Posts Tagged beginnings
Last Sunday I guested again at Litopia, an online writers’ colony and community. Every week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had PR agent Kaylie Finn @kaylie_finn ).
The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then talk about how they’re working – exactly as an agent would think about a manuscript that crossed their desk. This time we had YA post-apocalyptic fiction, a World War II spy thriller, a farce set in the world of British TV, a literary post-apocalyptic adult novel and a Cold War memoir. Issues we discussed included introducing a world and characters, stylised language, versatility of tone, orientating the reader so you don’t lose their attention, introducing a character with a peculiar problem, writing comedy, believability of a story concept, what makes a YA novel YA, ingredients for a historical novel, and how to get a toehold in the very competitive market for special forces memoirs.
Fascinating stuff – as ever, I talked loads, and I also learned loads from the responses of Peter and Kaylie. (That’s Kaylie and Peter in the preview pic.)
Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.
Hit the ground running with your first pages – 5 book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at Litopia
Phew, this blog has been busy this week! Last Sunday I was the guest of Litopia, an online writers’ colony and community. Every week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five submissions are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox and a guest. This week, that guest was me!
The genres can be absolutely anything, so I found myself assessing a young adult fantasy, an urban American thriller, a travel memoir, an Irish literary character piece (aka ‘upmarket fiction’) and a humorous fantasy crime. We picked out issues such as where to put back story, establishing the tone with the writing style and the choice of events, trying to make a character too likeable… and lots more. It was a fun challenge, and also fascinating to see Peter’s commercial instincts in action. While I concentrated on elements craft, he was asking: ‘Are there too many of this kind of book already? How do you stand out in today’s market? Or is it right on trend?’
We had some technical difficulties, so for some reason the video is a whopping two hours long, even though the show was only one hour. I’ve set it up to start when we actually start talking…
Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.
Are you making an outline for NaNoWriMo?
We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and enjoy telling the story to the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.
However you do it – whether formally beforehand or as your wordcount builds, these are the questions you need to tackle. (And even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, you might find them useful.)
Why is this story going to grab a reader?
All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:
- a literal outrage like a murder
- a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
- an event that appears to be ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.
Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself what will make the reader curious from the start? Something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? Something the readers will recognise as part of their own lives? This will probably be your way into the story too.
Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just turn around and walk away?
What is the first change that starts the story rolling?
Why does the story begin where it does? Have you started too soon, in order to get set-up in? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?
How does it escalate?
No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and what people do must matter more. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where everything totally blows up, and a moment where the characters feel the worst has happened.
I never would have thought…
How does the story take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and how will you convince them that they are fair?
Is it still the same quest as it was at the start?
Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A simple search for a lost dog becomes a crusade against the fur trade. Perhaps at the end your characters want the opposite to the thing they fought so hard for in the early days. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.
In the end…
What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?
Speed is of the essence in NaNoWriMo and it’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.
Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do to get themselves out of the way, or a commitment that might put them on a particular road when something happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.
But if you don’t have time for that, just insert a tag such as [findout] and come back to it in the revision.
Much more important is to know how they relate to each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or would if they got the chance to meet)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?
That’s my template for starting a NaNo novel. What would you add? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
Never begin your story with weather. This we hear for many good reasons. For example, Joe Konrath, who is spitting bolts of lightning after judging a story competition.
So I started reading The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and she begins thus:
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…’
It’s weather. Or is it? I rather liked it, so why does she get away with it?
1 It’s interesting
Weather is usually not interesting. Most of the time in real life, weather is a conversational gambit used by those who wish they had something better to talk about. It’s throat clearing. It’s asking for permission for a conversation. It’s perhaps a plea for the other person to think of something less dull to talk about. In writing, it’s often a hesitant moment as the writer wonders exactly how to introduce everything. ‘Er, there was a blue sky…’
But here, Liz Jensen has made extraordinary weather. It’s hardly even weather, in fact – it’s a dangerous setting, a war with the environment that makes living perilous. It skews the familiar – like that off-kilter opening from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
2 It’s about people
We’re more curious about people than we are about things. Which would you rather hear – a story about a chair or a story about the people whose attic it ended up in?
In The Rapture, Liz Jensen makes her opening paragraph about the people and how their lives have been changed. Where normality is disrupted, a story is bound to happen. (In fact, this excerpt has a double dose of people because it turns out to be first person – but that’s not apparent here.)
3 A storyteller is luring us in
Opening paragraphs aren’t just about the events. Like the opening bars of a song, they’re an introduction to the writer’s voice. Liz Jensen’s piece is assured, phrased with pizzaz, visualised with an eye for the interesting. It persuades you to lie back and be charmed.
The writing world is full of rules and taboos and it’s easy to take them too literally. Beginning a story with weather isn’t the problem. Neither is looking in a mirror, describing a character, waking up or getting dressed. The problem is failing to be interesting, failing to show us characters, failing to convey a state of unease or instability and failing to cast a spell over the reader.
Thanks for the pic Larry Johnson
What else makes a good beginning? Let’s discuss examples… especially if they involve some of the traditional taboos