Sunday, January 17, 2010

On beginnings

Edit: I realized after I wrote this that this post is not at all witty, like I normally strive to be. Sorry. I literally got three hours of sleep last night. I'll try harder tomorrow. (Which shouldn't be hard, since I'm getting workshopped tomorrow!) But there is a LOT of great info here, so don't let the lack of my normal charming sense of humor deter you. ;)

Today's morning workshop was all about beginnings.

Gone are the days of the 19th century manuscript, where authors could spend page after page after endless page setting up scenes, themes, and motifs. The sad truth is, no matter how amazing the rest of your book is, the first 250 words better be the best writing in the entire thing, otherwise agents, editors, and eventually the general reading public will never get past the first page. Anita Shreve admitted that there is way too much emphasis on the beginning, but it's true; if your novel doesn't grab the reader right away, it will be auto-rejected, tossed to the side, or put back in the stacks. Worst of all, busy agents and editors are searching for reasons to turn your novel down; knowing they can put your book aside means they can easily move on to the next manuscript.

So what makes up a good beginning? The most important thing is arresting, beautiful writing. Anita Shreve admitted that wasn't particularly helpful, because it's mostly a gut-feeling kind of thing. She looks for the kind of beginning that leaves her with a shiver in a chest. She did read two examples of her favorite beginnings, one of which I've included below:
Mum says, "Don't come creeping into our room at night."
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, "Don't startle us when we're sleeping."
"Why not?"
"We might shoot you."
"By mistake."
"Okay." As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. "Okay, I won't."
So if I wake in the night and need Mum and Dad, I call Vanessa, because she isn't armed. "Van! Van, hey!" I hiss across the room until she wakes up. And then Van has to light a candle and escort me to the loo, where I pee sleepily into the flickering yellow light and Van keeps the candle high, looking for snakes and scorpions and baboon spiders.
From Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. There is a mistake, though, because you can't hiss the words "Van, Van, hey!" since there aren't any S's, but it took Anita Shreve five reads to notice.
There are several different ways to start a novel, including dialogue (which, incidentally, Dennis Lehane hates, because he likes to immediately know what's going on, but Anita Shreve is OK with it as long as she finds out soon enough what's happening), the telling of a tale, setting description, what the character is doing (AS's favorite), or a description of the relationship between the characters.

More importantly, though, are the ways not to start a novel. They include:
  • Descriptions of the sky or weather, because it happens so often it's now an auto-rejection (Hilariously, when she was saying this, she actually said "awful" instead of "often" the first time)
  • Waking up/dreaming, because it's a cliche, and with dreams there's a sense that you're cheating the reader because they're investing their time in something that isn't real
  • Letters (AS's editor said he always skips over dreams and letters in books)
  • A woman driving in the car with the wind blowing in her hair
  • They were 50-50 split on whether or not prologues were OK
Then we played a game called "Writer Idol." Dennis Lehane, Anita Shreve, and Tom Franklin sat at the front of the room American-Idol style. An actress read the first 250 words of anonymously submitted openings, and if any of them heard something that would make them stop reading, they would raise their hands. If two hands went up, the reading stopped. These are the things that made them raise their hands:
  • A bullet in the shoulder on the first line (arresting doesn't mean startling, it means well-written); it was too jarring and the author was coming in too hard. (Lehane said he doesn't like the beginning of Lethal Weapon 2 because it opens in the middle of a car chase with no context)
  • "My own personal opinion," because it's a sign of weak writing since it's redundant times three (obviously your opinion is your own and it's personal)
  • overwriting
  • confusion; when they didn't understand what was going on
  • sky/weather (one piece mentioned it three times in 250 words)
  • waking up
  • "shards of pain broke through his thoughts" (this phrase, on its own, was enough to get a work rejected since it has cliches and signs of weak writing)
  • lack of character or action
  • unspecific - the character had a thought but wouldn't tell us what it was. He was being needlessly coy.
  • Adverb overkill (the example was touching a pet - the author wrote "lovingly brushing his fur." Lehane said if someone brushes the fur non-lovingly, then he'll take the modifier, because it's not expected) Use adverbs the way you use salt.
  • Cliches
  • Unrelated, today's tally on number of comments on my age: 2.5. (One was in reference to the amount of YA I read, which I said I do because I love it, but also because I want to keep up my genre, and she said, "Plus you're in that age group anyway." *headdesk*)
Finally, two quotes I love (though there were several - follow me on Twitter for tweets throughout the day!)

"Read your first ten pages and find your most arresting sentence. Make that your first line." - Anita Shreve

"Any rule I give you, some writer, somewhere, has broken it beautifully." - Tom Franklin


  1. Great tips! Thanks so much for sharing your workshop experience! : )

  2. I LOVE THIS. Bookmarking. Now.

    And what do you mean, it's not witty??? Are you crazy?

    Seriously, excellent post.

    And I LOVE Anita Shreve. I have every book she's ever written. Geez, I should share. Maybe I'll host a contest. But I am crazy jealous of you right now.

  3. It's sad but true that we put so much effort in our work and it's judged in 250 words. Kind of intimidating. That's why posts like this are so helpful. ;)

  4. Keep it coming! I love it even without the wit!

  5. Thanks for that! I knew waking up was a cliche, now I just need to break it to my critique buddy she's gonna need to edit her beginning.

  6. That is some really solid advice. I've heard a couple of these before.


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