Writer’s Digest has come out with a special issue called “Write Your Novel in 30 Days.” It’s not their monthly magazine, but a stand alone. And it’s terrific. I say this not because I have a few articles in it (he notes with sly self-promo) but because it’s really got great substance cover to cover.
One section has a collection of things not to do in your opening chapter, based on statements by literary agents. Here are some clips (I highly recommend you read the whole issue).
“Slow writing with a lot of description will put me off very quickly,” says Andrea Hurst. And this is something you’ll hear all the time.
So how do you set an opening scene? Do it with an interplay of action and description. Get the action started first, then fill in just enough information to tell us where we are.
But you’re a literary writer, you say? You love style? Well, if you’re really good, like Ken Kesey’s opening pages in Sometimes a Great Notion, go for it. But you can still start with action and drop in wonderful, styling description later.
Voice and Point of View Fuzziness
“A pet peeve of mine is ragged, fuzzy point-of-view,” writes Cricket Freeman.
This is especially important when writing in First Person POV. We need voice, we need attitude. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Philip Marlowe in any of Chandler’s books. Don’t be bland.
My friend, agent Chip MacGregor, lists several, including:
1. Squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Done to death.
2. A trite statement (“Get with the program” or “Houston, we have a problem.”)
3. Years later, Monica would look back and laugh . . .
4. The [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] land.
Other Pet Peeves
1. Descriptions making the characters seem too perfect.
2. Too much backstory.
3. Information dumps.
4. A grisly murder scene from the murder scene from the killer’s POV.
6. Too much exposition in dialogue.
7. Whiny characters.
8. Characters who address the reader directly.
So there you have it, a handy list of no nos in your opening. Does that mean these are “rules”? I know how you rebellious and creative writers hate rules, so no, they aren’t. But they will increase your odds of turning off an agent or editor.
So resist the temptation. When you get a deal, then you can fight to begin your novel another way if you see fit.
But first you have to sell, and these bumps will keep you from that goal.
Okay, let’s talk. What do you think of these no nos? Do you have others?
What do you like to see in an opening? What hooks you?