You're Doing It Wrong

October 13, 2013

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 In June, I entered the first 50 pages of my very first novel in RWA's Golden Pen Contest.  I was still operating in a vacuum at that point and, dewy-eyed and hopeful, sent in my entry raw.  I mean, I had looked it over and checked the grammar and stuff.  But in hindsight, it was so raw I'm surprised my judges didn't contract salmonella from it.  Knowing what I know now, I'm not surprised I wasn't chosen as a finalist, and the feedback I received a few days ago from my anonymous readers is worth ten times the entry fee of the contest.

Alas, if only I had known the following DON'Ts, all of which are in line with the feedback on my score sheet.  This is from the literary agent Carly Watters' site, which is pretty darn fantastic.  The post is called "6 Ways Not To Start Your Novel."
1. A prologue that doesn’t make any sense to us at this time
This is a common case of over-writing and not thinking from the readers’ perspective. If you want to hook a reader from the beginning it’s best not to lose them from the start. No one wants to be confused or think they’re not getting it.
2. Too much action
Many writers hear that we want books to start fast, but they take that one step too far and throw us into action we know nothing about. (If you are writing SciFi/Fantasy this is especially for you because you have some world building to do first.)
3. Too little action
The opposite of too much action: too little action. This is what’s going to prevent readers from going further because we’re bored. Internal monologues are something to avoid here too. I know, between points 2 and 3 I’m leaving little room here, but this is what workshopping is for. Share your beginning with critique groups and beta readers and see if it works for them.
4. Info dump of description
If the opening reads like your synopsis notes, we’re going to have a problem. A list of hair colour, eye colour, emotional state, setting, and/or age is not what you want to lead with–and especially not a combination of these. You can get to those later by carefully weaving them in.
5. First day of school or work
This one leads to a mundane opening. We know what it’s like to get ready for work or school–you don’t need to run us through the motions. This is a classic case of not knowing where your novel starts. When in doubt: introduce us to the main character at an interesting point in their lives.
6. Coincidences
Plot coincidences and convenient ways of characters meeting is something that rubs me the wrong way. As a writer you have the ability to weave a story, but when the reader feels like they are being led in a certain direction you’ve lost our confidence in you. Make it feel as organic and ‘real world’ as possible.

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