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?