Thursday, March 11, 2010

How To Start A Novel

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I came across some really fabulous notes from the Highlights Chautauqua workshop I attended two years ago and it reminded me of the importance of opening your novel correctly.


Because, one thing I have learned on this journey is that it DOES matter.


Readers care.

Editors care.

Agents care.


We should, too.

Disclaimer: I get not every novel is the same and not every rule applies all the time, but the following is still worth our consideration.

So...how to start your novel?

#1: Draw that line

Ask yourself: what does the opening scene say? What line does it draw in the sand? Why should readers even care?

Maybe you're asking, "What does it mean 'draw a line in the sand?'

Quite simply, the opening page of your novel (or very soon thereafter) should state a premise that will eventually be overturned.

Example from literature: Holes by Louis Sachar, "Camp Green Lake is a camp for bad boys" ... the gist of this story is about how a good boy got sent away and how the boys at the camp aren't really so bad after all.

or... The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo "I will name him but he will only die like the others.....It is such a disappointment" this is the mother mouse speaking about Desperaux, who - of course - goes on to be the hero of the story.

Example from my own writing:
I tried many openings for my novel, With A Name Like Love, and finally settled on the scene where the family is pulling their green and gold teardrop trailer into town. The MC notices how small the town is and makes an assumption it is 'like every other boring town that dots the map...'


This is my line in the sand. It will be overturned.

This town is nothing like any other and her life will change by the time the family loads up their tents and drives back down that highway.


Let me share this slightly painful but important personal experience:


At this conference, I was blessed to mentor under the direction of Patti Gauch (VP/Penguin Publishing). She read my original draft, slid her glasses down her nose, looked up at my hopeful eyes and said, "The words are nice, but who cares? All I can think of is, why would a reader turn the page?"


ouch.

After picking myself up off the floor, I realized she was right (imagine that!)


An introductory scene that sets the mood but doesn't draw that line in the sand makes the reader say so what?

it does not compel them forward


So, I stayed up all night, rewriting. When we met the next day and she saw my opening, she smiled and said, "Now you understand."

And, I did. I'm not perfect at it, and pounding out a novel takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears. But, at least I know that pretty words or a snappy scene with friends doesn't work without that line in the sand.

Tell me, what is your line that will be overturned? Do you have it on the first page or two? Are you willing to consider this concept? Or,do you disagree?
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39 comments:

Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought said...

I really enjoy this concept and honestly have never seen this exact suggestion before. I know I do this for novel #3, but am going to go back and see if I do it for the one I've recently begun.

It's a powerful tool and makes perfect sense. Above all, I want my readers to care.
~ Wendy

Jen said...

What an amazing post!!! I'm putting you as one of my favorite blogs over at my site, I can't miss some of the stuff you write, it's amazing and very helpful!!! Thanks for the post!

Tess said...

Wendy: You know, I hadn't heard it before this experience and it made so much sense to me ... I had always heard 'point of change' and that is true as well (check in next week for that discussion)

Jen: really? you made my day!

Tina Laurel Lee said...

I love this. So concrete. Excellent examples. THANKS!

Scott said...

Great post. I think (well, I know with me) that our openings change throughout the revision process. The first opening, the glimmer of an idea that propels the story forward, doesn't always exist by the time we get ready to query. I know that's the case with my writing. I also think, the more we write, the more we are able to create the premise sentence as part of the opening paragraph.

S

laurel said...

Clues to the reversal to come, right? I think I understand what you mean. Mine turned out to be buried in chapter 2, so with the help of two fabulous crit groups (and much quaking in my boots), I whacked off the slow start. The next group of readers to look at the revised draft were begging for more chapters instead of shuffling and staring at their shoes. I think that means I'm closer to getting it. Or at least I hope so.

Amy Saia said...

This is a wonderful tip. I'm definitely going back to look at my first chapter to see how I can draw that line. Thank you so much!

Tess said...

Tina: I think that is what appeals to me about it as well.

Scott: excellent point you bring up. our writing does morph and it is sometimes easier to go back and thread these important elements into the completed work. hindsight and all of that, you know...

Laurel: yes, you got it. And, it sounds as if your work really benefited from your understanding of this .. how great!

Amy: so glad it is helpful. Like Scott said, it's almost easier to go back and thread these things in after your vision is down (unless you are one of those meticulous plotters and know exactly where you are going when you start).

storyqueen said...

I have NEVER thought of it this way...but now I will probably never forget.

Nice post.

Shelley

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Ooh--you have me thinking now!

I completely rewrote my first chapter a few months ago and it was the best thing I ever did. It made the story open with more conflict, in action, dialogue... and it was so much better for it. But it took someone telling me the hard truth to get me there.

Solvang Sherrie said...

Great examples and omigosh, how wonderful that you were able to impress her, that you got it. Thank you for this!

Susan R. Mills said...

Great post! I'm reworking my beginning now. I'll keep this in mind. Any tips for endings?????

Amy Allgeyer Cook said...

{{I still don't like her. :\}}}

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Love this! Linking for next week.

Danyelle said...

Tess, this is completely brilliant! I totally agree. Thank you for sharing.

Tess said...

storyqueen: I had forgotten till I pulled out the notes and said, oh, yes :)

Kristen: it is hard to get there, at least for me. glad I'm not alone in that.

SolvangSherrie: it was an amazing learning experience

Susan: yes! I have a series of posts on the start middle and ends coming up

Amy: nah, you don't mean that. I love her. Seriously, she did me the biggest favor ever by being honest and forthright. And, she didn't leave me hanging. She said what was wrong and then helped me fix it. that was an invaluable experience and I wouldn't change a thing.

Caroline: great!

Danyelle: I can't take credit for it, but will agree it is super helpful.

DL Hammons said...

My line does not run hortizontally. Its vertical and it runs the entire length of my first chapter. In it I attempt to develop a relationship between the reader and the main character (of that chapter), and at the end of the chapter the line turns horizontal. Thats when I sucker punch the reader and make them answer a question. Do I want to know why?

This is an excellent post that raises very pertinent issues. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Crystal said...

Love, love, this post, Tess! It's so funny that you should write on this because just yesterday I was going over the first chapter of my novel and took out the first line for this very reason: it was not compelling enough. So I'm really glad that you explored it further in this post. Maybe, just maybe, I'm on the right track . . .

Also, what an AMAZING experience you had at that Highlights workshop . . . to get critiqued (whether good or bad) by Patti Gauch is like THE ULTIMATE, and you were able to learn from it and apply it to your work. And look where you are now! Thanks SO MUCH for sharing what you learned from her . . . I look forward to your notes on middles & ends! :)

Robyn Campbell said...

I have struggled with that opening for oh so many months. And over time it has gotten better. But I am tweaking it again to make sure. Gotta make sure. Great post.

I am unplugging next week. See you after that. Happy weekend and happy writing Tess. (^_^)

Lady Glamis said...

Wow, tough question! I'm assuming my opening works since you know who said it was good and was interested in it, but then again, he has passed it all up, so maybe it ISN'T working. Who knows. The line in the sand for my book is that the character's life will always be the same no matter what he does to try and change it.

Tamika: said...

You've given me a lot to think about. This makes perfect sense, and wise to apply. My initial thoughts on the opening were just to grab the reader, jump right into the action.

After reading this post, it may need a lot more than that to stand.

lotusgirl said...

Wow. My mind is reeling. Fantastic post. Amazing advice. *digs through my first page in my mind hunting for the line* I've got to go now and check. I never thought about it in those terms.

Tess said...

DL: Interesting description of your line. I like a whammo at the end of a chapter.

Crystal: how interesting. don't you think life is fortuitous like that? And, yes, it was an amazing opportunity to have Patti's insight and help.

Robyn: you will and it'll be great! have a good unplug week (I might unplug next week too)

Glam: yes, you have a great opening and I do know who you know who is (okay, that was fun to say/type). :)

Tamika: The important thing to remember is that it does not have to be big or fancy ... just a simple line that the reader will think "Hmmmm" about. As the examples show, it's just one sentence.

Lotusgirl: I can't take credit since I got it from the conference, but I agree it's good stuff.

lotusgirl said...

I've gone back now and added a line. The line. Thanks. It really helps. Go figure.

L.T. Elliot said...

I think I've got my overturned thing going on but the line needs refining. ;)

Mary Aalgaard said...

I used this technique in my short story for the Highlights contest. It's the first line of the story: Playing the piano is nothing like playing baseball.

In my drama...I don't think I have it clearly stated, yet. Will keep it in mind though as the story takes flesh.

MG Higgins said...

Wow. Thank you. I really, really needed this advice, like, right now.

PJ Hoover said...

Great post, Tess. Asking why the reader will care is such an important question.

Sharon Mayhew said...

Tess--I remember your reaction to Patti's critique and then you hibernating...I was justing looking at my notes from one of her workshops. :) What a wonderful adventure we had together...

Susan Fields said...

I remember that night you stayed up all night. Sounds like it was time well spent. :) Okay, now you've got me rethinking my opening...hmm.

Terresa said...

Thank you for sharing your growing experience with us. I am currently working on drawing that very line in the sand. Thank you for this!!

Mary Campbell said...

Wow! I'm not sure my beginning has this. I need to go read it again...

Tess said...

lotusgirl: fantastic :)

LT Elliot: it's something to consider, at least.

Mary: very interesting ... how are baseball and piano alike? discipline? practice? form?

PJ: yes, and something I tend to forget and need to remind myself of frequently.

Sharon: it was a blessing in my life. For the honest feedback and assistance and also for meeting the Wad :)

Susan: I think it was.

Terresa: sure! why not share the bumps and joys and lessons? it makes them more worthwile, somehow.

Mary: hope it helped :)

Jackee said...

What a beautiful way to put it! And how cool is that, you got it right the next day?! Thanks for sharing the story.

My line is that my two MCs seem adventure-loving, fancy-free, trouble-makers right at first, but really they're just two kids who crave a home, love, and stability.

Sarah said...

Tess, I'm so sorry to hijack the post, but I finally got my hands on The Help. When you praised it ages ago, I put a hold on it at our library. I'm reading it now and, oh my word, what an amazing book!

Just wanted to let you know...

Tess said...

Jackee: sounds like a great premise for a book.

Sarah: hooray! so glad you like it. It was by far my favorite read of 09. I heard DreamWorks bought the movie rights. That made me happy because I know (hope!) they'll do it justice. I wonder what she will write next...

Piedmont Writer said...

I think my line is what Genna will do when she finds out that the last ten years have been for nothing. I think. I'm going to have to check. Excellent post.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Tess, I found your blog through Caroline Starr Rose's blog, and while I was enlightened by this post, I was even more excited to read your excerpt from your soon-to-be-published novel. I think I remember it from a MSFV Secret Agent Contest. I'm pretty sure I was one of the contestants at the same time. Congratulations on making it to publication. I'm so happy and excited for you!

And really, thanks for the great post. I'd never thought about it this way before. I'm going back to my WiP with this in mind. :)

Amy

Ee Leen Lee said...

this is a very evocative analogy, I wonder how it applies to short stories, which are all about moments of change and overturning