Begin At The Beginning
When I was a very young writer, whose “professionalism” was measured in the number of rejections I got every month — a prodigious number. I usually hit 100 by March of every year. I was the writer of no future — I was offended when I heard that most editors only read your first page and rejected on that.
The thought went something like “but I have all that good stuff afterwards. So, what if my first page isn’t brilliant.”
Years later, when I was the editor of a micro press, I found that I could reject stories on one paragraph and that if — because I was young and stupid — I forced myself to read to the end, the story never improved.
But, you say, what is the point of that? Nowadays we’re not submitting and if we do, it’s not cold, and certainly not short stories, which used to get the biggest pile of submissions for editors to go through.
That’s true. But if you’re indie, you’re selling that book on a sample. And yes, I know they give you what? 10% of the book as a sample on Amazon, and that’s way more than one page. But does the reader give you that?
I’m a subscriber to Kindle Lending Library, mostly because I read “popcorn books.” That is, I chain read something like 2 books a day, 6 if I’m not working that day. I read while cleaning house, while brushing my teeth, and if I ever find a way to read while asleep, I’ll do that too.
Now, popcorn books are not things I wish to be extraordinary — though some of them will be — or stay with me. They’re just things I read so I don’t get unutterably bored and decide to paint the cats chartreuse. (Okay, I never did that, but I once installed an entire floor because I’d run out of reading material, about 10 years ago. If you’ve read Ray Bradbury’s Story Almost The End of the World, it’s like that.) But they do have to be entertaining, and the book can’t “fight me”.
A book fights you when you’re doing your best to stay immersed and the book keeps kicking you out.
Obviously, when I download books (usually on description. I don’t bother with samples for borrowed books) I want them to be an enjoyable and non-troublesome read. That’s it. I want them to keep me immersed enough to read them all the way through. If they turn out better than that, great.
Some do turn out better than that, but about a quarter I discard.
Now, it’s rare for me to discard something on page one. Possibly because I usually don’t download books with only two star reviews. BUT it’s not unusual to discard books at the “beginning” — i.e. page two or three or four.
Why are most books discarded? Not any great offense, just I get to page four or five, and I still couldn’t care less about what is going on on the page. There is a lot of verbiage, but nothing that holds me.
One of the more obvious offenders — a mystery — last week was narrated by a person who was supposed to have trouble following a line of thought. First person. By page ten I was so tired of the asides, which were everything to the narrative so far, that I discarded it. They did excellently at portraying the character as they proclaimed him. BUT it sucked.
There are many reasons why a book grabs and doesn’t let go.
-One of them is starting at the right point. Most beginning authors start a book fifty pages too early, a short story two pages too early. They feel they need to give us scene setting which is not in fact needed.
This was never a big problem for me, but with Darkship Thieves, I DID start it a chapter too early. And it didn’t work. It sold when I removed that chapter.
-One is starting with something intriguing that’s obviously not a mistake. Something that makes the reader want to read more so they figure out what’s going on. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” from the opening of 1984 does that, because clocks don’t usually strike thirteen, not even in Europe, where people do what we consider military time. (Thirteen is 1pm.) Clocks are designed on a twelve hour model, and strike at most twelve. So you read, because you want to know why these clocks strike thirteen.
Note that the killer first line or first paragraph only gets you so far. It earns you maybe another two three pages. At which point you have to:
-Be very clean, very crisp, very easy to follow, and have SOMETHING happen. It doesn’t matter what, provided it’s interesting, it’s building up, and it’s easy to follow.
-Build it up. Even in the beginning, we need to have a sense this is leading somewhere. If your entire scene is the character burning the eggs for breakfast, unless you’re writing for a peculiar demographic, you’ll lose readers. Take Agatha Christie’s opening to A Murder is Announced. It’s a domestic scene and breakfast, but there is a murder invitation in the paper, and it’s for the house where these people are eating breakfast. It builds.
-Voice. This one is harder to explain. Part of it is being clean and crisp and easy to follow, but a great part of it is being confident. You know where the story leads, and you’re telling the story to people you know want to come along with you. Don’t hesitate or vacillate. Remember you’re in charge. Start up and lead.
So, do I expect you to LEARN the stuff above just because I told you?
Bah. You’re writers. Most of you probably learn through your toe nails. Telling you things won’t do ANYTHING.
So, this is the first post of a workshop. Next post, next Wednesday, we’ll look at some great openings and why they work. I’ll bring some. Your homework for next week is to find your favorite story opening (and please not MHI because I’m using it!) and bring it. I want you to identify two things: why it’s your favorite opening, and what promises it makes for what the story will be like. Be prepared to quote no more than 2 paragraphs.
Note- Some of you write the opening after you finish the manuscript. I usually re-write it after I finish the manuscript. There’s nothing wrong with that. This should still be useful.
Also, and related, these workshops are usually great for revision and rewrite, not first write. Each writer is so different on first write, that you can’t do this sort of thing without blocking most of them. So, study, learn, and hold it for revision.
Till next week.