Thursday, March 08, 2012

4 Quick-Fix Ways to Improve Your Novel's Opening: Right Now

I've recently consulted with several writers who are hoping to make their current Work in Progress the one that gets them noticed, agented, paid, and published.

We paid specific attention to their opening chapters and put each writer's first page under a magnifying glass. Too many of them had forgotten the writer's First Page Imperative. To wit:

Get the reader to turn the first page.

If the reader doesn't turn that first page, he or she certainly won't turn any other. However, once the reader has turned page one, he or she has entered into a tacit agreement with the writer, saying, in essence, "I've chosen to enter your book. I'll keep going as long as you make it worth my while."

"You have my undivided attention!"
I contend that it's much easier to keep a reader reading than to get one to make that 1st page commitment.

We pulled out our Writer's Craft Toolboxes and got to work. In a very short time, we all felt that their openings had improved tremendously. Some of the things these writers did that might be of benefit to your novel as well:

1.) Start with something worth reading.

You may love your story, your to-die-for characters, and your fabulous, fabulous plot. But if all the Good Stuff happens "later," the reader will never know how brilliant you are.

Beware of beginning with Life As Usual. If your opening chapter includes any of the following, be sure you have a heckuva good reason for inflicting mundanity upon your hapless readers:
  • Hearing the alarm clock. Waking up. Getting out of bed. 
  • Eating breakfast / lunch / dinner.
  • Going to work. Commuting. Riding the train / bus / elevator.
  • Getting dressed.
  • Looking at / noticing / commenting upon the scenery.
  • Looking at / noticing / commenting upon the weather.
Quick Fix: If you have begun with Life As Usual, as an exercise, identify the place where your story starts. (This may be quite different from where you've begun your story.)  Cut out everything before the story's start. Wait until the final edit to see if you need to replace any of what you've cut.

2.) Start with someone worth remembering.

If your book were made into a movie, would an A-list actor be interested in playing your main character in his or her introductory scene? If so, why? Be able to articulate what makes that character someone your reader should spend the next few hours of life with. If not... roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Quick Fix:  You probably have a whole list of character traits that define your main character and make him or her fascinating to you. Choose one defining trait and make it shine when introducing the character to your reader. Since you've already put your character in a situation that's interesting (see #1), his or her reaction to that situation should entice the reader to come along for the ride.

3.) Show me something I've never seen before.

"But my book doesn't open with either my main character or a major plot point."

Ok. Maybe. There are no hard and fast rules. Perhaps you have a goooood reason for starting with bit players who operate outside the Big Story. You still have only one page to convince your reader to take that leap of faith and turn the page.

Quick Fix I: Read your first 500 words (1st 2 pages) out loud. Mark with an asterisk (or some other equally-strangely-named Annotative Mark) every intriguing or unique thing in those pages that specifically relates to the genre in which you are writing. If your book is a comedy, mark the funny bits that you've never seen anywhere before. If you're writing a mystery, identify each element that anchors it as a mystery in the reader's mind and does so in a new, unusual way.

Quick Fix II: Re-read the 1st 500 words out loud. Underline everything in those words that you have seen done before. Be honest. Be relentless. Then go back and rewrite everything underlined in such a way that it merits an asterisk. Tell yourself if you can't rework it into something intriguing, unique, and original, then it has to go. Make your words fight for the privilege of staying.

These are just 4 of the many possible ways to enervate and energize your novel's opening pages. What are your favorite Quick-Fixes for making your beginnings POP?


Gale Martin said...

Really great post (and pep talk), Ami!

Ami Hendrickson said...

Thanks for the kind words, Gale! :D

Lyndsay Wheble said...

I am now going to go and do this...

Ruth Fanshaw said...

I read somewhere that it's good to start with your main character WANTING something, because it helps the reader to connect and identify with them.

Also, starting with a short sentence seems to work well. Something fairly "punchy", that they can take in immediately. Don't make them work for that connection - that's our job.

And I think it's good to start with a sentence that makes the reader feel that they're already in the middle of something. That should help to draw them into the rest of the story - it's all about making them want to know what happens NEXT, right? :)