Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Right Start: How to Begin Your Novel

Please welcome guest posters Evan Marshall & Martha Jewett.

At Evan’s literary agency, most of the novels that get rejected are rejected before page 1 is even turned over. Why? Because the way you start your novel says everything about whether you know what you’re doing. If you make any of the mistakes below, chances are good your novel won’t make it to page 2.

Starting with background. Don’t tell us about what led up to the scene on page 10. Start with page 10! Many writers are reluctant to take this advice because they believe readers won’t care about characters they know nothing about. That’s untrue. Start with one of your main characters in action, and spoon feed us the vital information—but no more!—up front. There’s plenty of time to fill us in on characters’ backgrounds later.

Starting in summary. Don’t start your novel so it reads like a synopsis. In our novel-writing system The Marshall Plan®, we call this “summary mode.” It’s not an appropriate way to start a novel because it distances the reader. Start with blow-by-blow action and dialogue.

Starting with a weather report. Believe it or not, this is the most common mistake. For some reason, beginning writers think we desperately need to know if there’s a breeze, or a cloudless sky, or a biting cold. Resist this impulse. No one really cares. Don’t start with things; start with people.

Starting with description. This is related to the item above. Not only do readers not want to know what the weather was like that day, they also don’t want to know what the forest, field, house, street looks like—unless that information is vital to understanding the action that’s taking place. For instance, if your main character is stuck in a taxi on Park Avenue at lunchtime and it’s making her late for the most important interview of her life, then yes, in this case we need to know about the traffic.

Starting with many characters at once. Ideally you’ll start with one character, your main character. Another character interacting with this character is OK, but you need to make it crystal clear who’s speaking and who’s doing what. If you bring in more characters in scenes that take place, say, at a meeting, or a party, your reader is going to get awfully confused awfully soon . . . and that’s not a good way to start a novel.

Avoid these five start-of-novel no-no’s and your novel will have an excellent chance of making it well past page 1.
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  Evan Marshall is an internationally recognized expert on fiction writing and author of the “Hidden Manhattan” and “Jane Stuart and Winky” mystery series. A former book editor, for 30 years he has been a leading literary agent specializing in fiction. The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software, which he co-authored with Martha Jewett, is an adaptation of his bestselling The Marshall Plan® series. Read his articles at themarshallplan.net. Martha Jewett is a memoir advocate, editorial expert with an outstanding track record in book publishing, and co-creator of The Marshall Plan® series, a structured approach to writing fiction and nonfiction which helps writers get great results fast. She is co-author with Evan Marshall of The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software. Martha worked as a business book editor at major New York publishers including John Wiley & Sons, McGraw-Hill, and Harper. She collaborated with authors to reach the widest possible audience—as developmental editor, acquisitions editor, editorial consultant, ghost writer, and independent literary agent. She was awarded The McGraw-Hill Corporate Award for Editorial Excellence. She blogs about memoir writing at writeyourmemoir.com. Their latest book is How to Bring Your Memoir to Life. http://themarshallplan.net/howtobringyourmemoirtolife.htm

19 comments:

  1. Thanks, Helen. Very useful info. I am breathing a sigh of relief that I didn't commit any of these mistakes in my manuscript. Whew!

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  2. Nice tips for starting a novel. Good point about starting the book at the first point of action.

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  3. Sometimes, the hard part for me is figuring out exactly where the first point of action is.

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  4. Good advice, but I'm a reader as well as a writer, and as a reader it's not always a case of one size fits all. Some of my favorite mysteries start with weather and setting. If it's a dark drizzly day and the protagonist is driving along a curving road leading to a manor house hidden by trees, with lights twinkling in the distance -- tell me about it. It sets the tone and puts me in the mood for what will follow. This is especially true of cozies and amateur sleuth mysteries -- my favorite reading.

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    1. Good points, Pat. The opening is so important. You have to grab the reader and pull them into the story.

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    2. Hi, Pat. We always recommend "description in action." If you want to tell us it's raining, better to say it causes your character to have to turn up the windshield wipers, or that it makes her even more edgy. If you want to talk about the trees hiding the house, maybe have the character think about how this family has always hidden from the world . . . and so on. Description in action makes the description more relevant.

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  5. I don't think I'm guilty but is it okay to mention the vultures circling in an otherwise empty sky? One character in action. . . yes, not too much of a weather report . . .yes. But, oh, it's so tempting to talk about the weather! Thanks, Helen.

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    1. I think it's okay to mention vultures circling in the sky. Especially if they turn out to be significant. If I read vultures circling in the sky, I'm expecting a body or two somewhere!

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  6. Hi Helen - having just read someone describe why they buy a book ... the cover, the blurb, the first page - after that zilch! So these sound excellent pointers ... and appropriate for blogs too ... that starting point and keep readers happy ...

    Cheers Hilary

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    1. Very true, Hilary. I should check my blog posts to see if the opening line draws in people. Thanks!

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  7. the points seem obvious, yet this post was a good reminder. It's all a magic stew - keep throwing stuff into the pot and write the right blend of character, action, and backdrop.

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    1. That's actually the way I make soup. I look in the fridge and put all the leftovers into a pot until it tastes good and I've cleaned out the fridge.

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  8. Great advice. I'm working on my hobby-novel (sometimes in progress), and have realized I need to rewrite the opening. I will keep your advice in mind >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  9. My pet peeves are starting with the character looking in a mirror or starting with a dream.

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  10. Good advice from the post and comments. I'm currently reading a mystery where there were far too many characters in the first chapter, but the author did list them at the beginning and write a brief description of each so I've referred to that several times.
    Ann

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    1. It's been a while, but I, too, have read one that had a listing of the characters. In that case, it was indeed helpful because there were so many!

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  11. Yes yes yes!!! Great advice, especially the point about "don't start with things; start with people." Thank you!

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  12. It's nice to meet you, Helen. I've featured you on my blog and hope you book sales soar today!

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