Time to hide in your box, quivering in terror.
Today we’ll be visiting the Pub Rants blog (“pub” as in “publication”, you lush) for the bad news about beginnings: 99.9% are rubbish.
You can tell an experienced writer because they don’t bat an eye when someone says, “Send me the first two hundred words of your book, and I’ll know whether I want to read the whole thing” – because that really is all it takes to sort the maybe-quite-good from the heh-no-way.
Don’t believe me? Go to a critique site like this one and critique twenty first chapters. You’ll soon see exactly how easy it is and exactly how little time it takes. And if you’re serious about writing books, critique at least fifty first chapters and you’ll learn more than you’d learn from reading fifty bestsellers (which you should also read, but that’s another article. . . ).
The full article for today is here. If you’re a writer, read the whole thing – please. My favourite part is when she lists the most common first-page mistakes. Here is that list, with my comments underneath each item.
1. Telling instead of showing.
Don’t say, “I felt scared” – say “My mouth went dry, and I willed my hands to stop shaking.” It makes a surprising amount of difference. Also, know when your scene should be described in full excruciating detail (when there’s action, interesting dialogue, or some incident that makes a difference to the plot) and when not to (when characters are unconscious for three days, or talking about non-plot-relevent geraniums, or quietly grieving someone that they also grieved in the previous chapter). Your first scene should always be interesting, and full of blow-by-blow detail with no summary.
2. Including unnecessary back story.
You should know that the main character was attacked by an aardvark when she was three and that it caused her to hate all animals – but you will probably NEVER mention that incident in the whole book. You’ll just show her flinch when a dog walks in. That SHOWS us she’s had a bad experience instead of telling us.
We don’t actually care about the aardvark incident, or anything else that was exciting at the time – sad but true. Only the present truly matters.
We really don’t care about the fifteen changes in the government of your fantasy world that led up to this particular crisis. Again, keep it in your head.
3. Loose sentence structure that could easily be tightened.
Grammar is important for two reasons: So you make sense, and so your writing is invisible. Any time someone has to re-read a sentence, they are no longer inside the story. Learn how to talk good.
4. The use of passive sentence construction.
See what she did there?
“I hit the cop in the face” is a million times more interesting than “The cop was hit in the face.”
5. Awkward introduction of character appearance.
Please, no glancing in the mirror.
I use a lot of tricks for character appearance including action (I pushed my hair out of my eyes), comparison (Robert towered over me), style rather than lists of hair/eye colour (He pulled at his lower lip again, not realising he was doing it), senses other than sight (I heard a scratch at the door and realised Miss Smith couldn’t quite reach the bell), and other people’s reactions (Harrry stopped talking mid-sentence. Sure enough, Miss Aurelia was adjusting her top again). Anytime you’re physically describing someone while doing something else at the same time (showing character, moving the story forward, etc) you win.
6. Awkward descriptions/overly flowery language to depict.
If you must have an adjective, don’t have a list. “The fat dog wagged its tail at me” is stronger than “The fat little brown dog wagged its tail at me”. But verbs tend to be stronger still – “The dog waddled over to me, wagging its tail.”
7. Starting the story in the wrong place.
Start with something happening. Look at action movies, and you’ll see that the opening scene is often a mini-story that is related to the main plot – eg one young woman is killed by a guy in a mask, and later we realise he’s stalking another. It’s SO much more interesting that starting with a placid/static scene, or a conversation. Ideally the opening scene is the inciting incident that kicks everything else off. But there has to be some kind of risk.
8. Not quite nailing voice in the opening.
Be yourself. Or at least, be that small part of yourself that you have in common with your narrator. Sarcasm? Short sentences? Big words? Yeah-I-couldn’t-think-of-the-exact-word-so-I-made-it-up adjectives? In my opinion, you’ll find your voice somewhere in the first draft, and then if any parts don’t match you can fix them in editing. So relax about voice, and it’ll come.
9. Dialog that didn’t quite work as hard as it should.
For starters, use contractions (“I’m, he’s, you’re). Listen to real-life dialogue and you’ll see how much information people leave out. But do please skip the boring bits of real life – notice how rarely fictional characters say “Hi how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” and “Goodbye”.
10. A lack of scene tension even if the opening was suppose to be dramatic.
You get tension by having a clear, important, and difficult goal right away – anything from “Nerdy kid asks out popular girl” to “Bruce Willis defends USA against terrorists”. (To get readers to care, they need to be interested in your character – there’s another article in that.) You keep tension by having things go wrong – the girl’s mean friends show up to watch his humiliation, or Bruce Willis is barefoot in a place full of broken glass.
Again, detail helps. I find that the longer a scene takes, the more time readers have to feel stressed. And readers love stress.
6 thoughts on “In the beginnings. . .”
Just on a linguistic point with passives. There are some very useful times when passive sentences are very useful, like when you don’t want to show or emphasise *who* is doing the action, but who it is being *done* to.
There’s a good chance you won’t want to do this in the opening paragraph though.
Another note on passives – a lot of people who complain about passives can’t recognise them, and think that any participle signals a passive sentence. If you’re passionate about passives, learn what they are. (Your passive sentence was perfect).
W: Yes – the sentence “Mum, your favourite ming-dynasty vase was just broken” shows character and adds drama by being passive.
I used to have a bad habit of getting passive in action scenes. Worse possible timing.
I have my own bad habits – I repeat words unnecessarily in the same paragraph *all* the time.
W: Admitting it is the first step.
Excellent article. You’re especially right about reading other beginning writer’s work in critique circles and such — so often, I think writers tend to read so much professional, polished work that they don’t have a realistic idea of what some of these errors look like.
Thank you, TL. I’ve realised since reading that article that I still have a problem with passive voice in my own writing – I’m largely blind to it, too. So that’s what I’m trying to get through my own head at the moment.
I honestly wish every writer submitting to a publisher had to read three first chapters from a slushpile, and three good novels (selected by the publisher, perhaps) – all in their own genre. That would revolutionise the industry, I think.