This Page

has moved to a new address:


Sorry for the inconvenience…

Redirection provided by Blogger to WordPress Migration Service
----------------------------------------------------- Blogger Template Style Sheet Name: Scribe Designer: Todd Dominey URL: domineydesign.com / whatdoiknow.org Date: 27 Feb 2004 ------------------------------------------------------ */ /* Defaults ----------------------------------------------- */ body { margin:0; padding:0; font-family: Georgia, Times, Times New Roman, sans-serif; font-size: small; text-align:center; color:#29303B; line-height:1.3; background:#483521 url("http://www.blogblog.com/scribe/bg.gif") repeat; } blockquote { font-style:italic; padding:0 32px; line-height:1.6; margin:0 0 .6em 0; } p {margin:0;padding:0}; abbr, acronym { cursor:help; font-style:normal; } code {font:12px monospace;white-space:normal;color:#666;} hr {display:none;} img {border:0;} /* Link styles */ a:link {color:#473624;text-decoration:underline;} a:visited {color:#716E6C;text-decoration:underline;} a:hover {color:#956839;text-decoration:underline;} a:active {color:#956839;} /* Layout ----------------------------------------------- */ @media all { #wrap { background-color:#473624; border-left:1px solid #332A24; border-right:1px solid #332A24; width:700px; margin:0 auto; padding:8px; text-align:center; } #main-top { width:700px; height:49px; background:#FFF3DB url("http://www.blogblog.com/scribe/bg_paper_top.jpg") no-repeat top left; margin:0;padding:0; display:block; } #main-bot { width:700px; height:81px; background:#FFF3DB url("http://www.blogblog.com/scribe/bg_paper_bot.jpg") no-repeat top left; margin:0; padding:0; display:block; } #main-content { width:700px; background:#FFF3DB url("http://www.blogblog.com/scribe/bg_paper_mid.jpg") repeat-y; margin:0; text-align:left; display:block; } } @media handheld { #wrap { width:90%; } #main-top { width:100%; background:#FFF3DB; } #main-bot { width:100%; background:#FFF3DB; } #main-content { width:100%; background:#FFF3DB; } } #inner-wrap { padding:0 50px; } #blog-header { margin-bottom:12px; } #blog-header h1 { margin:0; padding:0 0 6px 0; font-size:225%; font-weight:normal; color:#612E00; } #blog-header h1 a:link { text-decoration:none; } #blog-header h1 a:visited { text-decoration:none; } #blog-header h1 a:hover { border:0; text-decoration:none; } #blog-header p { margin:0; padding:0; font-style:italic; font-size:94%; line-height:1.5em; } div.clearer { clear:left; line-height:0; height:10px; margin-bottom:12px; _margin-top:-4px; /* IE Windows target */ background:url("http://www.blogblog.com/scribe/divider.gif") no-repeat bottom left; } @media all { #main { width:430px; float:right; padding:8px 0; margin:0; } #sidebar { width:150px; float:left; padding:8px 0; margin:0; } } @media handheld { #main { width:100%; float:none; } #sidebar { width:100%; float:none; } } #footer { clear:both; background:url("http://www.blogblog.com/scribe/divider.gif") no-repeat top left; padding-top:10px; _padding-top:6px; /* IE Windows target */ } #footer p { line-height:1.5em; font-family:Verdana, sans-serif; font-size:75%; } /* Typography :: Main entry ----------------------------------------------- */ h2.date-header { font-weight:normal; text-transform:uppercase; letter-spacing:.1em; font-size:90%; margin:0; padding:0; } .post { margin:8px 0 24px 0; line-height:1.5em; } h3.post-title { font-weight:normal; font-size:140%; color:#1B0431; margin:0; padding:0; } .post-body p { margin:0 0 .6em 0; } .post-footer { font-family:Verdana, sans-serif; color:#211104; font-size:74%; border-top:1px solid #BFB186; padding-top:6px; } .post ul { margin:0; padding:0; } .post li { line-height:1.5em; list-style:none; background:url("http://www.blogblog.com/scribe/list_icon.gif") no-repeat 0px .3em; vertical-align:top; padding: 0 0 .6em 17px; margin:0; } /* Typography :: Sidebar ----------------------------------------------- */ h2.sidebar-title { font-weight:normal; font-size:120%; margin:0; padding:0; color:#211104; } h2.sidebar-title img { margin-bottom:-4px; } #sidebar ul { font-family:Verdana, sans-serif; font-size:86%; margin:6px 0 12px 0; padding:0; } #sidebar ul li { list-style: none; padding-bottom:6px; margin:0; } #sidebar p { font-family:Verdana,sans-serif; font-size:86%; margin:0 0 .6em 0; } /* Comments ----------------------------------------------- */ #comments {} #comments h4 { font-weight:normal; font-size:120%; color:#29303B; margin:0; padding:0; } #comments-block { line-height:1.5em; } .comment-poster { background:url("http://www.blogblog.com/scribe/list_icon.gif") no-repeat 2px .35em; margin:.5em 0 0; padding:0 0 0 20px; font-weight:bold; } .comment-body { margin:0; padding:0 0 0 20px; } .comment-body p { font-size:100%; margin:0 0 .2em 0; } .comment-timestamp { font-family:Verdana, sans-serif; color:#29303B; font-size:74%; margin:0 0 10px; padding:0 0 .75em 20px; } .comment-timestamp a:link { color:#473624; text-decoration:underline; } .comment-timestamp a:visited { color:#716E6C; text-decoration:underline; } .comment-timestamp a:hover { color:#956839; text-decoration:underline; } .comment-timestamp a:active { color:#956839; text-decoration:none; } .deleted-comment { font-style:italic; color:gray; } .paging-control-container { float: right; margin: 0px 6px 0px 0px; font-size: 80%; } .unneeded-paging-control { visibility: hidden; } /* Profile ----------------------------------------------- */ #profile-container { margin-top:12px; padding-top:12px; height:auto; background:url("http://www.blogblog.com/scribe/divider.gif") no-repeat top left; } .profile-datablock { margin:0 0 4px 0; } .profile-data { display:inline; margin:0; padding:0 8px 0 0; text-transform:uppercase; letter-spacing:.1em; font-size:90%; color:#211104; } .profile-img {display:inline;} .profile-img img { float:left; margin:0 8px 0 0; border:1px solid #A2907D; padding:2px; } .profile-textblock { font-family:Verdana, sans-serif;font-size:86%;margin:0;padding:0; } .profile-link { margin-top:5px; font-family:Verdana,sans-serif; font-size:86%; } /* Post photos ----------------------------------------------- */ img.post-photo { border:1px solid #A2907D; padding:4px; } /* Feeds ----------------------------------------------- */ #blogfeeds { } #postfeeds { padding:0 0 12px 20px; }

Anne R. Allen's Blog


My Photo

Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, July 20, 2014

How Not to Start a Novel: Four Things to Avoid on Page One

In these days of the "peek inside" feature on retail sites like Amazon, the opener of your book is more important than ever. 

Whether you're going the query route or self-publishing, your first page is essential to the success of your book...and may be your most crucial sales tool. 

Those first 250 words can make or break a reader's decision to buy your book. All the marketing tricks and advertising in the world cannot make the sale if your first page is a snooze-fest full of info-dumps and backstory. Or if there's so much going on it makes the reader's head hurt. 

Your first page is the hardest part of your book to writea tightrope-walk between exposition and dramaso it's generally best to write it last, after you know what's absolutely essential for the reader to know. (The  rest can be woven in later.) 

The first page of your early drafts are usually written for you, the writer, to help yourself get to know your characters. But the final version is for the readerwho only needs to know what's going on in this specific incident. Always start with a scene with conflict and action, so the reader feels enticed, not lectured. 

Is your first page ready?

Today we're honored to host Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy) who's the author of the HarperCollins teen fantasy "Shifter" series and the owner of the Fiction University blog--one of the best sources of free writing craft information on the Web. Her tips are solid and useful to writers at all stages of their careers. Clicking through her archives is like a free college-level course in creative writing.

She also offers critiques of selections submitted to her "Real Life Diagnostics" series. Check out the latest one here, on how to avoid info-dumps.  

And if you're looking for tips on planning or revising your novel, check out her newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a great novel.

As Janice tells us, inviting readers to enter the world of your book is like inviting them to a party. The most important thing isn't to impress the guest with your own accomplishments or tell them your life story, but to make them feel welcome and comfortable...Anne

Four Things to Avoid in the First Page of Your Manuscript 

by Janice Hardy

The first page of your manuscript is critical for more than just grabbing an agent's or editor’s attention. Readers often read the first page or two to determine whether or not to read the novel. If those pages grab them, they'll buy the book. If not, they'll put it back on the shelf. That’s a lot of pressure for 250 words.

Which is why those words need to capture the reader.

Common writing advice will tell you to "start with action," but that doesn't mean blow up a car or rob a bank—and this can actually hurt your opening not help if it.

What it really means is to start with something going on. It can be something going wrong, (my personal favorite), something revealed, something denied, something craved—the list is endless. But no matter what shape this “something” takes, there's a sense that things are about to happen, and that it won't be good for someone.

This sense of anticipation creates questions readers will want answers to. Why are the characters casing that playground? Who is that woman following them? What's the deal with these two people arguing way too loudly?

However, one question you want to avoid is, "What's going on?" A vague opening that confuses is not the type of question you want readers asking. They should be able to guess what’s going on, even if they’re not yet sure what it all means.

They know two men are watching a playground, but not why. They know a woman is tailing the protagonist, but not why or who she is. They know the protagonist is having an overly dramatic and clearly fake argument, but not why he’s doing it.

Aim for making the context of the situation clear, even if the details aren’t yet revealed. Create that mystery to pique curiosity and make readers want to know where this situation is going.

Of course, opening scenes can be challenging to write and hooking readers is easier said than done. But it’s easier to know what to do when you have a solid sense of what not to do. So…

Here are four common mistakes to avoid when crafting your open scene:

1. Having too much backstory and explanation.

Until the reader knows and cares about the characters, they don’t want to know the history of the world or the backstory of the protagonist.

They want to see a character with a problem and be drawn in by that story question.

Too much information can slow a story down and overwhelm a reader. If it’s too much work to read, they won’t read it.

Think of it like this: you walk into a party and some guy comes up to you and starts telling you all about his grandmother and how important she was to him, and how that’s affecting his current decision on whether or not to move to Baltimore and take this job he’s not sure s the right position for him. Are you intrigued? Odds are you’re looking for any excuse to get away from this bore.

To fix: Cut the backstory and look for ways to show how that backstory affects your character in that scene (If it doesn’t, that’s a big clue you don’t need to mention it at all). If it’s critical to know the protagonist is scared of dogs, don’t stop the story to explain how he was bitten when he was five, show him seeing a dog and being too scared to move.

2. Crafting a one-dimensional scene.

Some opening scenes focus on one thing and one thing only: a beautiful description, an action sequence, retrospective navel-gazing, etc.

The text is working too hard to set the scene, so there's no story yet, nor is there a character with a goal and something to lose.

Back to the party: If you walk in and the host gives you a detailed tour of the house (without you asking), odds are you’ll be bored and eager to get back to the party. Or if you walk into the middle of a complicated game in progress, and everyone ignores you and doesn’t tell you any of the rules. Sure, things are happening but you have no clue what or how to join in, so you’re just waiting to be included.

To fix: Don’t make readers feel unwelcome. Be a good host and ease your reader into the party. Introduce them to someone interesting who will be only too happy to show them around the house, share interesting facts, gossip a little and point out the people they’d might like to talk to—or avoid—during the night.

3. Using a fake opening

We’ve all read these bad boys: that prologue (or chapter one) that sets up a faux conflict to “hook” the reader, but then has very little connection to the following chapter. (A common "faux conflict" happens when authors use dreams and/or hallucinations at the beginning of a novel, one of my pet peeves...Anne.)

It’s a bait and switch, and no one likes to be tricked.

Often this includes a fast forward to an "exciting" scene later in the book. This isn't as effective as you'd think, because without the buildup to that scene, readers don’t understand why it matters—and they rarely care. If you lie to your readers, or trick them and change the book on them, there's a good chance you'll just piss them off.

At the party: Imagine you’ve been invited to a Hollywood party, and when you walk into the room you see all your favorite celebrities. You eagerly approach your favorite actor, gush all over him, and then discover he and everyone else at the party is a look-alike. Not only do you feel like a fool for buying it, but you’ll never trust your host again.

To fix: This one’s easy. Just don’t do it. Create a strong opening that works on its own. It takes just as much effort to fake an "exciting" opening as it does to fix a real opening. And since a fake opening is bound to feel flat anyway, and only seem exciting to someone who already knows the story, it's often a wasted effort.

4. Having a lazy protagonist

A lazy protagonist just sits around waiting for something to happen to her. She has nothing she wants, no goal in mind, she isn’t trying to accomplish anything—she’s just sitting around navel gazing or walking through a pretty setting. The job of a protagonist is to drive the plot, and if she’s not doing anything, the story goes nowhere.

One last trip to the party: Imagine a party where every single guest forces you to initiate all the conversation. No one talks to you unless you ask them a direct question, they don’t walk over, they don’t even make eye contact. How long before you give up and go home?

To fix: Give your protagonist something to do that matters to them. Their goal will help create that all-important story question to pull readers in and keep the story moving forward.

Openings are vital to getting someone to read your book. Don't waste those 250 chances. No matter how your novel starts, make sure it starts with the story. 

Scriveners, what’s your favorite way to start a novel? What’s your least favorite trick? Are there any novel openers that are deal-breakers for you when you're buying a new book? Have you been agonizing about how to open your novel? Do you have any tips to add?

About Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. 

Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a regular contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl

She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.


Planning your novel by Janice Hardy

available at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Nook, Kobo, and iTunes

Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure takes you step-by-step through finding and developing ideas, brainstorming stories, and crafting a solid plan for your novel—including a one-sentence pitch, summary hook blurb, and working synopsis. Over 100 different exercises lead you through the novel-planning process, with ten workshops that build upon each other to flesh out your idea as much or as little as you need to do to start writing. 

"Planning Your Novel" compiles great advice, plus adds brainstorming questions and writing exercises at the end of each chapter. A must-read for writers who want to dig deeper and push their craft to the next level...YA author Julie Musil


CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

Barthelme Prize for experimental flash fiction. $17 Entry Fee 500-word limit. $1000 first prize, $250 hon. mention prizes. Online submission form. Deadline August 31.

Short Romance stories with holiday themes: Crimson Romance Ebooks (A division of F & W, publisher of Writer's Digest Books) is looking for holiday themed shorts (10K-20K words) Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa 2014, New Year's Eve 2015, Deadline: August 15th

BLUE EARTH REVIEW FLASH FICTION CONTEST $2 ENTRY FEE. 750 words or less. Limit two stories per entry. First place $500. Second place $250. Third place $100. Winners will be published in the Blue Earth Review, the literary magazine of Minnesota State University. Deadline August 1.

A ROOM OF HER OWN FOUNDATION ORLANDO PRIZES $15 ENTRY FEE. Four Orlando prizes of $1,000 each and publication in The Los Angeles Review are awarded twice yearly for a poem, a short story, a short short story, and an essay by women writers. Deadline July 31.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Blogger CS Perryess said...

Thanks again for an informative post from another talented & informed guest. I've put books back on the shelf (both literally & digitally) for each of the reasons noted. I've also spent countless hours studying & honing first pages.

July 20, 2014 at 10:16 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Janice—Thanks for some solid gold advice! As a survivor of the slush pile who had to slog through each of these desire-killers more than once, I can only say that you nailed it.

Anne—Thanks for mentioning dreams/hallucinations! Couldn't agree more and want to add that starting your book with the MC looking in the mirror and ruminating about Life-with-a-capital-l is also a major turn-off. Novelists should leave philosophy to the philosophers.

July 20, 2014 at 10:21 AM  
Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Some really great tips. My openings have improved a lot over the course of several books, mostly because there is less backstory. (Not that there was a ton to begin with as I'm light on description.) But I've learned how to pull in readers better with character conflict.

July 20, 2014 at 10:32 AM  
Blogger sue mcginty said...

The first draft, and often the second, third, etc. is often just a rough sketch of what I want in the opening scene. The last thing I do before sending the novel to beta readers is rewrite the opener. And I rewrite it again (and again) as I get critique comments.

July 20, 2014 at 10:47 AM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

I just had my critique partner blast me about my latest opening -- wayyyyy too much back story. Janice is right...the first chapter was for ME. Only until I cut it out, did the rest of the story make sense and draw the reader in.

Great article, Janice. I've been following you for years.

Anne -- And I have no idea why, but I can comment with my daughter's laptop. So hey. Glad to finally see you.

July 20, 2014 at 10:57 AM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

One rule I've always adhered to whether writing technical articles for education journals, fiction, and non fiction is this: Write the intro last or reshape the opening later once the piece is drafted. Feel free to cut as well. No one will ever know it was there in the first place. Hope I said that right. Great post. Thank you, Janice and Anne. I'm just starting a new novella and this post really hits home. :)

July 20, 2014 at 12:26 PM  
Blogger Wm. L. Hahn said...

OK so first of all- party #4 is the only kind I ever seem to get invited to. And that can't be good.

GREAT advice! I have come to love "starting strong" if I can. Head-nodding sense you are making all the way through, Janice.

On the technical question of the "opening peek" I wonder. As an epic fantasy chronicler, I've contemplated using a map on the "inside front". In an e-book I'd say the usefulness has a ceiling (I'd try to hyperlink the hell out of it so folks could refer back), but does that take up "space" on the opening peek at the expense of words?

We also tend to open with things like ancient prophecies, verses, extracts from the Book of Mad Hurfak. It's a table-setter if you're going on to read for a while. But if someone's just browsing?

July 20, 2014 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger Vera Soroka said...

I submitted to Janice a few years ago now I guess. She was most helpful along with some of the commenters. I did open with a dream but I didn't lie to you and nobody minded that. What some of them didn't like was the description. Some just hated description in a book. It shows just how subjective writing can be.

July 20, 2014 at 12:59 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Same here. It's so disheartening to get excited about the cover copy, and then that first page lets you down. I've also put books back on the shelf due to that. It's worth a little extra time to make sure that opening is doing its job.

July 20, 2014 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Aw, thanks! I figured "opening with a cliche" was pretty well known by now, or I would have added that one as well :) Glad Anne mentioned it.

July 20, 2014 at 1:12 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Conflict will do it almost every time. And it doesn't even need to be that huge a conflict, as long as it's interesting and looks like it's going somewhere.

July 20, 2014 at 1:13 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Solid plan. Anything goes in a first draft, so no need to worry about anything there except getting the idea down on the page. It's not unusual to need to see the ending before you can really nail the beginning, so it's smart to go back and revise.

July 20, 2014 at 1:14 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Thanks so much! Good for you to cut it out. Sometimes it's important for us to write that backstory, but be liberal with the delete key once the first draft is done :)

July 20, 2014 at 1:15 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Hope it help starts the novella off on the right foot! Beginnings and ending are often mirrors, so revising the opening scene after the final scene is written is pretty common. And smart!

July 20, 2014 at 1:16 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Oh no! Maybe that's why they keep inviting you? They know you'll get things started :)

A map won't affect the opening, and readers are used to maps in fantasy novels. It *could* affect how much of the opening is shown in a "peek inside" feature online though, as those have a set page limit I believe. But as long as you don't have a lot of extra stuff in the front you should have plenty of space for sample pages.

I think genre can play a role as well. Fantasy readers are quite used to those history lessons or quotes, and aren't as bothered by them. They might not deter a long-time fan, but they could discourage new readers from trying fantasy.

July 20, 2014 at 1:21 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

I'm so glad I was able to help :) And yes, writing is hugely subjective. We all have books we love that friends couldn't stand, and bestsellers we couldn't get past chapter one. On the upside, that means there are readers for all types of books no matter what we write.

July 20, 2014 at 1:23 PM  
Blogger Sasha A. Palmer said...

Thank you, Janice, useful reminders, and I enjoyed the party theme :-)

I agree with Vera - although there's a certain set of 'rules' that serves as a good benchmark, what one expects from writing is subjective and any rule has exceptions to it and may be broken.

I've been rereading Hemingway's stories lately and noting all the adverbs he's using. Tons of them. Don't hurt his writing one bit. In my opinion. But again, there may very well be people who dislike Hemingway's writing and disapprove of his adverbs..

July 20, 2014 at 1:25 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

It's also when something was published. Back then, adverbs were the style, and no one minded. Then styles changed and now the poor little things are banned from the page.

Any "rule" can be broken if done well and it serves the story. A skilled writer with the right tale could ignore all four of these suggestions and make the opening sing. Another writer might do everything "right" and still have an opening that just doesn't work. It's important to trust our instincts and do what we feel best tells the story we want to tell.

July 20, 2014 at 1:29 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anne--I'm so glad to see you here! I'll bet you're permanently signed in to WordPress on your own computer, and Blogger is really nasty about not allowing WordPress IDs. Big tech companies that squash the competition like that make me furious.

All that backstory is really useful as your book "bible" that you can use for reference about characters and your world later on, so don't delete--just cut and save to another folder.

July 20, 2014 at 1:44 PM  
Blogger Sasha A. Palmer said...

I must be living "back then" - I like adverbs :-)
Thanks again for the post and your reply, Janice.

July 20, 2014 at 2:03 PM  
Blogger Barry Knister said...

It's hard to argue with anything you say here--solid advice, thank you. I especially appreciate your caution regarding "blowing things up." For me as a reader, such gimmicks guarantee I won't be moving on to page two.

July 20, 2014 at 3:09 PM  
Blogger S B James said...

The "Look Inside" feature is generally supposed to be 10% of the book length. It bunches all the front matter together, whereas the "Download a Sample" will give you a properly formatted sample for your e-reader. I think the maps will take a chunk out of the 10%.

July 20, 2014 at 4:06 PM  
Blogger S B James said...

I enjoyed this post. Those first words are so very crucial, not only to sell your book, but to set the tone for the entire story.

July 20, 2014 at 4:09 PM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

My least favorite trick really is writers spending all their time perfecting the opening chapter and forgetting there's supposed to be a story that follows it that has to live up to the beginning.

In terms of tricks, get the five senses in, every 500 words.

July 20, 2014 at 4:32 PM  
Blogger Southpaw said...

I adore Janice's site. It is so helpful. And so is this post. I love the analogies too.

July 20, 2014 at 4:47 PM  
Blogger florence cronin said...

Thanks, Anne for the introduction to Janice. This is a stellar post and I have already put her blog on my fav list. I like to start a book with the main character doing something ... hit the ground ... if not running ... at least taking a brisk walk into the thick of it. Great stuff in this and on your sight, Janice :)

July 20, 2014 at 5:35 PM  
Blogger Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Very interesting. I actually posted on a similar topic on my blog for Monday. I really hate the dream thing even in TV shows.

July 20, 2014 at 6:04 PM  
Blogger Anastasia Vitsky said...

What a great post!

Anne (G), I have massive problems commenting on Blogger with my Wordpress ID. Anne (A), I don't know if it's a problem with spam, but allowing Name/URL comments can be a big help. The Wordpress and OpenID options don't seem to work for me (I have WP).

I love the party illustration. It's hard to explain the importance of grabbing attention when new writers are sure that they need to explain every detail and read the entire book before making judgments. I've rejected books for review solely on the first paragraph. I figure that if I have to grab my readers in the first page, why shouldn't anyone else? I do think reading has "sped up," though, in that we used to read much further before deciding whether to continue. As you say, it is closer to a party atmosphere now where we as writers need to be good hosts to our readers. I like that image.

My particular problem: I work so hard to write an attention-getting opening that I often work myself into a corner. I can't change the order of scenes or delete my first scene because I've crafted it into a powerful opening, but then my narrative needs change. Do you have any suggestions for how to handle that issue?

Thank you!

July 20, 2014 at 8:36 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anastasia--Unfortunately, Blogger offers only two options: 1) Allow everybody to comment, including spambots that can spam you with 1000 spam comments per minute, or 2) Let Blogger decide. I wish it were different. If anybody knows how to contact Blogger and ask them to change the options, other than driving to Mountain View an throwing rocks at their windows, I sure would like to know!

I'm sure Janice will have some suggestions, but I do urge people to write a place holder opener first, then write that first page as the very, very last part of your final edit.

July 20, 2014 at 8:47 PM  
Blogger Harry Maxwell said...

As always great stuff! Fiction University is basically a free MFA. I would not have finished my novel without it.

July 20, 2014 at 11:48 PM  
Blogger Shah Wharton said...

Great post and I'm loving the comments too. Informative bunch!

I'm getting better at beginnings, but really struggle with endings... they seem fine to me at the time, until I look back later and think, oops! Why did I ever think that was good?

I used a prologue to open in my first novel (including a character defining event in protags past, which bookends with the ending, where the issue is resolved). But I've since read so many articles and comments about this being old hat and bad practice, like prologues are a mortal sin? Lol. So wonder if I made the right choice. The second in the series begins with the protag making her escape from a hospital, running bare-assed through the streets. I think that counts as action. :)


July 21, 2014 at 2:32 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

I actually like them too, and I use them. I counted once--I think I used like 726 of them in The Shifter (grin).

What I've found, is they're awesome for "placeholder words" during a first draft, as they quickly capture the emotion you want and can let you zip on by and keep writing. Then during revisions, you can search for them and decide if they hold up and work well or if they need to go for something stronger. Kill the lazy or weak ones, keep the strong ones.

July 21, 2014 at 4:17 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

I think it's even worse for us writers, because we know "how it's all made" so to speak. We're often the pickiest of all readers.

July 21, 2014 at 4:20 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Thanks! They really are, as they set the expectation.

July 21, 2014 at 4:21 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Absolutely. The technical aspects *are* important of course, but without a solid and compelling story, the best writing in the world won't get someone to read it. Story is what matters most.

July 21, 2014 at 4:22 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it. The party theme was fun to write. Those are always my favorite parts.

July 21, 2014 at 4:23 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Aw, thanks! I love that: "hit the ground ... if not running ... at least taking a brisk walk into the thick of it." Perfect description that things don't have to be big to be compelling.

July 21, 2014 at 4:24 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Great minds think alike! One of the things I love about TV and movies, is that the shorter, frequent formats really bring some of these issues to light. When you can watch seven shows that all use a device and see how it feels, it makes it easier to understand the nuances of it--both good and bad.

July 21, 2014 at 4:28 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

You're not alone there, Anastasia, I've both done that and know writers who have as well.

I suspect the reason you're getting stuck is because the opening is strong, but isn't as tightly connected to the story as it could be. The focus has been on "writing a strong opening" and not "what opening gets my protagonist on the plot path in a strong way?" Subtle difference, but it doesn't take much to knock a plot off track. So the opening is deciding where the plot goes, not the characters (or they're being hijacked by it and going along with it). If you try figuring out the larger plot steps first (even if they're rough), that should give you enough direction to aim your opening where it needs to go.

A few options to try:

1. Anne's idea. A placeholder opening you know you'll revise later might help break the "set in stone" habit.

2. Outlining once you have that solid opening you like and make sure the story unfolds the way you want it to.

3. Outline/planning *before* you craft that opening so you know where you need to go before you start.

4. Decide on your first major turning point and develop that opening to work toward that. This could be a good compromise if you're more of a pantser than an outliner.

5. Roll up your sleeves and find ways to add the narrative elements you need to the scenes you already have and like, and nudge those scenes back to the right plot path. It'll likely be a lot of work, but you could also come up with ideas you never would have otherwise, so it could be worth it in the end.

Hope one or these spark some ideas for you, and good luck!

July 21, 2014 at 4:54 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Thanks! I totally want to use that quote :) May I?

July 21, 2014 at 4:55 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Endings are also my nemesis, so I understand. I always have to write them multiple times before I get them right. What helps me there, is a little more planning on how my novel ends in the outlining stage. That way I know what I'm working toward so the payoff feels stronger and more inevitable. When I have a vague idea and the story just "heads" there, it usually feels meh and weak. It's an end, but not The End if that makes sense.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a prologue (there's actually one in my current WIP). But they *are* devices that frequently contain problems, which is why you hear so much advice saying don't use them. Sadly, a high percentage of prologues are little more than backstory and infodumps, but there *are* good ones (even good ones with backstory and infodumps) and they can work. What matters most is..."Does that prologue serve the story and do all the things a strong opening is supposed to do?" If it hooks the reader and pulls them into the story it's working. If not, it isn't.

If your prologue is working, don't stress over it. If your gut (or your beta readers) are saying there's a problem with it, trust your instincts.

July 21, 2014 at 5:05 AM  
Blogger PD Workman said...

I have one book that opens with a dream sequence. However, it is not a red herring or bait-and-switch, it is an integral part of the plot. The MC's strange, reoccurring dream is a vital part of the story and is a key clue to solving the mystery of her past. Having the book open with that dream is a way of jumping straight into the action/building the MC's world.

July 21, 2014 at 8:13 AM  
Blogger David A. Todd said...


With this post I have just learned of your Fiction University site (yours too, Anne). Both are now bookmarked and will become a regular part of my distractions from productive writing. :)

Yesterday I typed the last of the fourth round of edits on my current novel, a sequel to my baseball/Mafia novel. Today I'm doing touch-up formatting before sending out to beta readers. In both books I introduce the antagonist first, with the protagonist in the scene in a passive mode. I don't know if this is a good way to start or not, but it seemed the right way in both of these. In all my other novels I start with the protagonist.

Part of my problem is the books I love are from an era long past. Herman Wouk's The Winds of War, with its modest but essential info dump in the first chapter is what I like to read. An agent once told me "you and four other people." Alas, the world moved past me and I didn't get the memo. So I write openings I don't really like that much in the belief readers in the world and I are not in sync.

July 21, 2014 at 9:15 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Wm--My two cents is to suggest you put your map at the end. Readers can click to it through the TOC any time they want, but browsers will get to see some text when they open the "look inside." You could do that with the proverbs, too, but they don't take as much room so won't be so crucial.

July 21, 2014 at 9:33 AM  
Blogger sue mcginty said...

I agree Janice. Thanks for the quick reply.

July 21, 2014 at 10:08 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Then it probably works just fine. Opening with a dream can work if it's done well and suits the story.

July 21, 2014 at 12:03 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

I'm glad you found us! And grats on doing the final edits.

It all depends on the story and the execution. If the POV in that scene is the antagonist and they're the one being active and making things happen, it's fine. I used protagonist here because that's what most openings start with, but you could substitute "POV character" as well.

If the scene is from the protagonist's POV, and they're just sitting there watching, then you *might* have an issue. You'll have to see how your betas feel. Some genres do start with antagonist, and that's normal for the genre.

I shouldn't chuckle at that quote, but it's accurate (grin). The trick will be to write openings YOU like that also work to hook today's readers. Don't ever do something you dislike just because advice tells you to. What matters most in the story, and if you can grab readers and still write in a "non traditional" way, then go for it. If you can make readers *want* to know that infodump in the opening, then they won't care if you dump on them.

July 21, 2014 at 12:10 PM  
Blogger Maria D'Marco said...

I packed a lunch to follow Janice to this wonderful blog - great info and post, as always.

As a writer and editor, I don't even give a new book the entire first page! The author needs to show me great writing, a unique style - something that simply won't allow me to stop reading - within the first 100 words. Considering that many of the print books I review begin with a half-page, this means I need to be hooked that much sooner.

Thanks to Janice and Anne for their guidance!

July 21, 2014 at 12:51 PM  
Blogger Lexa Cain said...

Janice's tips are fantastic! Thanks to her and to Anne for having her on the blog! :)

July 21, 2014 at 1:31 PM  
Blogger Phyllis Humphrey said...

Anne: Great post. Thanks for introducing us to this author. I have a few book beginnings that I love. And I remember how I had to scrap one that was a classic info dump. We're always learning.

July 21, 2014 at 4:24 PM  
Blogger Leanne Dyck said...

A couple of months ago I had a blue pencil session with an established author. She advised to change my opening session because it wasn't working. I did. And today I know my new opening works because you just told me it did--and you also told me why the old one didn't. Thank you. I'm sure glad I read this article. : )

July 21, 2014 at 5:18 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

I know that sounds harsh, but readers do that all the time. I think it also depends on whether or not someone bought the book or is just considering a purchase. Folks who paid for a book are usually willing to give that book a few chapters to grab them, while those who are still shopping typically give a page a quick skim, looking for the writing elements they enjoy.

July 22, 2014 at 3:54 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Thanks! I'm happy to be here.

July 22, 2014 at 3:54 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

And it never stops, no matter what stage of the writing career. That's part of the fun! And part of the frustration (grin).

July 22, 2014 at 3:55 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Me too! I'm glad I was able to shed some light on your crit and help those notes be more useful to you.

July 22, 2014 at 3:56 AM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

Janice, wonderful advice. The party analogy was brilliant! I never buy a book without reading the first page. And I never write a book without rewriting the first page many, many times. Anne, thanks for sharing your blog with another great guest.

July 22, 2014 at 8:45 AM  
Blogger Nicole said...

Fantastic advice from Janice...as usual! :)

July 22, 2014 at 6:49 PM  
Blogger Rosi said...

Wonderful post. I will be linking this one on my blog. Thanks!

July 22, 2014 at 8:50 PM  
Blogger Chloe Thurlow said...

excellent advice. I look forward too finding out what best to avoid on the last page. -http://chloethurlow.com/2014/07/pubic-hair-cut-question/

July 23, 2014 at 7:05 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Thanks, glad you enjoyed it!

July 23, 2014 at 7:06 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Thanks so much :)

July 23, 2014 at 7:06 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Much appreciated, thanks!

July 23, 2014 at 7:07 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Chloe--Now that's a thought! My number one request: Don't kill the protagonist! I hate sad endings.

July 23, 2014 at 9:26 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Janice--Thank you so much for guesting for us! As you can see, there was a huge response. This has been one of our most popular posts this summer. We really appreciate you sharing your expertise with us.

Everybody--If you don't follow Fiction University, DO! It's like a free college course in creative writing. Janice is the BEST!

July 27, 2014 at 9:02 AM  
OpenID rmanees said...

Excellent article. I've struggled with the opening of each of my novels. I think keeping your party analogy in mind will certainly help me with future ones!

August 1, 2014 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

rnabees--I agree! Janice's party metaphor really works for me, too. I'm working on the opening of a new book and it helps so much to remember to tell people just enough to have a good time but not get overloaded.

August 1, 2014 at 12:50 PM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Thanks! Openings can be challenging, and it helps to think about what readers need to know to understand what's going on. Who's in the scene, where the scene takes place, what are they doing. The rest can come once readers are grounded.

August 4, 2014 at 6:24 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

And thank YOU for having me here. Been a fan of your site for years so it's a thrill to be here :)

August 4, 2014 at 6:25 AM  

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home