This week I’ve seen a number of posts by writers looking back on what they wish they’d known when they embarked on their first novels – literary agent and writer Weronika Janczuk and writer Krista Van Dolzer. Speaking with my editing hat on, I find there are three major problems that crop up time and time again in the manuscripts of first-time writers – so I thought I’d talk about them here.
Today, I’m going to talk about hooking the reader.
No one is obliged to finish your book – or even read beyond the beginning
When we’re at school we’re taught that if we start a book we must read it all the way to the end. It’s usually a rite of passage when we decide we won’t respect that rule any more, but once we do, we never again stay with a book out of polite duty. We need to be made to read on.
Quite often, first-time novelists have thought of a story, but not about how they will actively reach out to the reader and persuade them to pay attention. They need to approach this on two levels – intellectually and emotionally.
Creating intellectual curiosity
You can reach out with mystery, intrigue, drama, comedy, and atmosphere. Perhaps a body is found in a mysterious situation; a noise is heard every night at a particular time that can’t be explained; a girl fancies the guy who’s going out with her best friend. These hooks generate curiosity, so that the reader thinks, what is going on, what will happen next, what is the answer?
But that’s the easy bit – comparatively.
Creating the emotional connection – engagement
This is much harder and a lot of first manuscripts miss this element. Good stories have a bolt of emotional recognition that binds the reader to the characters. They put you in the characters’ shoes.
Perhaps she is Everygirl, like the MC in the opening of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones:
‘My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair…’
Sebold goes on to sketch a picture of a recognisable schoolgirl – good at some subjects, disastrous at others, who is just discovering the wider world. These details are not just scene setting, they are the emotional link to who she is – an ordinary girl like us, who was robbed of the chance to grow up.
Here’s another example, the opening of Marcus Sedgwick’s Revolver:
‘Even the dead tell stories.
Sig looked across the cabin to where his father lay, waiting for him to speak, but his father said nothing, because he was dead.’
With these few deft words, we’re in Sig’s shoes.
You don’t necessarily have to launch straight in with the plot. One of my favourite openings is F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Cut Glass Bowl:
There was a rough stone age and a smooth stone age and a bronze age, and many years afterward a cut-glass age. In the cut-glass age , when young ladies had persuaded young men with long, curly moustaches to marry them, they sat down several months afterward and wrote thank-you notes for all sorts of cut-glass presents… After the wedding the punch-bowls were arranged on the sideboard … the glasses were set in the china closet … – and then the struggle for existence began. … the last dinner glass ended up, scarred and maimed, as a toothbrush holder…
It’s brilliant, a timeline for a marriage seen through a couple’s wedding presents, and so human. We don’t know who the characters are yet and we haven’t a clue what they are going to do. But on a different level, we know them very well. We feel connected to their problems and their dramas – and we want to read on.
Many first-time writers think about grabbing the reader intellectually – from the outside – but not from the inside. It needs just as much attention – if not more.
Part two of this post will discuss two simple plotting problems that I often see in first novels
In the meantime, thanks to Ell Brown on Flickr for the photo – and guys, share the novel openings that really engage you!