Having just read another article about the biggest pitfalls to avoid in the opening pages of a story or a novel, I felt inspired to share my own list which I’ve been putting together during my novel redraft process. Most of these I’ve come across over and over again on agents’ blogs or writers’ communities. Some of them I was explicitly told not to do on my Faber Academy Writing a Novel course, which I completed earlier this year.
My top ten opening ‘no nos’
- No dream sequences. I did this one, as did a few of my writing course colleagues. We all – very hurriedly – rewrote after one article about agent pet hates went round our online forum
- No prologues. Yep, did this as well. Also now OUT
- Insufficient info about the main protagonist(s) (as in how old are they – my beta readers kept saying, ‘hmm thought she was about 40 but then I read on p.100 she was only 25′
- Too much backstory. VERY tricky to get this one right. My Faber tutor told me to put my ‘foot on the accelerator and don’t take it off for at least the first ten pages’ (so no backstory in the first chapter if possible)
- Protagonist looking in the mirror – BORING. And other such clichéd devices
- Not enough info about the story world – where, when, who, what, why. These are the basics but I was interested to see how few of them I had in the first few versions of my carefully crafted first ten pages. It seems that trying to be clever doesn’t quite work
- False suspense. This kind of falls into the ‘don’t start the story twice’ category. I do this a lot in my attempts to hook readers in different and intriguing ways. Whatever you do, the suspense must lead up to the main event somehow
- Too many points of view, especially if some of the povs are dropped early on.
- Misleading contract with the reader ie the first few pages indicate a different kind of a book in tone, genre or protagonist than you actually deliver. Kind of done this one too – busy rectifying
- Problems with pace. Also tricky.
On a fairly well-known author’s blog I read that some editors will automatically scrap the first chapter on a new manuscript and make them rewrite after the rest of the ms has been edited and worked over. This approach would work well for me. Once armed with the rules and techniques for writing great story-openings, it is easier to write the beginning with the end in mind.
In a recent interview, Stephen King said the following:
I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write.
…And I had a slightly sad ‘Eureka’ moment of leaping into the air shouting ‘Yes!’. All very alarming, but then I have been working on first and second drafts of two as-yet unpublished books for the last two years. This, in addition to my job in digital communications and my somewhat disastrous attempts to bring up a teen, a pre-teen and a baby (now a Terrible Two).
Unsurprisingly, anything which makes me feel better about my writing process is a godsend.
Because I’ve realised over the last two or three years that this is what I do too. On a recent Faber Academy course I was taught how to look at the beginning of a novel in a more conceptual way. That was hard work. Necessary though, and it has transformed my writing.
However, it is extremely difficult to reconcile the conceptual approach with getting the story down into a first draft.
You can plan, but quite often the story changes a bit. Or maybe the characters morph into something a bit different from what you intended (which in turn alters the plot). Ugh. All good fun, but it messes up the beautifully conceived intro pages you’ve spent ages crafting…
So I’ve decided now, I’m with Stephen King all the way.
Get the first draft down then go back and craft!
Recently, I came across this infographic produced by Jane Friedman detailing the five main routes to book publishing. It’s very useful!
- Fully assisted
- DIY + distributor
- DIY direct
Each has its own unique advantages and disadvantages but how exciting to have the choice! It’s a great time to be writing.
I love this – two hundred comments by readers on what turns them off whilst reading a novel: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/05/21/bookish-turn-offs/comment-page-3/#comments
The main beefs seem to be with:
- Characters they don’t and can’t care about, who are too passive and flat
- Boring beginnings – first three chapters are key
- Dull storyworlds
- Too many points of view or wandering points of view (ie starts in third person closed and goes omniscient)
- Sexual violence
- Clunky prose with no unique ‘voice’
- Preaching of any kind (ie the moral of the story is this and you’d better believe it)
- Poor writing and/or editing
- Plot holes
- Slow pace (they don’t seem to like this!).
I do some of these…. so time to get back to editing.
So. I managed to write to the end of my first draft, my own personal ‘first hurdle‘.
Whilst I’m pleased about this, my first draft is little more than a skeleton. I have written out all my characters, the main plot and some of the themes.
I know that I still need to add considerable flesh to my characters and to their inner journeys, layer up my themes and add depth to my story world and generally tighten up the story.
I must make sure my story makes sense, that it will satisfy at least one reasonably sized reader segment. In doing this I will make a final decision on predominant genre and then add or subtract scenes, characters, themes and style to my manuscript depending.
In practical terms I am working through all of Joanna Penn’s tips on what to do when you get to the end of the first draft:
- Structural edit – my manuscript is with my Faber Academy tutor and will shortly go to the Writers’ Workshop.
- Beta readers – several trusted readers are looking through my story now and will look at again in June when I’ve done my post structural edit revisions.
- Line edits – I need to look for a freelance editor to help me with this in the summer which I will do shortly.
The end of the first draft is a difficult stage to get through. I know there are many more hurdles to jump after this but if I can get past this to the next step, I’ll be pleased!