Friday, 15 April 2011

Making an Entrance

Bang!

Did that get your attention? For me, the first page of a novel is the most important. A weak ending may leave your reader dissatisfied, but without a strong opening, they won't pick up the book in the first place. It's easy to bemoan the attention spans of modern readers, to point out that starting a book slowly has its own benefits in terms of atmosphere and character development. But the simple truth is that in the internet age, the luxury of the slow start has been lost forever.

I was lucky enough to be praised twice recently about the beginning of my Undiscovered Voices 2010 entry. Once was at the 2012 launch by my agent (thanks Jenny - will a cheque be ok?) and the other was by Undiscovered Voices judge Julia Churchill in a blog post the other day. Both of these recommendations made me proud, but they also highlighted for me how hard it is to really start a story with a bang, yet also give the narrative room to grow. As I rewrote the first chapter of my current work-in-progress for the third time, I realised how lucky I was with Back from the Dead because the opening had just appeared, fully formed, in my head.

A lot of people seemed to like the "zombie poetry" that opened Back from the Dead. Here's how it looked in the Undiscovered Voices anthology:

Gnash. Spit. Thrash.
Red.
Ropes. Hands. Gloves.
Blood.
Bite. Tear. Chew.
Needle.
Taste. Struggle.
Pink.
Snarl. Spit.
White.
White.
White.

But what's ironic for me, is that only a couple of months previously, it looked like this:

Gnashing. Spittle. Thrashing. Red. Ropes. Hands. Gloves. Bite. Tear. Needle. Blood. Chew. Lilac. Taste. Struggle. Pink. Snarl. Spit. White. White. White.

It was a very perceptive writer at a critique group who persuaded me to reformat it and let the white space do the work. I dithered about it for a while, because I didn't want the reader to get to the bottom of the first page and for nothing to have actually happened in the story. What I didn't see then, was that the story was already happening inside their heads!

My favourite recent opening to a children's book is from Lauren St John's Dead Man's Cove. The first paragraph has everything you might want in a beginning - intrigue, an emotional connection and a yearning for adventure that you know will soon be satisfied. In fact, the paragraph was so strong that it carried me through a rather exposition-heavy first chapter. Once you hook a reader, once they invest themselves in your story, they'll be willing to forgive a lot.

Great openings are a lot like voice, in that we feel the impact when we read it, but sometimes struggle to describe why. Which makes it a little hard for me to give advice - although I'm going to try anyway! At the risk of repeating myself from last week:
  • Be different - Don't open with an alarm clock, a dream sequence, a bus journey or the middle of a history lesson. Why not start the book with your protagonist hanging upside down from a roof or holding their breath at the bottom of a swimming pool or trapped inside a vending machine?

  • Create intrigue - The examples I've given above are dramatic situations that immediately suggest a story. To hook your reader, you need to fire up the imagination centres of their brain and get them asking questions. How did the character get here? How will they get out of this?

  • Don't start too high - The flipside to creating intrigue and raising the stakes for the opening, is that it's tempting to reach too far and use an event that is too dramatic. As a result, you can leave yourself nowhere to go in the rest of the story but down. This can be a tricky balance to get right. One way of looking at it is that your character will grow and develop as the story proceeds, so what seems like the greatest calamity in the world at the start of the story may be a minor inconvenience by the end.

  • Set a tone - Readers like to know from the off what kind of book they're reading. Your choice of language, setting and atmosphere should tell them whether they're reading a murder mystery or a sci-fi saga.

  • Show that you're in control - Your confidence in the material shows through from the first word. If you can demonstrate that you know what you're doing and where the story's going, the reader will trust you to take them there. If you can't - write something else.

Is this the last time I'll rewrite the opening of this new novel? Sadly, I suspect the answer is no, but if it persuades just one extra person to pick up the book, it'll be worth all that lost time and lost hair.

Nick.

7 comments:

  1. Really good post, my only criticism is you are sharing this valuable information with everyone and not just the completely awesome Wokingham crit group!

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  2. Love that vivid opening! The picture it conjurs is really quite horrible.

    One of the biggest issues I have with my own novel is the opening. It starts with a dream sequence followed by a boy waking up in bed. Thing is though, this is precisely what the whole book is about (dreamwalking), so I don't see a way round it. It's just difficult to keep my nerve whenever I see the advice 'don't start with a dream...'

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  3. Thanks for the post - I liked the 'white space' example in particular.

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  4. The great thing about this opening - zombie poetry - is that it's so unexpected. Well, not the gnashing, thats expected (wished for!) but the format, the white space, it all makes the reader stop and say, this isn't your run of the mill opening, I need to pay more attention. What more could you wish for from an opening?

    BTW, I gave you the prestigious Versatile Blog Award. You can see it here: http://bit.ly/dXjs0w, if you are into awards and such. If not, that's totally cool. Consider it a virtual high five.

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  5. Hi Nick - I've just found your blog. It's great. I've become a member of SCWBI, am finding my feet and hoping to enter the Undiscovered Voices competition. I've been trying to find out what sort of word length a complete book for 7-9 year olds would have. Books I've been looking at seem to vary from 15,000 to 30,000.Is there a Scwbi place where people discuss these things?

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  6. Hi anonymous,

    On word counts generally, this is a great resource: http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-word-counts-and-novel-length.html
    But it doesn't cover the kind of books you're writing. D'oh!
    So, I would say you are looking at 7,000-15,000 words for a typical 7-9 book. There is a bit of a bleed-over, because you will also see some short 9-12 books for more reluctant readers.
    Once you've joined the SCBWI Ning (http://britishscbwi.ning.com/) then the writer's craft group would be the place to ask a question like this.

    Nick.

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  7. thanks very much Nick for your help re 7-9 word count!
    Sue

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