Reading you under the table since 2012

Common Problems With Beginnings

by

Jodi Meadows

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading 2013 Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction slush with Authoress Anonymous, which is always a lot of fun. I mean, it’s a lot of work, since we usually go through batches of fifty submissions or so until we run out, but the company makes it fun. And it’s always really educational.

As with regular agent slush, we reject a lot of what comes in; there are only so many spots open in the contest, so we have to be particular and accept only what we think the participating agents will be interested in.

One of the things about reading slush is that you become really quick at identifying what works and what doesn’t. There were times we knew immediately why we’d have to say no to something, while other submissions took a little more discussion before we figured out what was keeping us from wanting to say yes.

Here are a few of the most common issues we found:

1. Starting in the wrong place. Though we had only a small slice of every story, this was actually pretty easy to identify. We saw lots of characters discussing something interesting that had happened just before the story opened — and the reader never got to see it. Or long descriptions of setting where nothing happened. Or what might have been an interesting opening paragraph, immediately followed by a flashback, rather than story movement.

These next couple are related to this, but were so common they get their own numbers on the list.

2. Car crashes. These aren’t always car crashes, of course, but there were enough that stories starting mid-danger without grounding grew “car crash” as our codeword. I think the tendency to start stories with danger like this is because of the popular advice start with action.

But action without context is meaningless. It’s just a jumble. Someone’s in a car crash — and that’s very sad, but in a distant sort of way. Wouldn’t that car crash be more effective if the reader cared about the characters before their lives were in peril? 

3. Instacreep. So named because something is instantly creepy, without grounding the reader into the character’s life and voice. These often began with a character performing a mundane task when there’s a crash outside, or while a disembodied narrator watches them, or they sense something’s wrong but the reader has no real idea whether something is actually wrong or the character is just paranoid.

Think about your typical horror movie: you get a scene or two of the characters’ real lives before scary things start happening. It’s supposed to make you like them, make you care about what’s happening to them. Then, when the eerie music starts and you sense something is going to happen — maybe not now, but eventually — you actually care. When they start feeling creeped, you do, too.

4. No grounding. There were a lot of entries where we never felt quite settled into the story. I know it’s difficult to do in 250 words, but that great dialogue could be happening in the school hallway or a coffee shop or on an airplane — and we’d never know, because the narrator never mentions the background laughter and teasing and sneakers squeaking, or the clatter of dishes and hiss of a steamer, or the high-pitched whine of a jet engine and passengers muttering to one another. What about the scents of sweat and perfume, or coffee and baked goods, or recycled air and the person who must have smoked six packs of cigarettes before boarding? You could even choose movement — kinetic details — like stepping out of the way of someone hurtling through the hall, or tearing open a packet of sugar, or thumbing through Skymall.

All of those details can be added in a phrase without distracting the reader from the story, and it takes only one or two perfectly timed details to make the reader feel utterly immersed.

5. Unsympathetic characters. That doesn’t mean the character needs to immediately do something to get sympathy, but if the first thing we see is a character screaming at their parents — when the reader has no idea what happened, or had a chance to see what actually happened — it’s unlikely I’ll want to spend another 300-400 pages with them.

I, as a reader, need a character to connect with. They don’t have to be ridiculously good and selfless right off, but don’t let the character immediately push the reader away.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Strong writing and strong voice occasionally made us say things like, “This is a car crash beginning, but it’s working for me,” or “Man, I hate this narrator, but they’re hilarious so I think I like them anyway.”

What does that mean? It means this isn’t a list of don’t do this rules. There is only do what works, and the best way to learn that is to keep learning, and keep writing.

Jodi Meadows lives and writes in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, with her husband, a Kippy*, and an alarming number of ferrets. She is a confessed book addict, and has wanted to be a writer ever since she decided against becoming an astronaut. She is the author of the INCARNATE Trilogy (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen).
*A Kippy is a cat.

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28 Comments

  1. Posted November 12, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the slushpile! I consider the do-nots before sitting down to write (or rewrite) an opening scene, but finding what works is so much harder for me. Personally, my downfall is wanting to slip in a quick flashback or backstory, and I have to work hard to fight that temptation.

    So… Forward momentum that reveals enough character for the reader to care, enough setting/context to know where they are, and enough action (possibly including dialogue) to make them curious about what happens next. Does that sound about right? Ahh! Why are beginnings so difficult?

    Great post :)

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Yeah, what works is almost undefinable. There’s not really a “do this” list. I mean, beyond hooking the reader’s interest, grounding them, making them want to read more — but those aren’t things a blog post can teach you how to do. Those are things you figure out for yourself as you practice writing. Which is frustrating, but what part of writing isn’t, sometimes? *G*

      Your list sounds great! Good luck!

  2. Posted November 12, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    The mistake with ‘start with action’ is that action is taken to mean a car crash, as in all the ‘action’ movies we see. But as in Hamlet, ‘action’ really means *taking* action, doing something, making a choice. Even a simple action like pausing in mid-step (the beginning of my own first novel), or turning left instead of right like he usually does, can be an action beginning if there’s a reason for it, and the action reveals the reason and informs about the character.

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Yes! One of my favorite pieces of advice is to start with a change, which might be harder for people to misinterpret, but maybe not. *g*

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      You’ve put this really well!

  3. Posted November 12, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    I wish you had written this post like four years ago. LOL.
    I know this now, but back then I was like…ooooh…I have to start with some big action. Some epic danger. And of course, it never worked. Because the reader didn’t care about the character. These are excellent tips. Great post!

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      What we need for this problem is simple: TIME TRAVEL.

      Let’s make it happen.

  4. Posted November 12, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Just a thought, both Virgil and Homer start their great works ‘in medias res’ , aka in the middle of action. And it must have worked, considering that over 2000 years later we are still reading them! Giving you more mundane examples, all James Patterson books start with action and, again, it surely works, he being the most commercially popular author of the last century. Even a popular movie such a Star Wars not only starts with action, but with action that doesn’t involve the MC, since we are going to meet Luke much later in the story. I honestly do not think there’s a fixed rule according to which you shouldn’t start with action, quite the opposite. Sure, there’s plenty of brilliant literary fiction which of course doesn’t start with action but that is, as said, literary fiction which is beyond most of us. I mean, I have been following Authoress for years now and writers who manage to take part to the BD are usually mainstream authors, writers whose only or, at least, most important goal is to entertain. And action is entertaining. At least according to most readers, considering the popularity of Virgil and James Patterson.

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      Those are great examples, Louisa, and exactly why I said this is not a list of “do not do this.” If it works, then it works!

      A couple things I’d like to remind you of, though:

      1. Virgil and Homer wrote stories 2,000 years ago. There’s historic merit in their works, which is one of the reasons they’re still being read today. Not — necessarily — because they’re great entertainment, and certainly not because they’re prime examples of modern literature! Yes, they’re all stories, but fruits are fruits yet apples and oranges are still different things.

      2. James Patternson is a Name. He’s a proven intellectual property owner. (He doesn’t write the books with his name on them; he hires writers.) When you buy a Patterson book, you know what you’re getting. Patternson is something of a phenomenon, and should never be looked upon as a rule.

      3. STAR WARS is a movie, which is a completely different medium. Starting in the middle of action scenes tends to work better in visual medium, rather than written, simply because the audience can take in more clues at once, while in books, the reader can absorb only what the author gives them, and when the author gives it to them. What works in one medium won’t work as well in another.

      And again, it’s not that starting in the middle of action can never work in writing. It’s that it often doesn’t, because trying to drop the reader into something without grounding or emotional attachment is such a difficult task. Many writers — especially beginning writers — are not skilled enough to pull it off. When I advise against starting with action, and instead starting with a change, it’s to challenge the writer to step out of their comfort zone and begin their story in a place that might allow the reader to connect with the character, before that character’s life is in danger.

      • Posted November 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        Your point about movies vs. novels is an interesting one, because I think a lot of us do think visually, and are even encouraged to think about what works in a movie. But movies frequently start out with a flashback or a “voiceover” kind of opening, or even a series of images superimposed on the credits, which provide a lot of visual background, and it just doesn’t work in prose.

        • Posted November 12, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, a lot of writers do think very visually, forgetting that readers don’t live inside their head! There are things in both mediums that don’t work as well in the other, and while there’s still every reason to try it, one must accept that it doesn’t always work.

  5. Posted November 12, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Great, great advice here. It’s amazing the number of common-sense things we writers all know, and then manage to forget, as soon as we put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper). Thank you for the reminders!!!

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      Yes! I’m afraid that doesn’t go away, either. At least not for me yet.

  6. TwinB10
    Posted November 12, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I love the suggestions in this blog post, especially #4 about grounding. Since it’s difficult to convey a story and a bit unfair to expect to be able to do it all in 250 words, you give a concrete example of how you CAN do it. I truly appreciate that. Having rewritten my first page at least 100 times, and having finally feeling that aha moment when I got it right, (and having a well know writing mentor agree), I’m wondering now if I met the criteria stated in your blog. I’m off to check that out right now!!

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad it’s useful! It’s hard to remember to do that sort of thing, but that’s what revisions are for. And it’s so, so important to ground the reader right away!

  7. Kali
    Posted November 12, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an interesting quote on the subject from the great 19th century author, Anthony Trollope.

    “The plan of jumping at once into the middle has been often tried, and sometimes seductively enough for a chapter or two; but the writer still has to hark back, and to begin again from the beginning—not always very comfortably after the abnormal brightness of his few opening pages; and the reader who is then involved in some ancient family history, or long local explanation, feels himself to have been defrauded.” (Is He Popenjoy?, pp.1-2)

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for posting that! Starting the story where it actually begins isn’t the same as starting the story in the middle of something exciting that you then have to backtrack from to explain what happened right before. Great quote.

    • Posted November 12, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

      That is a fantastic quote. Thank you for sharing it!

  8. Cheryl
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Hi, Jodi, got the link from Miss Snark’s site (to here), and loved this post. So, so accurate. I had a natural sense of openings until I started to enter RWA contests and then — opened with a car crash (LOL), some kind of disaster, and the fallout from this — no emotional connection to the character. Three manuscripts got beat up across 55 RWA contests (over the course of 2.5 years) — until I gave up on contests, gave up on trying to cram in “everything’ into 25 pages that both mainstream and series authors/writers would love… stopped trying to please them and write for myself. Those two or so years were grueling, and I almost quit writing.

    It was my fault, though. As I recently explained to a friend, my novels have a psychological component and even “nasty” confrontations. I don’t think my stuff belongs in the romance genre. But stubbornly trying to place in a RWA contest really short-circuited my ability to let a story happen organically. I forced it. Know what I mean? Not anyone’s fault but my own, and some romance writers skyrocket by placing and winning in RWA contests. They do wonderfully in them, and some of my friends have — and I cheer them on. I am not one of them, however, and I am likely guilty of all the stuff you mention above (trying to establish that urgent “hook” ASAP).

    I also found out that a few bestselling authors did not place in RWA contests, either, so that was heartening, too.

    On the upside, I’ve sought out other feedback mechanisms, (pubbed authors, professional editors, critique groups), and I’m making progress. We all have our different paths “in” to the publishing business, and it’s a matter of hunkering down, plunking away on the keyboard… and taking setbacks in stride. (and staying humble)

    • Posted November 14, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Submitting your work to contests/agents/editors is always scary, and can always make you second guess yourself and your writing. It’s definitely important to come up with a way of coping with those feelings and writing anyway. <3

  9. Posted November 13, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    These observations are really helpful! I’m guilty of quite a few of these beginnings, and your thoughts on them has really given me a new perspective on how I write them. Thanks for sharing!

    • Posted November 14, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      I don’t think anyone is guilty of them, really. They’re things we pick up from other stories — and other mediums of storytelling — and we think this is how stories are told…. It’s part of being a beginner. (Or an expert knowing how to make it work anyway.) The word guilty is so ugly! It’s just…a thing. You learn. :)

  10. Sarah Erber
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    I like to read lists like this and I did enter in the contest with – literally – a car crash. I already knew it was something most people frown on, but I felt it worked. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that I might be that exception to the rule, since good writing and voice usually prevail. :)

    I hope you and Authoress didn’t get too much of a headache reading through all the slush. Can’t wait to read the results!

    • Posted November 15, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      I like your optimism, Sarah!

      And no matter what happens (I honestly can’t remember anything about slush anymore — there was so much), I hope you keep writing and keep working to improve your craft. :)

  11. sgf
    Posted November 15, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this.
    Your comments about “grounding” really clicked for me today. It’s something I think I needed to be reminded of that I can focus on to improve my writing. Thanks!

  12. Posted November 18, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    This is a really interesting post. I like the code names “insta-creepy” and “car crash”. While I like it when stories start mid-action, I prefer to know the characters well enjoy that it matters more when they are actually in danger.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Book Bloggery Week-in-Review (34) on November 18, 2013 at 7:01 am

    [...] Jodi Meadows explores some common problems with beginnings. [...]

  2. [...] Common Problems With Beginnings, from Pub(lishing) Crawl: I’ve posted links to articles that discuss beginnings before, but I [...]

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