Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 11

At the Wrong Time

At the Darley Anderson Agency we ask that any writers who wish to submit their work to us should provide the first three chapters of their novel as a sample of their writing. This is, as I understand it, standard practice in the industry.

However, at least once a week I hear from someone who takes issue with this.

Here are a few examples of the submission queries that we who work in literary agencies hear all the time:

  • “The first three chapters don’t really give an impression of what the whole novel is about. Could I send more?”
  • “My plot doesn’t really get going until about Chapter 14. I’ll send you Chapter 14 instead.”
  • “Those first chapters aren’t my best. I’m including Chapters Eight, 26 and 31 in their place. Those are the chapters I’m really proud of.”

Putting aside the fact that I really wouldn’t recommend quibbling about the harmless submission guidelines of your chosen literary agency unless there’s absolutely zero ways around it, this is worrying in an even bigger way. Saying something like this is akin to holding up a large neon sign above your head which reads:

“I’M NOT THINKING ABOUT MY READER!”

Because, really, as a reader if you get to the end of Chapter Three and the plot still hasn’t got going yet are you likely to want to keep reading? If the first chapters of a new book aren’t that strong isn’t it just a huge struggle to carry on with it? And, let’s be honest, no one ever picked up a book and started reading from Chapter 14 onwards.

Readers start reading from page one. Publishers are the same. Literary Agents are the same. That’s how stories work. You start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

My response to those three queries would be thus:

  • Well, they should
  • Well, it should
  • Well, you should be fiercely proud of your opening chapters too

If you don’t feel confident that your opening chapters are your best work then rewrite them. If your first chapters aren’t really capturing the essence of your overall novel then change them so that they do. If your plot doesn’t really get going until Chapter 14 cut out chapters 1 through 13. Open with whatever active, plot-developing scene it is that makes Chapter 14 so great.

You could always move that genius 31st chapter to the beginning of the manuscript as a flash-forward glimpse of what is to come, if you like. You can create a completely new character or obliterate an established one. You can move the events forwards in time or change the timeline to suit your whim.

You are the god of that page, time bows to your will. Take advantage of it. Own it. Be god.

The writers who make these queries have definitely done one excellent thing – they have recognised a problem in their manuscript. The real issue is that they’re complacent about it. Like it’s someone else’s problem. Specifically, it’s their reader’s problem.

When editing, I occasionally find myself suggesting some pretty drastic changes to some authors’ plots and their sequence of events. And, when I do this, I find that a lot of writers have a very understandable inclination to stick to the original plan. The phrase, “but that’s not how it happens,” is often uttered.

This is because good writers believe in what they’re writing. They can see each scene unfold like memories. Their characters are real people to them. And with real people you can’t just go back into their memories and say, “actually, you didn’t move house when you were 12, you moved when you were 15. And you only have one aunt, not two. And your hair’s blue now.” But with made-up characters you can, and sometimes you must.

This is why I think good writers often really struggle when making big plot changes. It’s all real to them. They’ve forgotten that they’re god.

In this respect, the space between being a good writer and a great writer is being able to step back and remember your godlike powers, remember that you are in charge. You can start your story whenever you want.

Choose the most opportune moment.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Editorial Submissions

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.

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 4

With Onomatopoeia

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEOOOW KER-SPLAT!

I’m really sorry to have to tell you but that is the sound of a literary agent’s expectations plummeting at the sight of onomatopoeia in the first few lines of your novel. Especially if it’s written in capitals, as they so often are.

This is not to say you cannot describe a character mumbling or have someone delight at the clip clopping of horses’ hooves if you so please. You can even say that the water came whooshing down the drain or dripping out the tap if the fancy takes you. In fact, please don’t hesitate to capture any particular sounds you want within your opening lines. The use of sound is a great way to conjure up an image or capture a particular sensation for a reader.

No, I’m talking about separating out onomatopoeia and using it instead of describing a particular sound.

Buzzers, bells and door knockers are the most frequent culprits.

For example:

Terry was just about to take a bite out of his lovingly crafted BLT when the telephone suddenly burst into life.

BERING BERING! BERING BERING!

Or even:

BONG. BONG. BOOONG.

“Oh that clock,” moaned Cinderella, “yes, I hear you. ‘Get up,’ you say, ‘time to start another day.’ Even he orders me around.”

It’s not uncommon for a Bang! to interrupt the narrative flow of an opening page either. Sometimes it’ll be something more peculiar like the noise of an exceptionally tired person finally sitting down on their familiarly sagging couch at the end of a long day – flump, sigh. Come to think of it SPLASH and Tick-Tock-Tick-Tock are other uncommonly common ones too and I’ve even read a couple of novels that start in a way reminiscent of Private Baldric’s poem, The German Guns.

It’s a different story if you’re writing a picture book, of course. This use of onomatopoeia is all types of fun in a picture book. But if your novel is aimed at an even slightly older readership I would recommend avoiding any BUZZZZZs , RING RINGs  or KERPOWs in the opening.

Why? Well it’s a bit like taking a shortcut in a marathon and still hoping for kudos. It wouldn’t show off your marathon-running skills at all. Your time would be irrelevant, whether you could give Mo Farah a run for his money or not.

Use your opening lines to show off your ability to capture a moment or communicate a certain sensation. Don’t let your chosen literary agent get the impression that you might not be a skilled enough writer to adequately describe a sound or that you are prone to taking the easy way out.

No shortcuts. Show them you’re in it for the long haul.

NEH-NEH NEHH-NEH, NEH-NEH NNEH-NEH, NEH-NEH NNEH NNEH NNNEH.

Oh sorry that’s my old Nokia 3310 ringing, I’d better take that.

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 3

With a Description of the Moon

Quick! Pick a card, any card.

Now think of a number between 1 and 10.

Next think of a colour.

And a vegetable.

Got them all?

OK?

Carrot, red, 7 and either the Ace of Spades or the Queen of Hearts, failing that something with a 3 or a 7 in it (almost definitely not the Nine of Clubs).

If any or all of your answers match these then you have just fallen prey to cognitive bias. It’s a funny little quirk of human nature that has long been taken advantage of by street magicians. Our brains collectively tend to follow similar pathways and for some reason these are the answers that those pathways most often lead us to. I’m not sure why this is but Derren Brown would probably know.

Not everyone will come up with these answers but if you ask enough people you will start to see a definite trend.

Incidentally, I have noticed a similarly hard to explain and seemingly random trend in how new writers choose to start their novels. I can’t explain this one either (maybe even Derren would fail to) but after some time of reading the opening lines of submissions I found myself thinking, “wow, people really like the moon, don’t they?”

And they do.

Once I had noticed this particular submission phenomenon the moon suddenly seemed to be everywhere I looked in opening paragraphs and spooky prologues. It makes a certain amount of sense, granted. Mentioning the moon in your opening line immediately lets your reader know that it is night-time, which is useful. I suppose it also creates a certain gothic atmosphere or maybe suggests that something clandestine might be happening but overall I can’t quite fathom why it pops up so very often as an opening image.

But it does.

It’s not even as if new writers are emanating a popular narrative technique in this case, not as far as I can tell. I personally couldn’t think of any examples of this one from well-known novels. Can you think of one? There must be at least one published novel that begins by describing the moon.

Because there are definitely a lot of unpublished novels that start that way.

There’s nothing wrong with it at all, just as there is nothing amiss if you immediately visualised 7 red carrots sitting on the Ace of Spades. It’s just not original. Oddly.

So, in the interest of standing out from the crowd avoid describing the moon in your opening line. And maybe next time go with aubergine.

By Vicki Le Feuvre