Throughout my years as a published author, I’ve participated in various mentoring programs. This past weekend at the Space Coast Writers Guild Conference. I was assigned to mentor three writers for a total of six hours. This being my first such experience at a conference, I wasn’t sure what to do. Guidelines would have been helpful, but I was out there on my own. So I started by asking my subjects how far along they were in the writing process and what they wanted to learn.
The eager writers were nearly done with their manuscripts and wanted to hear writing tips and how to submit their work, where to find agents, what to do in terms of author branding. So we talked about all of those topics. Then they gave me about 30 pages each of their work to read. It would have been helpful to have had those pages emailed to me before the conference, because after going all day from around 9 to 7 or so, I wanted to relax. But I diligently read through and critiqued their manuscripts that evening.
SUNRISE ON THE BEACH
LOIS WINSTON AND NANCY COHEN
Each person wrote fantasy or science fiction so we had those elements in common. That was up my alley since I write sci fi and fantasy romance in addition to cozy mysteries. As for the basics of fiction writing, it doesn’t matter what genre you favor. The principles are the same.
When I read their work, I found the world building blocks to be solid. The problems they shared involved pacing in the first chapter.
Either I found too much backstory repetitively entwined through the current action, with snippets of dialogue from prior conversations running through the protagonist’s head in the middle of a fight scene, or prolonged chit chat between characters that could be shortened. In a couple of cases, I suggested moving up the beginning to the point where my interest really kicked in.
These are not uncommon problems. I’ve revised my own openings endless times, haven’t you? And nowadays, when on Amazon potential readers can sample your first chapter and determine on that basis if they’ll buy your book, these first few pages are critically important. This experience also shows why it’s good to work with critique partners who can view your opening from an objective perspective and tell you if it works or not. So here are the basic points I’d like to reiterate about first chapters:
- Start with action or dialogue. If you absolutely must begin with a description, make sure it is emotionally evocative from the main character’s viewpoint.
- Leave backstory for later or weave it in with dialogue. Or drop it in a line or two at a time in the character’s head if it relates to the action.
- Make sure all conversations serve a purpose.
- Remember to include emotional reactions during dialogue between characters.
- Make sure your characters are not talking about something they already know just so the reader can learn about it.
- Keep the story moving forward.
Are there any other points that you would add?
I’d add one — while it’s common for writers to start a little too early into the story, don’t automatically assume you’re doing the same thing. Somme writers can also start too late, which is a lot harder to spot.
And I should note, “start with action,” doesn’t mean “start with a fight.” It means start with story.
Nancy, I echo Linda here. So many new writers start their stories in the wrong place. Start at the “moment of impact” with an event that kicks the hero out of her “norm”. And like Linda said, it doesn’t have to be action. It could be a mental or emotional event.
Nancy, bless you for taking your time to help prospective authors.
As a reader I would say that your last two points are the most telling. As with people, books don’t usually get a second chance to make a first impression. When I was in fifth grade my teacher, who loved reading, told us to read a book at least one-third of the way through before giving up on it. Those days are gone. You need to get the reader’s attention within the first few pages —or paragraphs — and keep it.
I’d like to comment on what Joe Moore said. I agree with him to a point. If a character’s norm is sitting around the house all day with no human interaction, we want to start the story at the knock at the door. That being said, the reader doesn’t know what the norm is until we tell them. The purpose of the first several chapters of a novel is to paint a picture of “normal” for the reader, so that when things change the reader can see the difference. But we still have to get the reader interested. That makes me think that what we should be doing is starting with something that kicks the hero out of the reader’s norm, rather than out of the hero’s norm.
Yes, Linda and Joe, all true. If you start too late, it’s confusing to understand what is going on. Then you need to backpedal and set the scene a bit more. Or show the norm right before the inciting incident tosses the character into the melee. Or start with the melee. The main point is to keep the tale moving forward. It helps to get an objective view from critique partners who can clue you in if you’re starting in the right place or not.
Joe H, you’re absolutely right. If you don’t hook the reader within the first five pages, they’ll go elsewhere.
RE: Kicking the hero out of his norm—even that can sometimes be very tricky in terms of where to start a novel because sometimes there is more than one thing kicking them out of their normal storyworld in a relatively short space of time.
I think where to begin a novel is one of the hardest things to learn.
Timothy, I agree that we might want to show the hero in his normal milieu at first, but not for several chapters necessarily. I’d bump up the forward action to the end of the first chapter at least. In a movie, you have more time. Think of Star Wars, where Luke is working on his uncle’s farm, or Harry Potter, with poor Harry’s abuse by his aunt’s family. But those scenes hook us emotionally, as Joe M. mentioned.
BK, I don’t know about you, but I end up revising my first chapters endless times. Sometimes after the first version has been rejected, I’ll go back and do a restart. It may have been necessary earlier, but I couldn’t see it until gaining distance on the story. I hate beginnings. They are the hardest part of writing, IMHO.
You’re so right! The best writers don’t put much backstory into the opening chapter, only enough to tantalize the reader. Mystery is always intriguing. Even non-mysteries should leave the reader questioning, wanting to know more.
Congrats on your great reviews for Shear Murder!
THE TRUTH SLEUTH
THE DROWNING POOL
Nancy, I advocate starting with an opening “dsiturbance”. This enables us to be in the “ordinary world” of the character, but not in simple repose. It doesn’t have to be a big disturbance, either. Just something that causes a ripple.
-Dorothy running home (right after the credits, mind you) because Miss Gulch is after Toto.
-Harry Bosch being grilled by an LAPD psych (The Last Coyote begins with four lines of dialogue, no attributions)
– Scarlett learning (on page 2 or 3) that Ashley is going to marry Melanie.
What I’ve seen too much of in beginners’ manuscripts is what I call “Happy People in Happy Land.” It goes on too long.
A story doesn’t begin when you lay out the wood, but when you strike the match.
Even a transition scene needs to be infused with tension. I notice that writers often write “get from here to there” scenes that are flat or serve no purpose. That’s when my attention wanders.
I have to disagree about opening the first chapter with dialogue. When I was writing YA under a pseudonym, I had to start the first chapter with dialogue aimed at the main character. For a non-YA book, I think there are stronger ways to open the first scene.
Thanks, Jacqueline, as always I appreciate your stopping by and your kind comments.
James, those are great examples. I agree with you about “Happy Land.” Conflict should be inherent in every scene, including the ordinary life sequence in the hero’s journey. Back to Harry Potter, but his scenes at home in book one with his aunt and cousin are not happy ones.
Kathryn, each to their own. I like opening my stories with dialogue. If it raises a question in the reader’s mind, that works for me. This is how, after a couple of lines in my heroine’s head, I begin Shear Murder.
Nice discussion. Thanks for the post, Nancy, and good for you to crit other writers’work. I find that I learn from that experience too.
I tend to spend more time layering into the start of my book. My biggest challenge usually. And it’s so worth the time to get it right.
Jordan, I do the layering after my first draft is done. Otherwise, I’d never get past the first chapter. Ugh, I’m facing a new beginning again. Next time we should talk about avoidance behaviors.
Your points in the main post are terrific, Nancy.
And I very much like James’ “disturbance.” I see the aspiring writer pendulum swing toward mortal danger action scenes. As a reader, however, I tend not to care if I don’t know these characters. I need some sense of who, not just what.
Patricia, I couldn’t agree more. Lately I’m reading paranormal romance and there’s too much of the tough talking, kick-ass heroine. Give me some variety and let me care about them.
First I admire you mentoring those young writers, Nancy. I’ll keep your tips close to the computer for future reference, though I know these things, I don’t always remember to make sure they are included. Thanks.