Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's Start at the Very Beginning, a Very Good Place to Staaart!

Thank you, Julie Andrews. The beginning is, indeed, a very good place to start.

So, if you haven't guessed it already, this post is going to be about story beginnings: a) because it's an important subject that I haven't addressed yet, and b) it ties together my adventures at the Boston Book Festival (which I've been meaning to write about for AGES) and all the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award chaos that is currently going on (because I am frantically editing and re-editing my excerpt).

So, let's start with the "what I learned at Boston Book Festival" part. In case you've forgotten (or I never bothered to explain, possibly), BBF is an annual festival in Boston with a bunch of different events, mostly authors speaking and such. I got to hear several authors speak––Dennis Lehane, Tom Perrota, Kathryn Lasky, Noni Carter, Francisco Stork, and OMG KRISTIN CASHORE. (Did you know she writes her books by hand? Craziness! ... and yes, I'm a little bit obsessed.) So, that was an inspiring experience.

But before I went to any of the author speeches, I attended an event called Writer Idol. The gist of the idea: You bring the first page of your manuscript and put it in a box. A professional actor picks pages out of the box at random, and reads them to a panel of four literary agents. The literary agents each raised their hands at the point where they would stop reading and reject the author. Once two agents raised their hands, the actor would stop reading and the agents would explain why they lost interest ... and they weren't afraid to be painfully honest. And this was in front of a rather large audience of people.

In other words: my worst nightmare come true.

I was convinced to do this without really knowing what I was getting into ... and when I understood what was going on I pretty much had a heart attack. But, there was no going back now, so I sat there and listened to the agents criticize the first few pages. Then––because fate hates me––the actor picked out the first page of Walking Shadow. Luckily the whole thing was done anonymously, but I'm pretty sure the people around me knew it was mine since I said "SH**!" rather loudly and tried to hide under the seat in front of me.

To begin with ... I hate hearing other people read my work out loud. It's one of those things––like how I hate looking at pictures of myself or hearing a recording of my voice. It makes me all self-conscious, so I hear every single flaw. And if that wasn't bad enough, there was a panel of agents sitting there, ready to rip it apart.

The rest happened a blurry nightmarish kind of way. On the bright side, one of the agents said it had a strong voice. The rest ... Well. They didn't like it. They said it was too ambiguous––"It could be narrated by a DOG for all we know!"––and one guy said it reminded him of "Mean Girls" ... but, you know, not in a good way. I guess because Cassandra hates everyone?

They seemed to have the same reaction for all the ambiguous-type beginnings. So, anything that started off all mysteriously was dead meat. Apparently when agents read the first page of your manuscript they want to get a general idea of who the main character is and where the setting is. That doesn't mean you have to start with something obvious like "Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe Shmoe. He was 23 years old and 6'2" tall and he was sitting in a cardboard box ..." But, you know, you want to include something concrete. I'd say, after the first page the reader should at least understand the main character's general age and gender, and something a bit about his/her personality. The setting doesn't have to be described in detail on the first page––in fact, that's boring ... don't do it. But if you, say, mention something about washing machines the reader will know we're in a laundromat or something.

Point is, you want to get right into the action. Set up the plot. Start out with a scene that's original and attention-grabbing.

Beginnings to avoid:

1. The "average life" beginning. I can't tell you how many times I've come across this beginning ... Please don't start a story with someone getting out of bed in the morning, choosing an outfit, brushing his/her teeth, etc. We all do these things every day. IT'S BORING. Start with something unusual.

2. A long description of the setting (as I mentioned before). Yes, descriptions might create clear images, but they tend to bore the reader. Focus more on introducing characters and a conflict.

3. White Room Syndrome: "A clear and common sign of the failure of the author’s imagination, most often seen at the beginning of a story ... “She awoke in a white room.” The ‘white room’ is a featureless set for which details have yet to be invented — a failure of invention by the author. The character 'wakes' in order to begin a fresh train of thought — again, just like the author. This ‘white room’ opening is generally followed by much earnest pondering of circumstances and useless exposition; all of which can be cut, painlessly.

It remains to be seen whether the 'white room' cliché will fade from use now that most authors confront glowing screens rather than blank white paper."

Haha ... I must admit, I am guilty of this one––because it's how Edge starts. I didn't know this kind of beginning was supposedly a failure and a cliché. It makes sense, though ... that since you start with a blank white piece of paper, the first thing that comes to your mind is a blank white room. What I find hilarious is that last sentence ... since I write on my computer, and I started off with a glowing white room. So I guess the cliché will never die, after all. I'd change the idea if I could think of something better ... although I'm not sure if there's another way. Plus the white room comes back into the story a bunch of times. Hrrrrm. Well, uh, point is––try to avoid this beginning.

4. The textbook beginning. A lot of fantasy/sci-fi stories are guilty of this. Avoid prologues that give the entire history of the world; important information should be scattered throughout the story.

5. The "WTF is going on?!" beginning. Yes, it's good to start with some action, but not so far into the action that you fail to ever introduce the setting and characters. You want the reader to feel intrigued, not completely lost.

6. The "dream sequence" beginning ... in which you start off with something totally weird and/or intense happening, and then at the end of the chapter: "And it was all a dreaaam!" It's a fake beginning, in a way, because––well––it didn't really happen. Same thing goes for flashbacks. Try to avoid them.

Now, of course there are exceptions to all of these "rules". Yes, in some cases any of these beginnings could work. So if you've started a story one of these ways, you shouldn't necessarily be freaking out. Just keep in mind, you should try to avoid such beginnings in the future.

And thus ends my rant. Back to editing.


  1. Brigid, thank you for making this blog post! :) It was very informative and smart and I learned from it and all that jazz. It's going to help me a lot. :D Seriously, your blog teaches me a LOT. It makes me a better writer. :)

    I'm sorry about what happened at Writer Idol. But just know that agents are harsh to the point of ridiculousness, and that they're too uptight, and that a lot of times they're wrong.

    The list about beginnings to avoid is really helpful and good. :) Except ... I'm guilty of more than one of them. Oh frap. (That's like oh crap, but more awesome, because I am swearing in the name of Starbucks. Heh heh, get it?) And not just in old stories I don't write anymore, in books I still intend to finish. I should probably rewrite the beginnings for those, huh? :P

    One more thing: I don't understand what's wrong with starting off the book in a white room. If that's essential to the plot and it's a white room for a reason (and not just because of the blank paper or screen or whatever), then why is it a problem? I mean, say it's something like an insane asylum and the walls are white and the MC finds themselves in there without knowing why ... why is that a bad beginning, and how else would you do it?

  2. You're welcome Sella. I'm glad my blog has a use. Hooray!

    Ha, it's okay. It was informative, even if it was brutal. They were just being honest, and it's important to know what agents do/don't like.

    Thankies, glad you think so. Yeah, so am I. (Haha, frap.) Well like I said, there are exceptions, so not necessarily. But if you can think of more original beginnings, then yeahhh I guess so.

    Read last paragraph ^^ The reason it's bad is because usually it's uncreative and not very interesting. But, there are some situations where it works. Hopefully Edge is one of them because I can't think of anything else for the time being ... But I'm trying.

  3. Thanks, Brigid! This really helps. (:

  4. In my opinion, when one commences a story, the main objective should be to establish the emotional connection between the writer and reader. This can be manifested in a variety of ways; however, you are correct in stating that writers should not employ the techniques described above. However, I believe that ambiguity can be effective when utilized properly. Additionally, 'unnecessary' exposition and the incessant pondering of circumstances are also effective when utilized in the proper manner. In my opinion, it is these two collective factors that help to establish the connection between writer and audience.

  5. Thanks for sharing your opinion! I agree, any of these things can be used effectively, but if they are executed poorly then they can make the beginning of a story very unappealing.


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