Bernadette asked: When starting a brand new novel, what’s the biggest problem authors usually encounter when they’re trying to find their first page?
A: The biggest problem I’ve seen in the hundreds of submissions for critiques on my blog, Flogging the Quill, goes by many names:
Perhaps the easiest way to identify these stop signs on the road to a compelling opening is to see if the narrative is about what’s NOT happening now. If the first page isn’t what is happening to a character in the now of his story, then the story’s feet are dragging, if not sinking in quicksand.
The cause of these common barriers to the kind of crisp, gripping narrative that hooks readers is a writerly syndrome that I and many writers have to learn their way out of doing—it’s the idea that “my readers need to know this stuff so they can understand my character/what’s happening in the way that I do.”
They don’t, not on the first page, or necessarily even in the first chapter.
In my view, professional storytellers immerse you in the now of the story and weave in what little readers actually need to know through the narrative in the context of what happens now. If we are immersed in the experience of the character in an immediate scene that has impact and consequences for the character, we will be engaged. And we don’t need backstory, prologues, or flashbacks to understand what’s going on in a well-written scene. Readers don’t want to know what happened then, they want what’s happening now and they want what’s happening now to make them want to know what’s happening next.
To illustrate, I’ve asked me if I can quote from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells, and I said yes. Here are two ways to approach the opening of a story:
Enticed by a friend’s recommendation, Ima Reader takes a seat in a punt on the shore of a gentle English river. The flat-bottom boat rocks a little, but she feels safe in the hands of Heezan Author, who stands ready at the stern, hands on the long pole used to push the boat. His photo on the back of the book was nice.
Heezan shoves off, and they glide down the river on an easy-going current. Heezan says, “Note the lovely hues of red and gold in the rose garden on the far bank.” He steers the bow a few degrees toward the near shore. “And here is the poor peasant hut, its thatched roof more holes than not, where our hero was born, poor tyke, the sad victim of—”
“Oh, the hero. I’m so eager to see him.” Ima leans forward and peers ahead.
“Soon enough, soon enough, Dear Reader. But first, see the ramshackle one-room schoolhouse where Hero first met Heroine, though their meeting was a tussle over who got the swing—”
Ima turns to Heezan. “Excuse me, sir…”
A sigh. “Yes?”
“Pull over to the bank, please.”
“But there’s so much story to be told.”
The boat clunks against a dock and Ima steps out. “Too late.” She gently closes the covers, never to return.
Feeling the pull of a fetching blurb, Ima Reader turns to page one and drops into a river raft. It races downstream, toward the roar of water churning over rocks. The raft noses around a bend, and ahead spray creates a mist above roiling water and granite boulders.
Sheezan Author, both hands with strangle-holds on the rudder at the rear, shouts, “I don’t want to alarm you, but there are crocodiles between us and the end.”
Ima grips a page. Her lips stretch in a grin of anticipation when she leans forward and says, “Let ‘er rip!”
What if Ima Reader is an agent to whom you’ve just submitted a sample, and yours is the eleventy-eleventh submission she’s opened that week?
Or an acquisitions editor at a publishing firm who wonders why in hell he agreed to look at your manuscript?
Or a bookstore browser deciding on what to buy for a weekend read (and your book is in that narrow window of only a few weeks to catch hold and create an audience)? These people turn to page one looking for one thing.
To be swept away
And effortlessly, too. After all, the agent’s tired, it’s been a hard week, she’s looked at dozens of crappy novels, and it’s an act of will to tackle another one. The editor feels a migraine coming on, and the bookstore browser just had her transmission go out. Please, capture my mind and imagination and take me away from all this.
Before you leap to your feet, wave your keyboard, and cry, “But not every story has to start with action, action, action!,” let me say “Of course not.” Even description, if it’s experiential (that is, filtered through the thoughts and feelings of a character in an immediate scene), can begin to raise story questions and create tension.
Story questions don’t, however, have to be limited to what’s happening plot-wise; they can be about the character. Here’s how Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields opens Unless:
It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.
We’ve all suffered loss and unhappiness, and the questions in my mind include wondering what caused hers and how she would deal with it.
Bottom line: look for a way to start the first page with an immediate (not past) scene that involves the character and raises at least one story question. It doesn’t have to be the primary question driving the story, as Donald Maass advises with his idea of “bridging tension,” but it seems to me that there need to be enough in the way of stakes or consequences to make it important to know what happens next.
Allison asked: How do you learn to ‘hold your horses’ and adjust to how long it takes from writing a MS to seeing it in book form? How do we, in other words, ‘mind the gap’ between the time we’d LIKE it to take and how long it actually takes?
A: For me, the thing to do is to work on something else. Since I always have multiple projects going, it’s not hard to find something. If I didn’t have that to-do list waiting, I’d search for a new novel to write, a new story to savor, new characters to fall in love with. Once engaged in a new world, the urgency of the old one seems to fade.
Not a hugely useful answer, I suppose, so here are a couple of other writers on the subject.
Author J.D. Rhoades, a contributor to the Murderati blog by mystery writers, has this post about being on submission.
And here are links I found on Nathan Bransford’s blog that address the issue. Writer Natalie Whipple has two excellent posts on her blog, Between Fact and Fiction, that talks about what happens when you’re “on submission” and what she’s learned from dealing with it.