Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Confessions of a Sophomore Author - Part VII - Let's Start at the Very Beginning



Recently I asked some writers on my Facebook page what I should write about for this month’s column. Someone suggested openings and I jumped on it a) because I love writing them,  b) because they are tricky and c) because I know they cause a lot of writers angst.

I have a writer friend who often writes as many as three openings to a book before she feels she’s nailed it. (For me this is endings.) It is not a precise science. Open too soon and you might not manage to establish enough of a connection with the reader and your characters to make the reader care to read more. Open too late and you risk not writing an engaging enough opening to hook your reader.


So how do I decide where to start? Let me use The Divorce Party as an example. When I submitted my first chapter to So You Think You Can Write, I agonized over it. I had written establishing scenes for both my heroine and hero I loved, but when I gave it to a fellow writer, she suggested I cut them and move right to the action. And I did. But I included a short scene in the limo where my heroine faces down her worst nightmare – her own divorce party – with his sister by her side. I felt I needed a quick establishing scene to get the readers on Lily’s side before she meets big, bad Riccardo.

This was, of course, before I saw one of the editors comment that beginning a book ‘in transit’ isn’t often a good idea because it doesn’t put the characters directly in the action where the book can start with a bang. Often it’s filler. Unnecessary, and the opening will have more impact starting with the inciting incident. That made me want to cry, but then the editors chose The Divorce Party for the top 28. Which only goes to underscore another thing I’ve learned about writing. Rules are just rules. Often they have merit and they’re there for a reason. But sometimes if you feel strongly that something is working for your story, break them. Go with your gut.



 So what are my tips for writing an opening?

Make it compelling – This is where you hook your reader if they open to page one in a bookstore. Don’t let them put it down. Pull out all the stops, don’t save it for later because they might not get there. Make the moment the hero and heroine meet electric.

The Inciting Incident – The way I figure out how to start a book is pretty straightforward. I look for the moment of change with my character whose story is the spine of my story. There is always a dominant character for me – sometimes my heroine, sometimes my hero -- even if it's just by a bit. I start with the tip-off of their journey. When everything changes. Usually I include enough of the character’s Ordinary World (as Christopher Vogler details in the Writer’s Journey) to show why the change is huge. To establish the connection with the reader and my characters. Then I plunge the character into their biggest challenge – the one that seems unobtainable--to hook the reader in.

Watch the Backstory – Trying to pump too much backstory into the beginning of your book is tempting. It’s not the easiest thing to trust that the reader will get the nuances you need them to from the little bit of detail you’re including, but think of yourself when you read a book. Isn’t it compelling when an author gives you just enough to intrigue you and make you want to read on? Think of it that way. Give them just enough to keep turning the pages, but not get frustrated with a lack of information.

Endings? That’s another story. I’ll leave that for another post!

By the way, you can win an advance copy of my forthcoming release, Changing Constantinou's Game, with one of my favourite openings on Goodreads now.   

How about you? How do you write openings? What do you find tricky or fun about them?


JENNIFER HAYWARD has been a fan of romance since filching her sister’s novels to escape her teenaged angst. Her career in journalism and PR, including years of working alongside powerful, charismatic CEOs and traveling the world, has provided perfect fodder for the fast-paced, sexy stories she likes to write, always with a touch of humour. You can find out more about Jennifer and her books at her website

8 comments:

  1. I used to think I was awesome at openings, but now I'm not so sure. My opening chapter that I entered in SYTYCW broke every rule imaginable--and badly (prologue, h/h met too late in the chapter, not in the middle of the action, etc). I thought I nailed it with my first traditional submission--a great first line, plenty of action, hero and heroine together right away--but I found I had to add in too much backstory to catch the reader up on what the heck was going on. The editor said that I needed to up the stakes and tone down the punchiness (read: campiness) in the beginning.

    I've been revising the opening, but now I am trying to decide whose POV should open the story. I think I've decided and am playing with it now.

    All of that to say, I used to think that beginnings were easy breezy for me, but now I realize it takes a bit more work to get them from good to great.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great comments! I really do think you can break the rules if it's working for your story and your gut tells you you must. Was thinking about your current WIP. There's always the thought you should open with your character who forms the plot spine of the book, who is the more dominant one even if by a bit. Some books it's so tricky because it's so even with the h/h POV. Given the editor's comments, I would think about which character has the most at stake, whose story is it? And open with them. Just my two cents :) Thanks for dropping by!

      Delete
  2. Thanks, Jen. Some great tips here. I don't mind openings as much as endings but will certainly keep your tips in mind, and hope you take on endings in a future post. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I will Ann! They are tricky for me as I'm so focused on making sure the reader gets the most awesome HEA possible. So many threads to tie off. Not unusual for me to rewrite once or twice. It's your last impression. You want it to be a good one. Thanks for dropping by :)

      Delete
  3. Great post, Jennifer! For me, I only broke going over and over Chapter 1 when I decided that for maximum punch you need Hook and Inciting Incident at the same moment. Right up front. And that's really difficult to pull off IMHO. The other thing that really helped me was virtually forgetting about backstory for the first 3 chapters unless it's essential to make sense of their characters. Just stick with external story and showing characterisation by how they react to that in order to keep up the pace! But like you say, all rules are meant to be broken :) That's what makes this fun. Maggie x

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree Maggie that is hard to pull off! Even if you start directly in the action, you still need to layer in enough detail that the reader knows what is going on! So it's choices you make. I like your description of the first three chapters. That's what I do. Focus on the external with enough introspection, reactions of characters that the reader will get it. Then I start peppering in backstory as I go. Lovely having you here! :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Love your comment about not saving it for later on because they might not get there! That is sooo true! A good opener is vital if you want the reader to carry on. I end up clipping back and clipping back until I get to what I hope is a killer first paragraph. Then wonder why I didn't just start there in in the first place. ;) Andie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! Andie so true. But we need the process to get there ;) Awesome you dropped by :) x

      Delete