Tag Archives: writers and artists yearbook

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 10

With Extended Dialogue (or in a car)

“What do you mean you’re not going to do a blog post about not starting your novel in a car?”

“Well, it’s just that we’ve already attacked airports and that’s led people to anticipate further attacks on modes of transport. Also to be honest I think the opening-in-a-car craze is starting to tail off a little. I haven’t had one starting during a motorway traffic jam in a week or so now.”

“But a car journey isn’t a great way to start your novel.”

“You’re right but there are just too many variables to consider.”

“Like what?”

“Ok so having your protagonist caught in a traffic jam is generally not an action-packed way to start your novel but what if they were really funny or it was a creepy situation in some way or it wasn’t about the traffic jam at all, like maybe it was about the day the family dog Bessie jumped out the car window and was never seen or heard from again? Any of those variables might make the scene work.”

“It would still feel a bit unoriginal during the opening lines. It would be hard to immediately establish that this situation was special. I just think a lot of agents and publishers are probably growing tired of this setting for opening scenes.”

“True. But what about a high speed car chase instead of the usual stuck-on-a-motorway scenario?”

“That has been done too.”

“But has it been done enough for us to actively discourage it? What about if there was a really funny guy in a high speed chase in a creepy situation with the family dog Bessie riding along? You might forget there was even a car involved.”

“I’d still discourage opening right at that point in time for most authors.”

“Yeh but maybe some could pull it off?”

“Maybe.”

“Perhaps instead of discouraging car journeys we could discourage any journey? At the moment I seem to be getting a lot of manuscripts that open on trains. I’m getting a little biased against trains.”

“But isn’t that a bit over restrictive?”

“You’re probably right. How about not starting with a big move? That’s how about half of all children’s submissions start, I find. They’re either going to spend the holiday with an estranged family member, being evacuated or their cruel parents are pulling them up at the roots and moving them to an entirely new place where they’ll be bullied at their new school for being different and they’ll miss their friends.”

“It doesn’t really apply to adult fiction as much though, does it?”

“No. Also I like a good evacuee opening chapter, name cards and crying mothers and all the kids crammed into an enclosed space, emotions running high. It really gets you on the protagonist’s side and it’s an excellent breeding ground for tension. Also the thought of having to move did used to terrify me as a child.”

“You lived in Jersey. How big of a shakeup could moving from one part of a tiny island to another part of a tiny island have caused your life?”

“If we’d been moved to the wrong parish I was scared I might end up having to go to Beaulieu.”

“What’s Beaulieu?”

“Rival girls school to mine.”

“If you’re going to upload a transcript of this conversation aren’t you worried that no one will get that reference?”

“My friends who read this might.”

“Do many of your friends read this?”

“Probably not.”

“I feel like this conversation has gone off track.”

“It’s definitely gone on for longer than it should have.”

“Aren’t you afraid people will think this is just lazy? I mean it doesn’t really count as a proper blog post does it?”

“Well, it’s proving difficult to make your voice sound a bit different to mine considering that this is just an argument I’m having with myself. I like to think I’m employing some dialogue skills here.”

“But are you using any other skills beyond that? You’re not being descriptive, you’re not taking the characterisation any further and you’ve not given your reader a shred of exposition yet.”

“I’m being mysterious. Creating intrigue.”

“Yes but surely there’s a limit? I mean how many people do you think are even going to read this far? They might as well just go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations if this is all you’re going to give them.”

“Hey now. I’m doing other stuff too. There’s a lot going on.”

“Such as?”

“Well I’m creating conflict.”

“People argue in coffee shops too you know.”

“It’s the caffeine.”

“What I mean is you’re not giving anyone reading this very many reasons to care about whether we have conflict or not, are you? Who are we? What does it matter if we have conflict?”

“Well I think I’ve established that I’m me.”

“And I am?”

“Um… Clare?”

“Is Clare this confrontational?”

“No. Clare’s really nice. But my first draft where we were just being really nice to each other and having a reasoned discussion wasn’t interesting enough.”

“And why’s that?”

“… Because opening with extended dialogue isn’t a great idea?”

“Precisely.”

“So could we just do the post about that then?”

“I guess. But could you find a way to at least touch on the idea that starting your novel in a car might not be a great idea either?”

“I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

By Vicki Le Feuvre

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 9

With Too Much Exposition

Compare and contrast the following two potential openings to my pretend debut novel:

    They were going to catch her.

    When she first started running Lauren had felt sure she’d make it. After all, who would have thought they’d be faster than her? But they were, and now each time she looked back they were snapping ever closer at her heels.

    The breath burned in her chest as she hurtled round another filing cabinet, knocking a stack of contracts into their path.

    They were going to catch her, Lauren knew this now, the only question was when.

And:

    Lauren Taylor, who had turned 25 last year, worked at Lawyers Lawyers Lawyers, which was quite a good law firm. Although the work was hard and excessively stressful it was all experience for when she became a qualified lawyer herself.

    Usually one of the last people to leave the office at the end of the day, Lauren was the only one left in the office by 6 o’clock that night. She was still there two hours later when the Gremlins (creepy looking, little aye-aye type creatures with a thirst for mayhem and a worrying interest in Lauren) attacked. When she first noticed them watching her from their home in the vents she was down in the archives doing some filing.

    She started to run immediately. Lauren was quick-thinking like that having always excelled academically. As an Olympic level water polo player, she thoughts that surely she would easily make it to the safety of the toilets faster than the Gremlins but then they proved to be quicker on their feet than she had thought and soon she started to worry that she wasn’t going to make it. Strands of her brunette hair whipped across her brown eyes as she ran.

    The Gremlins were gaining on her and unfortunately the archives were especially large, even for a firm as sizeable as Lawyers Lawyers Lawyers. Eventually, they caught her.

Which one draws you in the most? Which one is more likely to grab you and pull you into the action? If you had to pick, which one would you keep reading?

I really hope your answer was: “the first one,” (otherwise I might be out of a job).

In your opening chapters it is true that you will need to include a certain amount of exposition. The more seamlessly you can slip that exposition in the better, of course, but at some point relatively early on your reader will need to understand what is going on, who they’re looking at and why.

The excellent thing is you don’t have to do that immediately. Actually, you’re more likely to grip a reader if you don’t.

I often read submissions where I can sense a certain level of anxiety in the way the opening paragraphs are written, as if the author is highly conscious of the fact that they need to explain things fast.

New writers will often tend to shoehorn in snippets of information wherever they can during their first lines (hair and eye colour as well as age and occupation of the protagonist being the most popular culprits). Sometimes relationships are hurriedly summarised in the first few lines (married five years, it wasn’t going well) or interesting character traits are hastily listed for the reader (smart, funny but lovingly clumsy with a tendency to overwork). Even important plot details that could have served as great points of interest later in the narrative are sometimes quickly revealed in the first few pages in a bid to get the reader caught up.

I would not recommend including any of this information in your opening lines if it is not absolutely necessary. Here are three reasons why, in increasing order of importance:

    1. Readers are wise to it. Especially agents and publishers. This is the point of your novel when too much exposition will stick out like a sore thumb. Leave it until you’ve lulled your reader into not noticing that you’re hiding behind the scenes pulling all the strings.

    2. If it’s not 100% essential to the action it gets in the way of the action. You want your opening scene to spring to life. You don’t have to open with a fight or chase scene to do this; even if your protagonist is quietly reading when you first introduce them you want the focus to be on the action of them reading rather than on their backstory. You want to pull your reader into the moment – that way it will be all the easier to sneak the backstory past them while they’re looking the other way.

    3. It’s throwing away one of the best weapons that you have in your arsenal at the beginning of any story – intrigue.

Intrigue is what will make your readers want to keep reading past the first paragraph. Intrigue is what will make them want to get to know your characters and find out more about their situations and relationships. Intrigue is your best friend.

To use a slightly tortured metaphor, I recently climbed an indoor ice wall. Oh yeh, I climb ice walls now. If you’ve ever done any sort of rope-assisted climbing (I’m not going to lie, I don’t know the official terms) you will know that one of the best ways of curing the perfectly logical fear of a horrifying fall is to lean back in your harness and reassure yourself that you are in fact held up by it.

I got to the point halfway up this wall of ice where I, well, I panicked. I mean it’s exhausting and why do things look so much higher up when you get up on them than when you’re safe on the ground? It’s silly.

Anyway, I wigged. I manfully said I was coming back down (and when I say manfully I mean tearfully). I disengaged my ice picks, I sat back in my harness and I immediately realised that I was in no immediate danger.

Not to sound like a particularly naff inspirational speaker but in this admittedly quite stretched analogy your story is the ice wall and the harness is intrigue. Lean back on it, test it, bounce up and down a bit on it. Feel that it is not going to let you fall. You are safe to hold back information from your reader.

The understandable instinct is to want to cling to the wall and by cling to the wall I mean tell your reader all of the important information about your protagonist and their situation as quickly as possible lest they… what? Aren’t intrigued?

Without that harness I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near that big, tall wall of ice (the least grippy of Earth’s substances). But with it I reengaged my ice picks, took a deep breath, pretended I hadn’t been crying (I never cry, I climb ice walls) and I eventually rang that little bell at the top of the wall with pride.

Without intrigue your reader might not take the risk of giving up the time necessary to keep reading past your opening pages. Without it they might give up halfway, manfully or otherwise, and if they do that they won’t get to the fun bell ringing bit otherwise known as narrative payoff.

Feel safe to hold back basic information in your opening lines. The very start of your novel is not a time when the pressure is on you to tell the reader everything you know. Quite the contrary, the most important thing to let your reader know in your opening lines is that there is something they don’t know.

(p.s. see, Lauren, I promised I’d get you in the blog eventually. Sorry you got eaten by Gremlins though. Or did you…?)

By Vicki Le Feuvre

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 8

In An Airport

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love-

Oh no wait. That’s the opening monologue to Love Actually.

What I mean to say is, at half-past six on a Friday evening in January, Lincoln International Airport, Illinois, was functioning, though with difficulty.

Wait no. That’s the opening line of Arthur Hailey’s bestselling 1968 novel, Airport.

What I really, actually meant to say was, “I’m walking as fast as I can,” Stacey squealed hitching up her miniskirt and hobbling after Constance in her nine inch, Louis Vuitton stilettos. “Just because your case has wheels.”

“No, I am walking at a proper pace because my suitcase is regulation size,” quipped Constance, scanning the departures board for any sign of their flight. “It also helps that I’m wearing sensible footwear and managed to set my alarm for the right time this morning.”

“Oh babes, you really need to chillax. We’re going to Las Vegas, get in the holiday spirit!”

“This is not a holiday, Stace. This is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for and you better not-”

“THIS IS OUR FINAL BOARDING CALL FOR PASSENGERS WISHING TO TRAVEL TO LAS VEGAS WITH BUDGET AIRLINES.COM.”

The girls looked at each other. “Oh no, that’s us!” they somehow managed to gasp in unison, before accidently dashing off in opposite directions.

No, hang on. That’s just a strangely popular scenario for the opening scene of quirky, fun, women’s fiction. Very shortly one of Stacey’s ill-chosen heals will break, I can guarantee it.

Airports. A place of new beginnings, of possibilities, of returning home and going off on adventures. Where you can buy anything from snow shoes to flip-flops and drink at whatever time of the day you feel like because everyone knows that time is at its most relative in an airport. You might have just come from Australia and be all jet lagged and confused for all anyone joining you in the airport bar at 9am knows.

What better way to introduce a wide expanse of characters too? There are meetings and partings galore at airports.  Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. Wait. Again, that’s Love Actually. Darn, that film is quotable.

Not to mention, setting your opening scene in an airport works well in almost all the possible genres. You need a thrilling chase scene to kick-start your thrilling thriller? Why not set it in an airport? Writing a kooky caper about a nine year old’s first trip to Canada? How else are you going to get him and his family over there, eh? Need to establish that Stacey and Constance don’t actually live in Las Vegas full time? That sounds like a job for an airport to me.

And, as ever, that is the exact problem with opening your novel in an airport. It’s popular. It spans genres. It’s been done. A lot.

Granted, if your novel takes place exclusively in an airport or you are Richard Curtis then you are off the hook but make sure that you do something exceptional in the opening lines to show off your writing skills.

Otherwise, try to avoid the airport as a taking off point for your novel if at all possible. Doing so will help you rise up above the crowd and hopefully land that literary agent you have your eye on.

And remember, if you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around. Which is irrelevant as to whether or not you should start your novel in an airport but it might be a nice thing to think about while you’re… rewriting. Sorry.

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 7

With Something Aimed Primarily to Shock

It’s not uncommon for an, “ew,” to interrupt the everyday workings of the Darley Anderson Agency. It’s not even unheard of for one of our readers to be heard exclaiming, “that word again,” when first opening a submission. You know the one I’m talking about.

And believe me, none of us are all that sheltered or naïve. Or if we were when we started reading the submission piles we certainly aren’t anymore.

Now, I am absolutely not saying that you shouldn’t be shocking your reader. Twists, turns, violence, swearing, getting your reader to appreciate something raw and real that they might never have even wanted to think about before but maybe should; these all have an excellent place in a good novel. Keep your reader on their toes, open their eyes, address difficult subjects. Please do all of these things, they’re exactly what storytelling is for.

But never do any of these things purely to shock and definitely not in your opening lines.

Why?

Three reasons:

1.       It probably won’t shock anyone.

If you leap out and shout, “BOO!” at someone once you’ll probably get a jump out of them. Do it a second time a few minutes later and they might still flinch. Become known as that slightly strange individual who can be counted on to yell, “BOO!” at least twelve times in any one conversation? Well then, people will probably stop inviting you to parties eventually.

Think of a literary agent as a person well-accustomed to jump scares. You won’t shock them by barging right into your story midway through a graphic sex scene or opening with a four letter word.

If you’re going to do these things make sure you have a much better reason for doing them than to shock.

2.       It’s transparent more than it is gripping.

Imagine if you met that serial BOO-er for the first time at one of the last parties they were ever invited to. Imagine if their opening line was an aggressively loud, “BOO!”

Would you instantly warm to them? Would you be driven to find out more about them? You might be worried about them but you are unlikely to think, “I want to hang out with this guy.” I expect the best-case scenario is that you would interpret their behaviour as a misjudged overcompensation for their own social awkwardness and feel a bit bad for them.

Opening your novel with an obvious scare tactic has a similar effect. It feels like a distraction technique, as if you might be trying to move the attention away from your writing and maybe don’t feel that confident of your own abilities.

Instead of going in for a friendly handshake and perhaps trying to think of something witty to say to break the ice you’ve shouted, “BOO!” at your reader.

3.       It can come off as a bit disrespectful.

In this case I am referring to manuscripts that open right on to, say, a violent rape scene or an instance of child abuse, for example. Something innately upsetting and very real to a lot of people.

You never, ever want to give anyone the impression that you are exploiting sensitive issues in your writing simply to get a rise out of them. Bear in mind that going straight into a shocking scene can give your reader this impression. If you are doing this make sure that the shocking nature of the scene is not the reason you are placing it there.

We know the shock tactic opening line doesn’t come from a bad place. Any writer that uses it is trying to do exactly what you should be trying to do in your first line – gripping the reader. But I think they’re probably trying to grip them with the wrong thing.

Grip a reader with your characters, your storylines, your interesting view of the world, your wit, your carefully perfected firm-yet-not-too-firm handshake. Have confidence in your writing style and your ability to impress, there’s no need to rely on shock value and it’s more likely to push a reader away than pull them in anyway.

Never opt to shock for the sake of shocking. Surprise your chosen literary agent with something special and particular to your writing in your opening lines; don’t introduce them to your novel with a scare tactic.

Unless, that is, you happen to be Dawn French. Dawn French can start a book with a big ol’ swear word and people will still love her. Come to think of it, if Dawn French came up to me at a party and shouted, “BOO!” right in my face for no conceivable reason I’d still want to be her best friend. As so often is the case, it’s one rule for Dawn French and one rule for everybody else. She’s just a little bit too marvellous to hold it against her, isn’t she?

 

By Vicki Le Feuvre

We’re Back!

Welcome back to the Darley Anderson blog after our summer/Frankfurt Book Fair break.

Did you miss us? We missed you. Hope you’ve all had a brilliant time in the sun reading only great stories and that the writing process has been kind to those of you who write.

We’re excited to get going again and we’ll be hitting the road running with the latest in the 11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel series any minute now.

But first, we’ve had some great responses to our challenge to name those five novels that start with their protagonist waking up. (If you haven’t yet had a chance to play go back now to 11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel No. 6 before we give away the answers.)

To set your minds at rest here are the authors and their books responsible for those opening lines:

  1. Cormac McCarthy’s The RoadWhen 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. Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus: The Lost HeroEven 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. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Other StoriesAs Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect
  4. S J Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep 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. Douglas Adams’ Life, The Universe and Everything The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was

Did you get them all? Have you read them all?

Excellent. Then we’ll continue…

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.

MONSTER OF THE MONTH

This month, MONSTER OF THE MONTH illustrator, Jon Holder, took some advice from the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and spent some time with his target audience. Jon took his work-in-progress to three UK schools and read it aloud to hundreds of primary school children aged eight and up.

Jon said, ‘To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I read the book with as much enthusiasm as I had in me. I performed actions, occasionally went off road to ask and answer questions and, of course, gave characters ludicrous voices.’

At the end of the readings, the children were given the chance to design their very own monsters with Jon’s help. This activity was Jon’s favourite part of the visits: ‘Never underestimate the imaginations of children – they are truly unique and often terrifying places and some magnificent creatures emerged as a resultDespite being asked some slightly bizarre questions (“How did you grow your beard?”, “Can we draw this monster sitting on the toilet?” and “Will you share your lunch with me?”) I found the whole day massively rewarding and I’m currently taking steps to arrange some more school visits.’

Bearing in mind what Jon has told us about the amazing imaginations of children, it is our pleasure to give you an insight and introduce…

Fish Fairy

 Ginormous Dragon

Gooey Face

Mr Muzzlejunk

Don’t miss out on your chance to win your own personalised monster this month.

Send a description and/or photograph of your monster to clare@darleyanderson.com and Jon Holder might just bring it to life for you (with terrifying results).