To celebrate the new year, most of this month’s posts will have a theme of “new beginnings”.
One bit of advice you’ll often hear from agents and various other bookish folks — such as editors and competition judges — is to make sure your book starts in the right place. People are time-poor and there are a lot of competing entertainments, more than there were when I was a wee lass. Smart phones! Augmented reality! Reality-cooking-soap-TV shows! You need to hook the reader from the outset, draw them into the story. Start where the story actually stars, with the inciting event — not beforehand.
I’m basically giving you that same message, but thought I’d do it with
song an example.
The inciting event — the first big, life-changing incident that triggers the plot — in my first novel, Isla’s Inheritance, happens at a Halloween party. That event is in the first chapter of the novel, and always was … but the first draft of that chapter started with Isla and her cousin Sarah receiving the party invitation and sorting out costumes. I’m still fond of that scene, because it sets up the relationship between the two characters, and Sarah is a lot of fun to write. But it wasn’t the best place. Isla thinking about whether she had time to get her homework done before the party wasn’t exactly the sort of thing that hooked the reader.
In my defence, it was my first novel, and I learned by making the mistake. :p
The fact my opening sucked bugged me all through drafting the book, so after I’d finished and taken the time to get a bit of distance from the writing, I went back again. (The distance is crucial. As I said, I was fond of the costume-choosing scene, which meant I needed to take the time to see it for what it was.) I cut the first part, and started the scene instead with the two girls and Sarah’s older brother, Ryan, arriving at the party. Fixed it!
That was the version of the book I started querying. I entered it in PitchWars at the end of 2012, and the feedback I got from mentors really shook me. I was still starting in the wrong place, dammit! Again, I was still taking time to establish the characters. I had Sarah and Isla giggle over an old school crush. Dance. I thought I was setting the scene, but it was still slow.
I went back and amputated even more from the scene. By this point I’d probably removed around 2000 words (sob). Now it starts with Isla, at the party, meeting Dominic — her eventual boyfriend — and getting invited to participate in a séance. Sarah doesn’t even appear until the end of the chapter.
If you’re getting told your book starts too slowly, have a look at what you’re trying to show the reader in your opening scene. For example, say you start with your character jogging, thinking about their life (apparently this is a very common beginning, as is staring into a mirror). You want the reader to see upfront that your main character is a physical creature who has problems that need pondering. Instead, why not start with the manifestation of the problems. You can always have the character jog later, or mention the athletics trophies being knocked to the ground during the zombie attack — that sort of thing.
Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, such as if your character is doing a marathon and they rupture their Achilles tendon on the first page or get hit by a car, because the rest of the story is about their healing journey.
I’d like to think I’ve learned this lesson now. I’ve started (and finished; OMG!) five other novels, and all of them have a much quicker beginning to the plot. But I learned it the hard way. Avoid my mistake, grasshopper!
Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction writer. Her first novel, Isla’s Inheritance, is currently free in ebook format at all good (and some dubious) ebook retailers. You know, if you want to find out what happens next. 😉
Note: the featured image at the top of this post is from Shutterstock.