Posted by: Jodi | November 19, 2010

NaNoWriMo: False Starts

There are strong opinions out there about the right way to craft the beginning of a book.  Often what is written on the first few pages will make or break a book for a reader, agent, or publisher.  While I don’t think that there are any absolute right or wrong ways to approach the opening scene,  I do know good advice when I see it.

Naturally, I can’t find where I read this little nugget. The memory jumped up and bit me while working on my NaNo project this week.  If it was you dearest reader, let me know!  The gist of the advise is this:

If you find yourself telling your reader, “Don’t give up, it gets really interesting at chapter X,” perhaps you should start the story there.

This thought occurred to me as I realized that the first five chapters of my new manuscript are completely and utterly boring.  Don’t believe me?  I have my main character cleaning a house while reconciling her relationship with her mother.  She’s cleaning a house!  If this were literary fiction it would be more acceptable, but this is supposed to be a mystery/thriller.

Am I beating myself up with having written all these scenes that now won’t be used? Absolutely not.  When I started this project I knew nothing about my characters and only had the vaguest idea of what they were going to do.  Sitting down and writing these scenes taught me what made the main character tick.  When I return to revise this manuscript, sometime in January, I’ll have all the information I need to create a much stronger and compelling opening chapter that starts when the story gets interesting.

Here is the list of other advice I’ve collected of what to avoid when writing an opening chapter –

  • Don’t start with the weather.
  • Don’t start with the main character waking up.
  • Avoid needless amounts of backstory.
  • Skip the mundane.
  • The phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” will get you laughed at.
  • So will listing character characteristics as your opening line. “Jackie was a short happy dwarf, who liked cheese, and the occasional brewsky…” (Maybe that’s just me.)

I’m sure there are more out there, if you have a favorite you’d like to add please do so in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Writing!

 

 

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Responses

  1. I always find it amazing what NaNoWriMo teaches me. This year it kicked my high opinion of myself down several notches. But that’s not bad, that’s just an opportunity to grow.

    Jodi, I’m delighted that you continue on and that you are allowing the experience to inform you as you grow.

    • Here’s to growing experiences! It has been amazing to see the difference between writing this manuscript and my first. Seems like the going has been smoother. I would love to hear more about your current project.

  2. I got similar advice from an anonymous person who stops by my blog and critiques my teasers. This person won’t let me know who he/she is, but he/she had some good points. Eventually, I let MW (Mystery Writer) have a look at the first chapter of my fantasy. The response was, “Do you really want to start your story with a boy sitting in a classroom?” When asked when the action really gets going, I had to admit (gulp) that it was chapter five. “Start there”, said the sage MW. MW is right and I know it. Starting over again, with action!

    • Wish we all had mystery writers to read our stuff – sounds like good advice! As long as you remember that you have the final say in how your final product turns out. I can think of several books that start with a kid in a classroom that did rather well.

  3. Your points are quite valid – especially to a beginner like myself. I have one big BUT (or BUTT – depends on who you are talking to), however. While starting with action definitely applies to newbies, I’m not exactly certain it applies in all cases to experienced (and accomplished) writers.

    Several of the best books I have ever read started very slowly – some with back-story – and some with a rather long exposition on the intent. Because the books had been highly recommended, well-reviewed, or originally seemed like a promising read, I slogged through to arrive at extraordinary reads, and ones that have stayed with me through the years. Case in point: “The Crimson Petal and the White,” by Michel Faber. The first 100 or so pages seemed to take an eternity to read, and I almost gave up. Fortunately for me, I did not.

    Of course, admittedly, my version of boring or interminable may be very different from other readers, especially editors or agents, who might be very excited by the beginnings of certain novels. So, boring or lackluster is very subjective.

    Owing to your suggestions for this NaNoWriMo challenge, it is something I might actually try for myself, though not for submission. My start with a short story a couple of months ago has stalled, mainly because it is starting to feel more like a novel or novella. I will think about this long and hard.

    If I haven’t told you before, your blog is always enlightening, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Thanks so much for your efforts on my and others’ behalf! You definitely spur on my own “Literary Quest!”

    • You make a very valid point, not every story starts with some crash bang thrilling scene, nor should they. However, a new author trying to market a debut novel should avoid filling their opening chapters with backstory, especially if there is a more intriguing story waiting to be told.

      Thanks for the compliment, knowing that there are wonderful writers out there that like what I have to say makes all the difference in the world!

  4. Excellent blog, Jodi. Food for thought for sure.

  5. I read that same advice somewhere recently, Jodi. I would have guessed from Rik. But he’s already been by and didn’t claim ownership.

    I don’t read too many writing blogs, so it may come to me. If it does, I’ll let you know.

    I think you can spend a few chapters “setting the stage” AS LONG AS you tell readers what to expect once the curtain goes up on the action.

    For example, A Christmas Carol. It starts “slowly” with a dead partner, 10 years in the grave, and a sour Scrooge in his counting house, playing with piles of money and columns of figures.

    The real action doesn’t begin until the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives on stage. But if the story started there, I doubt it would be the classic it is.

    Dickens gives us hints about what’s to come and gives us a taste of the MC and how he chooses to interact with the world while slowly introducing us to ghostly spectres:

    A hearse and ghostly horses gallop by
    A door-knocker morphs into Marley
    Marley appears to share his advice with Scrooge

    By then readers are ready for the main act (and action) to begin . . .

    • Thank heavens Dickens writes his prose so beautifully that the reader doesn’t realize nothing has happened for the first while. He manages to add intrigue without action – a rare talent indeed!

  6. “Jackie was a short happy dwarf, who liked cheese, and the occasional brewsky…” Call me crazy (as most people who know me do) but I’m cautiously intrigued by the above intro and would probably read on.
    One of my favourite books of all time is ‘Charms for the Easy Life’ by Kaye Gibbons. It has the opening lines:

    ‘Already by her twentieth birthday, my grandmother was an excellent midwife, in great demand. Her black bag bulged with mysteries in vials.’

    A current favourite of mine is Kristina Olsson’s ‘The China Garden’:

    ‘Cress will carry the exact memory of the news bulletin into the next few days, and a version embellished by anecdote and dream into the rest of her life.’

    I’ll be bold and include my own, soon to be published, novel :

    ‘The day would come when MV’s memories of the accident would uncoil from their place of repression and he would be forced to analyse his relationship with Rider.’

    So I guess the above examples say about me that I like to be gently coaxed into the writer’s world with a little mystery. I’m a ‘character-centric’ kind of person, rather than an action junky. My son who has a marvellous sense of humour would probably be more likely to read about the short happy dwarf who liked cheese and my friend who likes crime stories would choose the very film-noirish opening of Tara Moss’s ‘Fetish’:

    ‘She wore stilettos – burnished black and stylish, with thin straps that bit into her pale, slender ankles.’
    (I can almost hear the laconic voice-over and see the grainy, fog-lit, black and white image)

    With so many books written every year all over the world, I guess its just as well we are all attracted to different styles.
    Your posts always get me thinking Jodi.

    • Leave it to me to create a goofy example like that one! [takes a bow]

      Thank you for sharing the collection of opening lines, I love the imagery that each one creates. Now I want to go and read the rest – including yours! A true mark of a job well done.

      If I ever write a short about the cheese eating dwarf, I’ll let you know.

  7. I’m not sure I like this modern age that caters to readers with ADHD. What ever happened to the slow build or tension?

    By the way, I started my second novel with a major bang, and then an agent complained it was too intense.

    OA, will you ever win?

    Nice post, by the way. Do writers agonize over anything more than they do the first paragraph?

    • I believe that there still can be a slow build, it’s one of those masterful things that the greats of writing reveled in and the rest of us peons long to achieve.

      I’m forced to start with a bang because I honestly don’t think I could do justice to a slow build. Hopefully with time it is something that can be learned and mastered – like tightrope walking.

      As for the agent, no you can never win, but kudos for trying!


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