Monthly Archives: July 2013

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 6

With Your Protagonist Waking Up

The submission sits in front of me on the desk. I’ve read this scene about a hundred times before and here it is again. I’ll probably read it at least three more times before the day is up. The words spin in front of me and I search for the coffee I thought I had left just out of reach.

That’s when I notice the snakes. Only one at first then a couple more catch my eye as they come slithering down the bookshelves towards me. Suddenly they are everywhere, thousands of snakes writhing all over me. How can this be happening?

One of them lifts its head and glares at me across the tottering submission pile.

“Breakfasssssst,” it hisses, knowingly.

“What?” I reply.

“Breakfasssssssssssst.”

One of them is coiling itself around my neck. I can’t breathe. I can’t think. The room is fading around me.

BEEP BEEP BEEP. BEEP BEEP BEEP.

“Vicki, hurry up! Breakfast is ready!”

I sit bolt upright in bed, clawing at the serpents that have dissolved along with the dream.

BEEP BEEP BEEP. BEEP BEEP BEEP.

“Vicki! You’re going to be late! And it’s your first day of school/that new job/going into the outlands to fight the half-human half-snake race that has taken over this hellish dystopian reality that we unfortunately live in.”

The stuff of nightmares, isn’t it? Well it’s certainly the stuff of literary agent’s nightmares, I can tell you that.

It makes perfect sense to start your novel with your protagonist waking up. That’s how each day starts, after all. Beginnings are inherent in mornings.

That’s why it should be avoided. It’s the place where the majority of people think to start their story. It’s the logical thing to do. So a lot of people do it.

For example, I would probably be surprised if I read just five submissions in a row and none of them started with the protagonist waking up. Moreover, I would be delighted to read ten submissions on the trot without a single protagonist waking up from a dream in the opening pages.

Starting with a dream makes sense too. Waking up is the sensible place to start a story but a person’s morning routine can often be mundane. How can you spice that scene up? Well with a crazy dream, of course, preferably including a hefty bit of foreshadowing but failing that just throw in a lot of snakes. People love snakes.

Again, starting with a dream makes perfect sense. That’s why everybody is doing it.

It’s not just the unpublished authors either. Writers have been kick-starting their novels with their protagonist waking up for as long as people have been waking up and other people have had the capacity to write about it.

Here’s a fun game. See if you can identify the authors who are responsible for these opening lines. Bonus points if you can tell us the novel they belong to:

  1. When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him
  2. Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day. He woke in the back seat of a school bus, not sure where he was, holding hands with a girl he didn’t know
  3. As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect
  4. The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I come to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home
  5. The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was

Remember, Googling is cheating. Leave your answers in the comments below.

Did you get them all?

They weren’t that hard to come up with either because waking up really is a common starting point for many stories.

Although, you will notice that none of these waking up scenarios place the protagonists in an everyday, mundane situation. When this is the case the waking up part of the scene effectively becomes one of the least important things about it, rather than the most.

This is good.

Yet, still I’d advise you to find another point of the day to focus your opening lines around if at all possible.

If you must, however, these are the main constructs which I’d advise you to avoid:

  • A dream. Particularly a dream that starts out like a normal scene and then weird things begin to happen before, oh twist, it turns out it was all just a dream
  • Anyone ‘sitting bolt upright in bed’, ‘burying their head deeper into the pillow’ or the sheets being ‘drenched with sweat’
  • Onomatopoeia. Alarm clocks, ringtones, knockings on doors – leave them out
  • Any of these phrases: ‘Breakfast is ready’, ‘you’re going to be late for [x]’, ‘sleepy head’, ‘wakey wakey’, ‘rise and shine’, ‘up and at them’, ‘just five more minutes’ and any variations thereupon
  • The smell of breakfast rousing your protagonist from their slumber/bed
  • Your protagonist getting out of bed to look at themselves in the mirror (assuming they look the way they would on any other day and haven’t, say, aged several years from the last morning they remember)
  • Your protagonist being even slightly hung-over
  • Your protagonist waking up on the first day of anything in particular

The problem is that the waking up opening scene has been done so many times by so many writers that it’s almost impossible to avoid the clichés.

At this point you’d need to do something extreme like having your protagonist wake up to discover he’s transformed into a colossal creepy-crawly overnight to make the scene feel original enough that your chosen literary agent won’t even notice what you’re doing.

Although I should warn you, even that one has been done already.

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 5

By Summarising

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (May 25th 1977 and this one, to be precise) George Lucas used a (by no means new) technique called an opening crawl at the start of a little space movie he’d been working on. In this opening crawl he summarised all the basic information that the audience needed to know if they were to grasp what on earth was going on and what a ‘Death Star’ was anyway (an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Duh).

It became pretty iconic and worked well enough to grab his audience. I mean, until he started including choice phrases like ‘taxation of trade routes’. No one wants to read about that.

Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to summarise at the beginning of the odd play here or there either.

Two households, both alike in dignity, 

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, 

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Or in other words – the play’s set in Verona, alright? These two families live there and they have been fighting for, like, ages.

That prologue summarises major plot point all over the shop and it includes some pretty important spoilers too. Come on Shakespeare, keep it together.

Indeed, the summarising prologue is a particular baby of sci-fi and fantasy writers and has been for as long as wizards have worn dresses and laser guns have made that PEW PEW sound.

One of my favourite series of fantasy sci-fi books uses this technique as the series progresses, prefacing each book with the same stock summary explaining how the planet was trying to kill everything on it and what the deal was with all the dragons. (The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. Read them. They’re all kinds of fun and there are dragons.)

At this point I’m going to stop listing the many examples of when this technique has been used successfully because it’s starting to feel like I’m shooting myself in the foot here.

Ultimately, like all of the other techniques I’m advising you against, there isn’t really anything wrong with opening by way of a summary, especially if you’re partway through a series that has earned enough notoriety to justify the use of a quick and easy ‘previously on…’ but not enough that you can assume the reader already knows exactly what went on previously.

It’s those two words I just used that are the problem – quick and easy. Opening with a summary feels like another literary shortcut and it gives you a lot less chances to immediately show off the strength of your writing.

We meet Katniss Everdeen as she is sneaking out into the woods to hunt with Gale (it should have been him) and discussing the Hunger Games. This opening establishes the protagonist along with three other main characters, it creates intrigue about this society and the concept of the Hunger Games as well as giving the reader a basis of understanding about what is actually going on. There’s a little fluttering of romance, some suspense, archery, delicious bread and Gale (it totally should have been him).

Imagine if the novel had just opened with a quick and easy summary of the situation instead.

One thing this definitely would not have done is encourage the reader to invest in this reality. It also would not have established these characters and beyond that it would have taken away the intrigue of the scene when we finally did meet the main characters. It would not have been active and would have told, rather than shown. The bread wouldn’t be there to evoke the reality of hunger, the archery wouldn’t have been there to establish Katniss as a survivor or to show the reader that the kids of this reality are a little more (shall we say) resilient than you might expect and Gale wouldn’t even have been there (I cannot stress enough how much it should have been him).

Not to mention that this first line would have been lost:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

That’s a good first line. It establishes a perspective, plants the idea of them not living in luxury and most of all evokes the feeling that there is someone missing who should be there. Ok it sort of breaks one of my 11 rules that I have yet to write a post about (can you guess what it is yet?) but you can’t have everything.

What if instead the first line had been something like:

In a place called Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by twelve districts, it is the 74th annual Hunger Games where two child tributes from each district are imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena and, over a period of several weeks, they fight to the death.

No. It’s just not as good.

A summary expects your reader to care about this information and be invested rather than working to make them care, grabbing them and pulling them right into the story and giving them characters to invest in.

In summary, a summary is not an impressive way to open your novel and you’re trying to impress the person you’re sending your work out to. So impress them.

And avoid anything about taxation of trade routes. No one wants to read about that.

Happy Publication Day to A.J Cross!

We are delighted to celebrate the mass market publication day of Gone in Seconds by A.J Cross! Anne stopped by to chat to Camilla Wray about her first year as a published author.

Gone In Seconds pbk

Congratulations on the mass market publication of Gone in Seconds. How has your first year as a published writer been?

Thank you!  It’s been amazing for several reasons:  firstly, when I sent off the first three chapters of Gone in Seconds I didn’t for one minute expect anything to come of it. Now Gone in Seconds is ‘out there’ and to some degree so am I.  Maybe all writers feel the same: you work away in your room and next thing there are nice people taking an interest in what you’ve produced.  Because I was featured in Woman Magazine people where I live in Birmingham recognise me and stop me in the street or in shops to ask all sorts of questions, most often ‘When is the next one due?’!

Has the experience been different to what you expected?

I didn’t know what to expect!  I suppose I’ve taken to it because it’s so great to have Gone in Seconds out there.  There are still the odd moments, usually when I get an email from you or Orion my publisher telling me about some new development such as an audio book of Gone in Seconds being released. At those times its like everything stops for just a moment and I think “I can’t believe this. I’m in some kind of fantasy I never even had.”!

Are there any parts that surprised you?

Most of what I’ve already said, plus every time someone comes up to me or emails and says how much they enjoyed Gone in Seconds and couldn’t put it down – I’m getting slightly used to it now because I know I wrote it from the heart but those comments are still lovely to hear and a bit humbling.

What’s next for A J Cross and Dr Kate Hanson?

After years of doing other kinds of work I’ve now realised what I really want to do: write, and write some more.  As for Kate, I believe she has a lot of ‘life’ in her because she’s a very strong, very dynamic female. I can foresee changes in both her professional and social life.

In Gone in Seconds Dr Kate Hanson’s personal life and especially her relationship with her daughter Maisie is an important part in giving the extra element to crime fiction. Is that something you set out to do?

Because it was written from both the heart and from the experience of being a Forensic Psychologist I don’t think it’s something I set out to do.  I knew it was inevitable that Kate would experience anxiety and fear for her daughter, over and above those we all have for our children, because she knows the depths of depravity in some people.  I can’t imagine Kate ever losing that fear. It may even grow as time goes on and Maisie has increasing freedom.  Kate also has her own problems: her difficulty of trusting men and of making a commitment.  I see these facets of her experience and character as abiding themes in her life – I’m anticipating that nothing is going to be easy for her.

Is Maisie a character the reader will get to watch grow up, like fans of Patricia Cornwell found with Kay Scarpetta’s niece Lucy? 

Definitely. It seemed to me to be really necessary in a book series to show the passage of time to keep it dynamic.  The two younger characters, Maisie and Julian, are those whose development is going to be most evident, although my thinking is that this will happen to a degree with the other central characters, regardless of age because that’s life, isn’t it?  Another reason why Maisie is here for the long-term is that my sister-in-law who kindly donated her name to the character is expecting it!

You have a really interesting past as a Forensic Psychologist.  Is it hard to keep a balance between authenticity and pace when you’re writing because you know so much about what you’re writing?

This really is one of the tensions inherent in what I’m doing: I have specialist knowledge from my work as a Forensic Psychologist but at the same time I know that a ‘good read’ needs pace and urgency. I want what I write to be realistic because I think it’s what readers expect but it’s not possible to fully convey, for example, the finer points and degrees of a personality disorder. Some readers might want that but I suspect most can do without them. I try to focus on keeping it all as ‘real’ as I can within the confines of novel-writing. Occasionally I express my own view by having the pathologist character bemoan the unreality of CSI!

Reading Gone in Seconds is like watching a great TV drama; do you get inspiration from TV and films?

Thank you!  Less so from films, I think.  I’m a great re-reader of crime ficiton and a re-watcher of the TV crime I record.  My all-time-favourite is Inspector Morse. It took me a long time to figure out that it was the two-hour format which enabled the writers to develop rounded characters who interacted with and talked to each other in a way which felt believable, plus it was a master-class in conveying all of that interaction in an economical way, which isn’t easy.

Is there anything you’ve watched recently that made you sit up?

Yes:  I loved Broadchurch because it tapped into two aspects of my own writing: it was character-led with the two main characters having major flaws but still managing to do their jobs.  Kate is flawed, plus she gets really irate if she thinks people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.   I like her a lot but I’m guessing I might find her difficult to work with at times.  I also enjoyed The Fall because of strong characterisation.  I’m aware that it has been criticised for its depiction of violence towards women.  It’s a thorny topic because women (and children) are unfortunately victimised because of their vulnerabilities. There’s no getting away from that but watching the series made me realise that one of my aims is to show the violence in my writing as ‘real’ but not gratuitous.  So far, I think I’ve pulled off that difficult trick.

You’ve got great titles. How do you think of them?

I’ve discovered that I must have a title almost from the start.  It helps me structure what I’m doing. Gone in Seconds was a little late in coming, I’d say half way through, because I was trying to come up with the whole thing.  Then I started to really think about what I was trying to say through the book which led to a lot of playing around with single words and thinking about the various characters.  Once I’d realised that, Art of Deception came much more easily.  I’ve noticed a trend: three-word titles!  I like the rhythm of it.  My third book which I’m currently writing is The Prosecutor Complex so it’s a continuing trend. 

Quick fire questions:

Day or night? Day and night. Busy in one and unconscious in the other.

Coffee or tea?  Coffee. I need the ‘belt’, the hit.

Music or silence: Love music. Can’t stand to hear it when working. Musician husband has music as a constant even when not working. It’d drive me nuts.

Pen or keyboard: Keyboard.  Being a left-handed shorthand writer my actual writing is a car crash. Half of the time even I can’t decipher it.

Hanibal  Lector or Buffalo Bill? Hanibal. People who can present as ‘normal’ when they choose are the most scary.

Kay Scarpetta or Temperance Brennan?  Temperance for me. More grounded. I have difficulty with people who fly around shooting people and I can’t understand the technology bits.

Book or TV drama? Both, for different reasons. TV ‘serves it up’ to some degree. Decisions are made for you. With books you get to decide how people look, act and sound – If I read first then watch the film I tend to do a lot of ‘No, that’s not right!’