Nathan Bransford has a really good post up about what makes a good opening. His point is that writers get caught up in the goal of getting an agent's attention, and confused "pulling them into the world of the book" with shocking them.

Perhaps the most common shortcoming I'm seeing in some of the entries is that they try too hard to be surprising or shocking or pulling one over the reader.

I've been guilty of that in some of my critiques here- telling the author they should move the action closer to the beginning, or complaining that there's not enough action. I think that's because at some point, everything in this business is subjective, and we've been bombarded with conflicting advice. Start with action! Start with drama! We read 500 queries a day and you need to have something that makes us *notice* yours!

And Nathan's right- shock value might make them notice it, but that doesn't mean it's good. I think the most important thing in a first page is to make the reader care about the main character. That's why they're going to keep reading. Whether you do that through action or a slower opening is up to you.
The second most important thing is to show some conflict. It doesn't have to be physical, or shocking- but it needs to be meaningful to the main character and help with the most important thing, making us care about them. Ray Rhamey is very fond of pointing out that there's no story without conflict. And he's right.

Now, to take my own advice. I'm starting over this time around (having just completed my first-ever manuscript and realized that it needed a major overhaul). This is another place I've gotten conflicting advice- do you think it's important to get the first page perfect before moving on? Or should I not worry about it until I'm finished?

There are good arguments for both methods. I used the latter when writing said manuscript, on the principle that a whole novel that needed reworking was better than having a great first page and nothing else. But now that I've tried the second method and wound up with something fairly unusable (although it's because of plot, or the lack thereof), I'm awfully tempted to try the first.

5 comments:

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February 2, 2008 at 6:47 PM  

Hi Amy,

I deleted my first comment for typos. Is there any way to edit comments? I don't usually post on these blogs - I use LiveJournal.

You reviewed my Sparta first page, so I've been checking back on your blog to see your other reviews.

I think your question about the two methods really comes down to what works for you. After we've experimented for a while, we find what works best. But even then, I don't think every book is going to be written with exactly the same methods, since each one is so unique. A few writers I know write very linearly and polish up each chapter before moving on. I tend to write that way myself, because my stories are character driven and I need to have the build up to a scene so I know what is motivating/driving/affecting them in that scene.

That said, I still don't know the ending until I've written it. I just have an idea of it, but that idea can change significantly during the course of writing. In that case, it isn't an impossibility that I will realize that my beginning isn't really where my story starts, or isn't effective. So I guess my answer is...it depends.

Good luck with your rewrite! I LOVE revising. Slogging through the first draft is much more work for me.

February 2, 2008 at 6:50 PM  

Hi Amy! This is Kami from AW and Nathan's blog.

I've completed six novels. No, wait, I take that back. Eight, if I include ones I've cowritten. I've also written about twenty short stories, (not very many because they're not my natural length.) In my (limited) experience there's no sense in perfecting anything in a novel. So many times I completely eliminated my original opening because I realized I'd started in the wrong place. I don't know what my themes, subplots and twists are going to be until I'm done. If you're an outline writer than this advice may not apply. If you know your theme and all the little hidden things that are going to surface, you may have a plan for that opening and without the opening the rest of the novel falls apart.

But for me, a lot of times it turns out that the original opening was just a warm up exercise, me getting to know the character and what his/her life is like, and it needs to go away for an in medias beginning.

Good luck in the contest!

February 3, 2008 at 3:18 PM  

Moonette,

If there's a way to edit comments, I don't know what it is. Thanks for posting on my blog even if it is Blogger and not LJ!

It sounds like this is going to be something else I learn through experience. Which is a particularly inefficient way to learn something, btw. I guess I'm still in the experimenting stage. But I like your point that even after you've experimented and figured out how you like to work, it might be different with the next book. As I'm still on my first one, I hadn't even thought of that complication yet!

I'm still undecided on whether I like revising or the first draft better. I've heard first drafts called (excuse the crudeness) "vomited words"- because that's essentially what's happening. But it's much easier when you're just *writing* and don't have to think quite so hard. Of course, maybe that's why I have to think so hard now. *grimace*

February 3, 2008 at 9:29 PM  

Kami,

This is one reason I love writing. There are so many different ways to accomplish the same thing! But "warm up exercise" is a great way to describe an opening chapter. That's exactly what happened in the first version of my WIP- I had to go back halfway through and rewrite it because I'd started out with her father as a bad guy, and realized in about Chapter 9 that I had somehow managed to make him loveable and supportive!

I actually didn't enter the contest, not having a first page I was happy with. I'm re-plotting, and didn't have time to come up with a new first. But I'll wish everyone else luck- I wonder how long it will take to get the results?

February 3, 2008 at 9:39 PM  

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