11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 2

With Your Protagonist Looking Into a Mirror

The other day as I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror of my north London flat I recalled that my hair is fine and dyed a darker brunette then it would naturally grow to match my darker than average brown eyes. The shadows under my eyes were also darker than they should be but I reminded myself that they were probably there because of all the reading I do for my job as an editor at a literary agency. The image looking back at me was quite pale now that the spray tan had worn off from my sister’s wedding but for the most part I looked just how a female human of twenty five years should look on her way to play laser tag.

And I thought to myself, “Vicki,” because that is my name, “Vicki,” I thought, “this is a transparent narrative technique to communicate basic character information to your readers and you really aren’t fooling anyone.”

OK, so the having-your-protagonist-look-into-a-mirror trick is not the worst literary device ever used. I mean most authors have used it to some extent at some point.

If I’m not mistaken J K Rowling has Harry look into a mirror at the beginning of Goblet of Fire. Oh for those heady days when saying the words ‘Harry’ and ‘Potter’ still did not immediately drum up a clear image of the glasses, the hair and the lightning bolt scar.

To use a more recent example, a certain sadomasochism bestseller starts thusly:

“I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. I suppose. I mean, personally, it doesn’t make me immediately want to spend any more time with this character but there’s a lot of information crammed in there, fair dos.

However, Wikipedia tells me that 70 million people have bought this particular book and assuming that most of them got past the first paragraph we can safely assume that a lot of people are now familiar with this narrative technique if they weren’t already.

Beyond this, one demographic that I can say for certain will be familiar with the mirror technique would be literary agents. I would estimate that I come across some version of this technique at least twice a day when reading submissions. Although, I think my record is reading eight submissions in a row that had a mirror scene somewhere in the first chapter.

It might be a useful way to communicate information but it is not the way to go if you want to wow an agent. It’s just too familiar.

So, if you have started your novel with this technique my advice would be to take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror and think of another opening line to really show off your individual writing style.

While you’re at it consider how weird it feels to take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror. How often do we actually do that in real life? And how weird are eyebrows when you really take the time to look at them?

By Vicki Le Feuvre

8 Comments Add yours

  1. ivorgoligher says:

    Hi Vicki

    I enjoyed this blog entry as the beginning of a book can set the tone for the rest. In your example I doubt very much it’s the writing attracting so many people to the book but rather the subject matter. Taking a step back the book is poorly written. I must admit I got bored half way through the first and binned it.

    I do, however, take your point. Eyebrows are weird.

    Looking forward to the next post.


  2. Marine says:

    Hi, I’ve just stumbled across this blog and I’m loving it so far. I’m a writer in my free time and still very much at college with no idea on where to go next. I do want to enter the editing world though. Or publishing. Just something with books. So please, if you’ve got any advice on how to enter any of these industries, then please share. It’d be very much appreciated 🙂

  3. Hi Ivor, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog (and don’t tell anyone but I know where you’re coming from with that book which shall remain nameless). I hope you like the next post just as much and that I have not given you any kind of complex about your own personal set of eyebrows. I’m sure they’re lovely.

  4. And I feel your pain, Marine, it is a difficult industry to break into as many industries are becoming these days.
    My very general advice would be that the main thing you need at this point is enthusiasm. Getting out there and trying to gain advice and contacts is a great way to start which is what you’ve already done here so you’re on the right track.
    Alongside this, my advice would be to read read read. Read the sort of books you want to work with, as many as you can get your hands on. Read them critically, identify what you like about them and what you think could have been improved but enjoy them at the same time. The best thing I’ve ever taken to any interview has been my excessive enthusiasm for books. In fact I’m pretty sure that I got my foot in this particular door because of my inability to stop reading children’s books after I grew way past the target readership. What had previously been something I ‘hadn’t grown out of yet’ turned into extensive research of the children’s book market. And that’s why I love publishing; loving books is basically a major qualification here!
    Beyond that, watch this space for more advice. We are planning to do a segment on this very subject very soon.

  5. Cesca says:

    My mirror scene is in Chapter 11. *presses Delete*!!
    C x

  6. Miss Alexandrina says:

    Hi, Vicki,

    By mirror scene, you mean a specific scene in which the protagonist describes themselves, yes? I mean, I have mirrors in my first chapter, but more for plot-wise than appearance-wise. Ah, who knows. Do you think the inclusion of a character looking into a mirror has been tainted by these exposition passages already?

    Alex 🙂

  7. John Hyland says:

    I read this blog twice but still felt perplexed. I took a long hard look at myself in the mirror ‘What is she on about’ I thought as I shook my head from side to side, lips parted in pursed confusion. I noticed some large blackish chunks in the build-up on my remaining teeth. Carefully I scrapped them off with my fingernail, then sucked the almost hummus like material off, spitting it onto the floor beside my chair. I tilted my head slightly as I again stared at myself in the mirror, proudly admiring my prominent bushy eyebrows. They made me look a rather handsome stately, like Leonard Brezhnev. I gazed wondrously into the mirrored reflection of my eyes. It seemed the more intently I stared, the larger my pupils became, swallowing the blue-green-brown speckled surrounding iris like black holes in a distant galaxy. I took a long, hard look at myself in the mirror and thought ‘One day you will be a great writer’, but then felt a momentary faltering of faith as I noticed my thick bushy eyebrows furrow into a frown. I realised ‘Damn, this writing stuff ain’t so easy’.

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