do their backstories connect? I see lots of possibilities...

Anonymous said...

This is what I promise you will get an adventure where you'll learn of a couple who learns that death and separation doesn't kill love and neither do death threats by drug lords as the duo go into deep cover.