It was a dark and stormy night….
That sounds like a great, scary opening for a book, doesn’t it? Or maybe not. There are certain things that are so cliché, they are almost guaranteed to send your work straight to the slush pile.
The first few sentences of your book can sometimes make or break your chances of getting it published. That is a lot of pressure on a few short sentences. My first bit of advice is to ignore what I just said. Don’t get stuck writing and rewriting your first sentence, or paragraph or page. Move forward, and then move forward some more, and by this I mean to keep writing. Editing is the time when you can go back and fix everything that is wrong with your manuscript. If you don’t write forward, you won’t have a manuscript to fix.
Once you have completed your manuscript, go back to the beginning and look at that first page with fresh eyes. Some people like to let the manuscript sit and stew for a week before they go back to edit it. Other people can jump right in. Do what works for you.
When editing the beginning of your novel, here are some things I have learned along the way:
1. Start in the middle of the action. You want to hook the reader into your story. Find a place that is exciting, and begin there. The first book I ever wrote will probably never be published or ever read by another human being. It was bad, but it was a learning experience. It taught me that starting in the middle of the action can often mean deleting the first few completely unnecessary pages (or in my case, chapters) in order to get to the point where your book really should start. Look at your manuscript with objective eyes, and find the true beginning.
2. Don’t start with piles of backstory. Let your reader get to know your protagonist slowly. Seduce and entice them with little snippets of information that make them want more. Backstory is important, but it doesn’t always need to be shared. I find it very helpful to answer a long list of questions about each of my characters before I write my books. I want them to be firmly established in my mind before a word goes on paper. That doesn’t mean I need to share that entire backstory in my book. Some of that information has nothing at all to do with my plot. And some of it is personal – between my character and me. Not everything has to be shared, and not everything has to be shared at the very beginning. Keep your audience guessing a little.
3. Don’t start with a dream, or your character waking up from a dream. This is an easy way to slip in backstory or foreshadowing, but it is also an easy way to get your manuscript sent straight to the slush pile. It’s been overdone, so don’t use it. Also, don’t go through a long, exciting sequence of events, and then later make your character find out that it was just a dream. Not cool.
4. Watch for mistakes. One of my friends in college was trying to get an internship in a very competitive field. She wrote a wonderful essay, and asked me to look at it after she had already sent it in. That was a horrible thing to do to me. I had edited many things for her in the past, and I wished she’d come to me sooner rather than later. The essay was beautifully written and very well researched, but she had a major grammatical error and a misspelled word in the very first sentence. She didn’t get the internship, even though she was extremely well qualified. If you try to send in a manuscript with mistakes in the first sentence, the same thing will happen to you. You won’t get published. Typos and small mistakes can be forgiven, but not if they are in your first paragraph (or even your first page). Be diligent.
5. Looking in a mirror. This is kind of the cheater’s way to describe your character physically. Find a better way to let your reader know she has flowing blonde hair, or he has rock hard abs. Ducking under the crime scene tape was easier for me than it was for Jack. He was more than a foot taller than me, and I was wearing my highest heels. I pulled my blonde hair into a pony tail, slipped into a blue hazmat suit that matched my eyes, and pulled on some latex gloves. “I’m ready to go.” See? I just made that up. It took exactly two minutes and no mirror was required.
6. Let them speak. Make sure you allow your characters to talk. Dialogue is important. If you don’t see a lot of white space as you scroll through your manuscript, that might indicate there is too much narrative. This holds true from the beginning, although be careful about starting your story with dialogue. This can be tricky. If your reader doesn’t know your character yet, they might not care about what they have to say.
7. Introduce your characters, but not formally. Can you remember some of the writing you did as a child? My name is Joe. I have two brothers and one sister. I have a dog. My best friend is Tommy. He is nice. When you are introducing your characters to your readers, don’t slip into third grade writing mode. You will not get a gold star.
I’ll stop at seven, since that is a lucky number, and today is the day after St. Patrick’s Day. And a little luck wouldn’t hurt, especially if it was a dark and stormy morning, with an icy rain so thick it covered the windows with a frosty glaze….
That is a much better beginning than “a dark and stormy night,” and it also happens to be true (from where I sit in Pennsylvania, at least). Good luck and happy writing!