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Are the "authorities" wrong about how to start a novel? (1 Viewer)

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VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
Are the "authorities" wrong about how to start a novel?

Well, yes, they are.

You read everywhere these days that you must capture your reader and quickly involve them in the plot. It's nonsense, but it's rammed down our throats constantly.

Another site for writers has a years long thread devoted to the notion that you must capture your reader in the first three sentences. It's a sadistic little trap where people post the first three sentences of their WIP and a few 'regulars' trash them and explain why a reader will never progress further.

The notion for this thread came to me today in the car. My wife had cataract surgery and we were listening to an Audible of a favorite series as I chauffeured her. Barbara Mertz (writing as Elizabeth Peters in this series) began writing in the seventies and had successful novels until she passed away a few years ago. I've read her Amelia Peabody series first to last, and my wife listened to the Audibles first to last. So now we're both going through the Audibles. We started the seventh book (The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog), and have YET to get to the story. Her first chapter is mainly backstory.

Backstory? Extended? To start a novel? According to every recent "expert" you read, this is guaranteed failure.

Well, Barbara did this seventeen years into her career as a successful novelist. In fact, in this opening chapter she makes sport of editors who demand action to kick off a story.

So how does she pull it off? Her narrative is clever and entertaining ... whether she is writing backstory or current plot. Her first-person MC has personality on display, and the reader is entertained.

Robert Heinlein's Glory Road (you see me feature Heinlein a lot) starts off with a chapter of backstory. It was a Hugo nominee, his sole divergence into heroic fantasy, and a thoroughly entertaining read.

Here's the caveat. These were both experienced, popular authors who by the time of these novels would sell if they wrote a recipe book. Will today's agents or editors take your novel if you are not a "name", and you commit this sin? Maybe not.

That doesn't diminish the fact that their opening chapters were highly entertaining.

I can't count the number of books I've started reading by popular authors, get halfway through, and I'm wondering when they're going to get to the point of their plot? However, I've been entertained for that half of a book, and that's why I was still reading.

I see a lot of hopeful, beginning writers who read all this stuff about "what sells", and that's what they concentrate on. It's a mistake. They need to first learn to write well.

If they don't learn to "write well" before they "write to sell", they'll never achieve either goal.
 
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ironpony

Senior Member
I think that kind of advice doesn't have to be followed, but at the same time, people say it because it definitely couldn't hurt when trying to make an impression on readers.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
I think that kind of advice doesn't have to be followed, but at the same time, people say it because it definitely couldn't hurt when trying to make an impression on readers.

I often provide counterpoint to my own proposals. The "rules" are there for a reason. They do have validity, but not omnipresence. Good writers break them all the time, which I why I closed with the entreaty to learn to "write well". It's often been said of a great actor that he could "read the phone book and entertain". A great writer can write a scene about picking his nose and entertain.
 

Kyle R

WF Veterans
When it comes to writing advice, I'd say there are two sides to the coin.

"Rules" can certainly be broken, or outright dismissed, as long as one has a valid reason to do so. Absolutely! Creativity knows no bounds, after all.

Though it's also worth thinking about why such advice exists.

There's a trend among creative types to scoff at convention and declare, "Psh! I know better!" But do we really know better? Or are we just lashing out in the face of conformity?

To answer that question in a brutally honest way, we'd have to take a good, hard look at our own credentials.

It's entirely possible that we do know better (or at least, we know what works for us). But it's also possible that such advice holds wisdom from far more experienced hands.

I'd say it's worth pondering, anyway. :-k
 
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luckyscars

WF Veterans
There's a trend among creative types to scoff at convention and declare, "Psh! I know better!" But do we really know better? Or are we just lashing out in the face of conformity?

To answer that question in a brutally honest way, we'd have to take a good, hard look at our own credentials.

It's entirely possible that we do know better (or at least, we know what works for us). But it's also possible that such advice holds wisdom from far more experienced hands.

I'd say it's worth pondering, anyway. :-k

There's good opportunity for a psychologist with this stuff. It's effectively the same as anti-elitism generally, but it's really weird how the zeitgeist has changed in the arts from "the experts could be wrong" to "the experts are DEFINITELY wrong".

Literary small man syndrome, comes to mind. "I'm not successful because of the publishing industry, therefore THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY KNOW NOTHING!" Or: It's not ME that's the problem, I don't have to change, it's these friggin' experts and their wrongness that are the problem and they should change!

I doubt the OP has ever published a novel, much less sold a significant number of novels, and yet here he is (I'm assuming gender, in this case) not only offering an opinion on how to write novels (which is maybe valid) but actually telling us he knows better and that what 'the authorities' say is 'nonsense'.

....Based on...?

As a point of fact, while there are no 'authorities' prescribing 'rules' on this matter, a lot of the people who do say one should capture readers quickly and involve them in the plot are actually literary agents and publishers. How unfortunate that all the people who actually work on the industry happen to be at odds with us.

Well, maybe they are all wrong and the OP is right however, given the OP is not the person who makes the goddamn publishing decisions I think I'll go with 'the authorities' and consign this 'advice' to the sewer.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
Have you ever picked a movie on Netflix?

If the movie doesn't grab you in the first 5-10mins, do you keep watching? I know I don't.

Books are no different. In fact, the margin for error on books is even less. You DO have to capture the reader's interest as quickly as possible. There has to be something interesting that occurs in the first few sentences, or the reader won't read on the next sentence. Do people go over board? Yup. But that doesn't mean the advice is wrong.

The best way to test out your theory would be with live people. In every books store in the world, you'll have people looking at the first few pages, reading a bit, then deciding to either buy it or put it back. Those that are put back are the ones that don't have an attention-grabbing first paragraph.

Seriously, go to a book store and watch people. They look at the cover, then the spine (for thickness), then they read the back copy. If all of that is nice, they'll open the book to the first page and read. We all do it.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
Also, you can't look at well-established writers and say "They can do it!".

They can do it because people will read their books no matter what. The readers trust them. They've already established themselves to a degree that you know you're going to get a good product. If you're an unknown talent, you can't do what they do.

This reminds of me page count discussions. People always bring up writers who have these huge books and say, "Their books don't follow the page count guidelines. Why can't I do that?". But if you check out their earliest works, you'll se them all adhere to the rules (for the most part).
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Also, you can't look at well-established writers and say "They can do it!".

They can do it because people will read their books no matter what. The readers trust them. They've already established themselves to a degree that you know you're going to get a good product. If you're an unknown talent, you can't do what they do.

This reminds of me page count discussions. People always bring up writers who have these huge books and say, "Their books don't follow the page count guidelines. Why can't I do that?". But if you check out their earliest works, you'll se them all adhere to the rules (for the most part).

Or compare the start of Stephen King's Carrie to the waffling essays he starts his later novel with and see a huge difference in immediacy as well as word count. Comparing the way successful mid-career writers write with debutants is silly.

Debut authors have virtually no room for error, successful writers with a fanbase have virtually no room for failure. James Patterson could write any book he wanted any way he wanted and it would still be a bestseller.

It's a comparison between an eighteen year old soccer star on a trial from the academy and a fat, wheezing David Beckham; someone who can barely run the length of the pitch yet still starts games based on name and recognition. Guess who still starts games? The standards are different because the business dynamics are different.

The OP actually supports this with his own 'evidence':

Well, Barbara did this seventeen years into her career as a successful novelist. In fact, in this opening chapter she makes sport of editors who demand action to kick off a story.

It's just a bad take all over.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
My question is : Why would you NOT want to grab the reader in the first paragraph?

Most attempts to GRAB the reader on the first sentence ending up distorting the time line.

Second sin, they sometimes mis-state the purpose of the first chapter.

Third sin, sometimes they say what is going to happen in the future and disrupt the natural flow of the story.

Sometimes they aren't even true. Which is to say, they violate the rules of good story-telling to accomplish their goal. There's a choice of telling the story in the way that gives the reader the best reading experience, and they don't take it.

The stranger didn't shatter Adam's world all at once.
That was what Adam Price would tell himself later, but that was a lie.

It's on my website under goofy first lines. I think I might change that title to poisonous.

I recently read a book that had a good first line that didn't subtract from the story. It was lovely. And very rare. That's not a problem.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Most attempts to GRAB the reader on the first sentence ending up distorting the time line.

Second sin, they sometimes mis-state the purpose of the first chapter.

Third sin, sometimes they say what is going to happen in the future and disrupt the natural flow of the story.

Sometimes they aren't even true. Which is to say, they violate the rules of good story-telling to accomplish their goal. There's a choice of telling the story in the way that gives the reader the best reading experience, and they don't take it.

Sounds like a lot of generalizing. Based on what evidence are you saying that MOST attempts to grab readers end up distorting the time line? What are you credentials?

I recently read a book that had a good first line that didn't subtract from the story. It was lovely. And very rare. That's not a problem.

If it's such a problem then why do you think so many agents, publishers, etc. constantly say that one of the main reasons they put books down is because writers take too long to get going?

I mean, guys, google this stuff! Google: "main reasons books are rejected".

I just did and here was the first website that came up. First point.

Out of everything on our list, this might be the most important. Your writing may be great, but maybe your manuscript still needs work to be on-par with the level of quality that publishers are looking for.
Maybe the voice or plot could be more original, or the characters don’t have enough at stake. Or perhaps the very beginning of your book isn’t as compelling as it could be. [/FONT][FONT=&Verdana]If a potential publisher starts reading and is yawning at the end of the first page, they probably aren’t going to read on much longer (even if you swear it gets really good on page 3). After all, there a lot of other manuscripts in the slush pile.


Here is the second, linked via the Writer's Digest Again, it's pretty much the first thing mentioned.

  1. The book is boring (immediate manuscript rejection!). “If your opening paragraph is someone driving and sleeping, I’ll put it down,” says the literary agent. “Most writers need time to warm up – but I don’t want to read that. Make sure your story starts in the first sentence.”
Getting into the story quickly is literally the number one thing everybody in the industry harps on about. And, wrong or not, they are the ones who decide who gets published. Let's not try to second guess people who did things for a living just because it's inconvenient to us.
 

Pamelyn Casto

WF Veterans
Maybe to think further about this topic we can look at what some fine writers have done for their openings. There are all sorts of interesting ways to open a novel. (I'd guess a lot would also depend on whether we might be writing a "literary" type novel or a more "mainstream" type.) Here are some opening we might talk about.

Here’s a top ten list of favorite openings from Catherine Lacey at The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/19/top-10-opening-scenes-in-books She mentions these authors and their fascinating openings: James Baldwin, Sarah Manguso, Jean Rhys, Dickens, Twain (along with others).

I would add more, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of my favorite openings. Here’s that opening:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old — as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once — the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be born or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.
-----
For unusual or out- of- the- ordinary opening I would also add the opening paragraph to The Book of Questions: Yael, Elya, Aely. It begins with this brief “fore-speech.”

I say: I am death, and forthwith am before God
was.
If we spurn God’s image, do we not reject
creation?
Then where is truth but in the burning space be-
tween one letter and the next?
Thus the book is first read outside its limits.
-----
Then there is Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. Pessoa is said to be one of the greatest Portuguese writers and he writes with a troupe of alter egos (a whole world of friends inside him he says) . This novel has two different people, characters, personalities telling their stories-- so there are actually two openings to this novel. The first one opens this way:

“1 My soul is a hidden orchestra; I do not know what instruments, what violins and harps, drums and tambours, sound and clash inside me. I know myself only as a symphony.”

The second opening, a lengthy paragraph, begins this way (I cut the paragraph short, included just the three opening sentences):

“163 I was born at a time when most young people had lost their believe in God for much the same reason that their elders kept theirs—without knowing why. And so, because the human spirit tends naturally to criticize because it feels rather than because it thinks, most of those young people chose Humanity as a substitute for God. I belong, however, to that species of man who is always on the edge of the thing he belongs to, who sees not only the crowd of which he forms a part, but also the great spaces all around.”
-----
Oh, and I think the opening to E. Annie Proulx’ The Shipping News is terrific. That first page told me I was going to love this novel to pieces. I did.

It begins with a quote from the first chapter of The Ashley Book of Knots (the main character is named Quoyle): “Quoyle – A coil of rope of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary”.

Then here are the opening few sentences:

“Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.
Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.”

I think taking a close look at how the great writers have opened their novels can be helpful to our own writing—they provide all these new and fresh and unusual ideas for us to explore. In exploring what has worked we don’t have to rely on those viewed as experts. These writers, of course, are experienced and have proven themselves worth reading.)
 
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EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
Sounds like a lot of generalizing. Based on what evidence are you saying that MOST attempts to grab readers end up distorting the time line? What are you credentials?



If it's such a problem then why do you think so many agents, publishers, etc. constantly say that one of the main reasons they put books down is because writers take too long to get going?

I mean, guys, google this stuff! Google: "main reasons books are rejected".

I just did and here was the first website that came up. First point.




Here is the second, linked via the Writer's Digest Again, it's pretty much the first thing mentioned.


Getting into the story quickly is literally the number one thing everybody in the industry harps on about. And, wrong or not, they are the ones who decide who gets published. Let's not try to second guess people who did things for a living just because it's inconvenient to us.


I didn't mean to say what writers should do to sell their books. I would guess a really interesting first line is important to selling a book. Thanks for clarifying that.

I was talking about reading experience. That's all I was saying about first lines that aren't true, are misleading, or distort the natural time line or flow of a story.
 

BornForBurning

Senior Member
There has to be something interesting that occurs in the first few sentences, or the reader won't read on the next sentence.
Most attempts to GRAB the reader on the first sentence ending up distorting the time line.
'Something interesting,' that's the key. It's not necessarily that you've got to hit the reader with a linguistic sledgehammer or something. You've got to tantalize them. I've personally got a weakness for a taste of intriguing narrative voice. Overwriting and underwriting are both mistakes leading to the phenomena I like to call 'blank square syndrome'. Meaning all you see when reading is a blank square. EmmaSohen is talking about said overwriting and yes, it is common among amateur writers as a response to the 'this isn't hookey enough' critique. I like writing hookey stuff. Because it's fun to write those machine-gun sentences that slam down like concrete. Not everyone does, or has to. But, as a previous user stated, why wouldn't you start with something interesting? Every story starts at the beginning. Which I know sounds dumb when you say it. But it's true. Beginnings are interesting. Intriguing. They bring forth new life, reveal pregnant threads of tension, sow black seeds of death to burst forth at a later date.

Backstory? Extended? To start a novel? According to every recent "expert" you read, this is guaranteed failure.
Not really. Not if it's interesting. But, if you don't like what the experts have to say, don't read them. I don't. I like to investigate everything personally. Sometimes that leads to failure, but I prefer to know know that something is a bad idea, rather then know that somebody told me it was. Anyways, I'm leery of writing blogs in general. Writing advice is generally best encapsulated by scrutinizing a specific piece of writing. So someone saying on some blog 'have a more hookey opening', that doesn't really mean anything to me. An editor saying 'your story needs a more hookey opening', that means a lot. The editor might even be wrong. But I will still take their opinion under serious consideration.

Anti-elitism is just another form of elitism. Eh.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
Sounds like a lot of generalizing. Based on what evidence are you saying that MOST attempts to grab readers end up distorting the time line? What are you credentials?

Well, I looked at how authors started books. Studied them. Analyzed. Looked again. Lots of books, books I just had sitting around. I ended up with conclusions that are supported by the evidence.

Anyone can go to my website, and find out about starts. What you won't find is proof, which is impossible. What you will find is evidence and reasoning.

I want to say that anyone can do that, but it probably takes at least a month to figure out what to look for. For example, at the sentence-by-sentence level, a story is almost always told in chronological order. But who even thinks to check for that?
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
You read everywhere these days that you must capture your reader and quickly involve them in the plot. It's nonsense, but it's rammed down our throats constantly.

Another site for writers has a years long thread devoted to the notion that you must capture your reader in the first three sentences. It's a sadistic little trap where people post the first three sentences of their WIP and a few 'regulars' trash them and explain why a reader will never progress further.

You DO have to capture the reader's interest as quickly as possible. There has to be something interesting that occurs in the first few sentences, or the reader won't read on the next sentence. Do people go over board? Yup. But that doesn't mean the advice is wrong.

The best way to test out your theory would be with live people. In every books store in the world, you'll have people looking at the first few pages, reading a bit, then deciding to either buy it or put it back. Those that are put back are the ones that don't have an attention-grabbing first paragraph.

Seriously, go to a book store and watch people. They look at the cover, then the spine (for thickness), then they read the back copy. If all of that is nice, they'll open the book to the first page and read. We all do it.

I think you do have to capture the reader quickly. But capture, doesn't necessarily mean involving them in the plot. As Tettsuo describes the readers sequence of events, the synopsis does that to a degree.

For myself, there are a couple of things I am looking for when I read the first few pages to decide to read on. Most importantly, it is the style of the writer. Is this something I want to invest my time in? So no matter how exciting the first few pages, I'm not looking to get hooked by the story at this point. But a few things that hook me may be:

1) It has a lot of dialogue and actions, not long flowery descriptions that give way too much information in a narrative.

2) The MC is someone I can relate to. Intelligent, introspective, vulnerable, humourous, etc.

3) The setting appeals to me. Typically I prefer large city centres to sleepy towns. And if it's set in a school in a small town...well there has to be something else really interesting and very quickly, and maybe even the first few sentences.

So I think that I do agree with Vranger that you don't have to akwardly ram in the plot, just because it's a common rule. And frankly if they do, it can be a turn-off for me. But something has to grab the reader. I guess that is where the writer's voice/style comes into play.
 

LCLee

Financial Supporter
Another site for writers has a years long thread devoted to the notion that you must capture your reader in the first three sentences. It's a sadistic little trap where people post the first three sentences of their WIP and a few 'regulars' trash them and explain why a reader will never progress further.

[FONT=&Verdana]I have been on the forum posting my first three sentences for a few years, and I never looked at a critique as trashing. I use it for my monthly short stories. I feel if the first three sentences are optimized, it will draw the reader in a bit.
[/FONT]

[FONT=&Verdana]
[/FONT]
Backstory? Extended? To start a novel? According to every recent "expert" you read, this is guaranteed failure.

I recently wrote a novel that goes into a back story on the third paragraph. When some of the beta readers called me on it, I did some research and found a lot of references. In fact, since then I have noticed movies will start with a bang and then say six months earlier—or the like.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
This is such a great discussion and really got me thinking about this.

I just googled "first pages of The Goldfinch". It is a novel by Donna Tartt and won't the Pulitzer in 2014. This blogger uses her "first page checklist" to analyze it. Pretty much meets all of the criteria discussed in this thread.

https://www.livewritethrive.com/2016/03/23/first-pages-of-best-selling-novels-the-goldfinch/

Checklist is here:

https://www.livewritethrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/first-page-checklist.pdf
 
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