In the beginning, there was…

Let’s talk about beginnings.

Freelance editor Ray Rhamey at Flogging the Quill offers a service to judge the grabbiness of a novel beginning based on the first sixteen lines. I’ve followed his forays for a while now, and have come to the conclusion that I disagree with him on many of the entries. Not because I would judge differently, but because I think a lot of the entries have a feel about them that they are deliberately written with crash-bang action that feels phoney in order to increase grabbiness. The entries that start off more slowly with character or scenery almost automatically get the thumbs-down.

But in my opinion, a novel often needs to start a bit more slowly, establishing character or setting before the major, earth-shattering event happens.

A case study.

I’ve struggled to find the right spot to start my novel Seeing Red, which ended up in the top 5 at Authonomy in December. I sent an early version to Ray, which he duly thrashed (there’s no shooting on the first page), and went on to point to the end of the first chapter, where a public figure gets blow up. Why don’t you start with that? he said. Well, so OK, I did. I suppose for people at Authonomy, who rarely bother to read more than the first chapter, it was an attention-grabber, but I kept feeling that this abrupt start, without knowing anything about the character and what he’s doing there, was all wrong. It’s a novel, for crying out loud, not a short story.

If I read a novel, I will read a few chapters before giving up on it as ‘boring’. If I start reading a novel, I know I’m in for the long haul, and will allow the author some breathing space to establish character and setting before springing the big surprise on me. In fact, without knowing the setting and the character, I don’t understand the big surprise quite as well.

What is your feeling?

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7 comments on “In the beginning, there was…

  1. Hmm. I don’t like beginnings that are manufactured to be catchy. But then I also don’t like to read 4 pages of the hero/heroine going about their daily business without some hint of the story. Like anything else, it’s a balance.

    • I’m thinking of posting the two different beginnings somewhere, probably on my LJ blog, when I work on this novel again, and get people to judge for themselves if someone receiving a message to attend an unplanned, unexplained meeting with the president, while travelling in the company of some very alien bodyguards, is really so boring. I don’t think it is, and I don’t think the novel should start with the explosion that kills the president, I really don’t.

      • See, the alien bodyguards might do it for me, if they were alien enough. I would want to read on to find out who they are and where they came from and what they’re doing etc. That’s the sort of hook that interests me as a reader, one that raises questions, rather than boom bang. Boom bang reeks of schlock writing to me.

      • There’s a whole lot of stuff going on before that blasted explosive goes off, and stuff that has, ultimately, a relationship as to why this happened. It’s just… more subtle. I don’t think there is a need to thwack the reader with a sledgehammer on the first page, as long as you thwack them somewhere in the first three chapters.

  2. Oh boy, am I with you.

    “Why don’t you start with that?”!

    Well, yeah, and then you need to put in back story (gasp!), because we need the information you had originally started with.

    Sheesh!

    “Starting slowly” does not mean several pages of a character’s daily life. It doesn’t mean you start with a character waking up and noticing it’s raining and the cat is sleeping on her chest. Starting slowly lets the reader notice where they’re at and who they’re with. It may only take a page or two, but I think it makes the story much better.

    Do we really need an explosion in the first sixteen lines? You’re right – too many of these beginnings sound foolish and manufactured – “must get the loud stuff in no later than the second paragraph, or no one will turn the page.”

    I read your earlier beginning, and I thought it was marvelous. When that window blew up (at the end of the chapter), I was totally into it, because by then, I knew two things: the president was a good guy and it was a damn shame he got killed, and this was going to totally screw the MC’s day, and possibly his career.

    I didn’t read the version on Authonomy, so I can’t comment on the difference. But really – why does the assissnation have to happen on the first page?

    • I did try his suggestion, and for a while I felt like it actually worked. I suppose it *could* work. It works for people who don’t bother to read more than the first chapter (*cough* agents), but it gives the impression it’s an action novel, which, really, it isn’t. It’s a political spy SF novel, with lots of uncertainty, waiting, pacing trying find out what’s happening.

  3. Here is my feeling on it.

    I agree with what she is saying. I personally give ALL authors several pages if not an entire chapter before i give up. I never, ever give up on the first page. What makes me read is usually the BACK PAGE description of the book.

    I dont expect bombs, guns, murder and such at the start.

    Sure IN A MOVIE that works really well as it grabs attention and maybe books today are competing with so much entertainment that they need to be exciting. There is lessons to be learnt in that.

    But having said that not every movie starts with heavy action. Take Karate kid for instance.. the damn movie doesnt see any one being kicked, punched or slapped until around 20 mins into the movie. Yet its a classic!!!.. the whole moving to a new town, conversation in the car, the mysterious mr myagi keeps your attention.

    Personally I think writing has become a little bit too POMPUS for my liking… People strutting around as though their are rules to abide by.. screw that rules.. Anyone who has to abide by stupid one page openers needs to get a LIFE!

    LIFE is not explosions, Life is many things.. and so should book be!

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