Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ten Things to Avoid When Starting A Novel

It's time to begin a new novel. Exciting, isn't it? And terrifying. You're sitting in front of a blank word document with so many ideas in your head, you wonder how to put them all down to form a coherent--not to mention captivating--70,000+ word story. Or maybe the ideas aren't there and you're hoping they will come! Either way, your story must begin. At least that's where I am right now, and it has me thinking about beginnings. An effective beginning lures us in, sets the tone, and makes us want more.

So, in preparation to start my novel, I've complied Ten Things to Avoid in the Beginning, stuff I have learned from painful past writing and reading experience that I want to avoid:

  1. Trying Too Hard. Guilty! When I reread my first attempt at any first chapter, I laugh. Mainly because I was trying too hard. I have learned. Trying too hard includes using flashy words that inevitably draw away from the story (instead of adding to it as hoped). More description does not equal a more vivid start.
  2. Over-explanation. Trust your readers. They don’t need to know every minute detail of why something is happening, why your character is where they are, etc… Let your readers have brief tastes of the setting, deduct a character’s personality from their interactions with others, and gather what the consequences might be should your character fail. Don’t dump it on them! Which leads me to…
  3. Info or Backstory Dump. It’s all about pacing, isn’t it? Information overload or a backstory dump certainly won’t help. It may seem hard, but cut out these sections of backstory and incorporate them later in your book. Oftentimes, this only makes your story stronger.
  4. Characters we Don’t Relate to. Donald Maass suggests that we portray one weakness and one strength of our main character right off. Both within the first five pages. Do the test. Read your first five pages. Have you given us a reason to like your character while also leaving room for said character to improve/change? I’m amazed how many times I neglect to do this on my first drafts.
  5. Starting with the Mundane. A character wakes up, showers, pours his morning coffee. To me, this is a sign of neglect to infuse a story’s beginning with tension. Start in the action. That’s where your story truly begins.
  6. A Lack of Purpose. Send your character into any given scene with a goal; that is sound writing advice we have all heard. And it seems so simple, doesn’t it? Yet I still fail at times to incorporate or at least delineate this on my first drafts. Sending your main character on a mission from page one, and taking your readers along for the ride, is a necessary ingredient to a powerful beginning.
  7. Dialogue from Sentence One with NO Context. Alright, maybe there are exceptions to this. But I really struggle when I open a book to find a conversation in full swing. Who is speaking here and why should I care? we ask. Being thrown into dialogue can be a bit annoying with no context. It’s amazing what only a few lines can do to orient a reader before lunging into a conversation.
  8. Monologue Overhaul. Again, I’m guilty. Internal thoughts strewn across a manuscript, page after page, can really slow a story down. Pacing, pacing, pacing. Of course, no thought on the page can be annoying. But a character’s thoughts can come across in other ways than straight monologue. Dialogue and even a character’s actions, both large and small, can say a lot about what’s going on inside.
  9. Character Overload. It's a good idea to start with three or fewer characters on the first page or two. Maybe I’m dense, but too many characters introduced on page one can really turn me off. If too many names pop up, readers can become impatient. Or worse, confused enough that they have to go back and reread (which really kills pacing).
  10. At last of all, Cliches. Aren’t they embarrassing? I, for one, am always embarrassed to discover that something I’ve used has long since been classified as cliché. Let’s glance at a few cliché beginnings we know we don’t want use:
  •          An alarm clock goes off (or any waking-up sequence in general).
  •          Weather. On a dark and stormy night… Refrain!
  •          A room or family/friend tour. The character is sitting in their room, describing every detail through their thoughts as they look around. The same can be done with siblings, parents or friends.
  •          A phone rings. And, oh no, it's bad news!
  •          Looking in a Mirror. The character looks in the mirror and describes himself/herself.
  •          Driving to a new destination the character is unexcited about (which, believe it or not, is exactly how I started the first-ever novel I wrote that will stay under my bed forever).
Do you have any other tips to share? Please comment. And thanks for reading!

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