Blog-off Entry Commentary: On Beginnings
Beginnings. Always been a heavy topic of discussion here at EBR. A good beginning can make a book awesome. A bad beginning can absolutely ruin a novel. Think about it. How many novels have you put down because the opening was horrendous? We’re talking about books you pick off the shelves at your local bookstore. At EBR, we’ll admit to triple digits. You?
With the The Great Self-published Fantasy Blog-off, the importance of beginnings has become a major focus for us. Many of the authors who submitted their novels have questions. Why isn’t my book selling? Why am I getting poor reviews? What can I do to improve it? Etc, etc. A huge part of the issues these self-pubbed authors are facing stems directly from the writing, but even mediocre writing can be dealt with if the story is good and the hook is set. There are so many published examples of this that it’s ridiculous.
Let’s talk about general stuff to avoid though:
- Slow pacing
- Starting too early in the story
- Description heavy
- History of the cosmos
- Describing your map
- Mysterious babies
- Forwards used to tell the readers that if you don’t like the book, it’s YOUR fault
Okay, maybe some of those were not so general. Still, that is by no means a comprehensive list. Nor does it mean you can’t do any of those things. The better writer you are, the more you can get away with. Current fantasy novelists prove this all the time. But let’s get into the details of some of the things we saw, and why they didn’t work.
Here’s a thesis statement that forms the crux of our thoughts here at EBR:
The beginning of your novel is a promise.
How about we start before your actual fiction begins. Introductions to your novels are stupid when you write them yourself. If you become stupid-famous, have someone awesome write the Introduction/Foreward for you. One novel in our group had a Foreward apologizing ahead of time for a lack of a clear villain. Do you know what this does? It makes readers hate you. So now we are going to read a book where the writer admits there’s no clear bad guy? But maybe the bad guy will show up in the latter half of the book? To us at EBR, this means you didn’t have a clear picture of your opposition from the beginning of the novel, and you should have done a re-write before we ever got it. A preemptive apology means people called you out on it, and you didn’t bother to fix it. This is a problem. Don’t apologize for it. Just improve your craft.
The beginning of your novel is a promise — Here, you’ve promised me poorly outlined, poorly paced fantasy with poorly defined characters. How very inauspicious of you.
Prologues seem to be mandatory in Fantasy. Dunno why. Possibly because so many great authors have used them. In almost every self-pubbed novel we’ve read so far, the Prologue could have been cut. Don’t give us boring history of your world. Don’t give us the science behind your planetary alignment. We don’t care, at least right now we don’t. You haven’t hooked us yet. Unless you are an amazing writer (and please, don’t kid yourself), you can’t get away with this crap. This is why we’ve seen so many fantasy novels move away from the Prologue. It typically doesn’t have anything in it that can’t be woven into your story as you proceed chapter-to-chapter. Nearly 40% of the self-pubbed novels we read had a Prologue starting in a mysterious forest. Often it included a mystery baby. Nope.
The beginning of your novel is a promise — Here you’ve promised us the same story we’ve read a hundred times. A thousand. Literally.
Opening chapters! How are you grabbing our attention? The scene of a murder? A life-or-death battle? Your PoV getting beaten to death? Your PoV in a chase? In the case of the stories we read, we’ve seen a princess who’s about to be engaged to a prince in a land far away who hates anything pink and likes to practice swords with her soldier brother. Nope. A description of your map. Nope. Pages of exposition. Nope. Here is the question you should be asking yourself: how late can you come into the story and still get away with it? Put us right there into the middle of things. What’s the event that really gets your story moving? Start there. We don’t need ramp up. We need impact. We need connection. A majority of the self-pubbed stories we read began with tedious exposition, over-long descriptions, people standing around talking… or thinking about talking. Ugh.
The beginning of your novel is a promise — Here, you are promising that there will be no action in your story. No tension. No danger. You are promising us transcriptions of meetings between people we’d rather avoid. If we wanted that, we’d go pull extra shifts at our day-jobs.
Would you like to know how long we spent on your novel? Looking over the statistics (we kept track), it looks like we quit 75% of our allotted books after a few pages. Some of those 75% were after as little as one page. Of the remaining 25%, we rejected nearly all of them after a few chapters.
Here’s where we get real: the beginnings sucked. That’s the truth of the matter. It’s harsh. It’s blunt. It’s facts. If you haven’t grabbed us in a few pages, we’re done. Either your writing is so full of grammatical errors, or your voice is dull, or your story is boring. If we stop and ask, “So what?” then we stop. Here’s the kicker though: Those few pages? That’s way more than the average agent will give you. We had 27 books to go through. As a 5-person team. They have 270. Each. Every month.
Here’s the silver lining though, writers: all is not lost. Get some good beta readers. Listen to them. Develop thick skin. You can do this. It’s OK if they hate your beginning, because that is what will help you find where your real beginning should be. And that realization is worth a million dollars. Avoid Forewards though. And you want to have a Prologue? Fine. Read some good prologues. Find out how awesome authors write awesome Prologues. There are lots of ways to do them right. Unfortunately there are even more ways to do them wrong, as we’ve seen time and time again.
When we love a good beginning, it’s because there is a sense of immediacy. The story and characters are IN OUR FACES. BLAM! Or, the writing and voice is so natural and wonderful. Go read the beginning of THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA. GUNS OF THE DAWN. Any of the Dresden novels. I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. Note how quickly you are thrust into the story. The beginning of their novels promise a continuation of that that mystery. That action. That snark. That danger.
The beginning of your novel is a promise.
So go back and read the beginnings of your own stories, and then decide:
What are you promising?
Love this post, both as a reader and a writer. I’ve been guilty of making a lot of those errors in my past writing. I mean, withou that prologue showing the wizards’ dark ritual to magic away the mysterious baby, how is the reader going to know that’s who the main character really is? Dun dun dun! Gradually I came to understand that what I wanted to write wasn’t what I wanted to read. If I read the stuff that I was writing, I’d probably think it was okay, but man, was the pacing ever off and was the author ever full of themselves!
Reading and reviewing has helped me to understand so many of these things over the years. I’ll sit through some truly terrible stuff in order to review it and feel like I gave it a fair shot, but more often than not, my initial impressions, my thoughts and feelings after the first few pages, match what I think in the end. If I think a book will be rated 3/5 stars, or 4/5, or whatever, then it will be. Rarely does that opinion change. And I think it’s similar for a lot of readers after a while. So if a book starts out boring you, it’ll likely end up boring you. It’ll have to be something absolutely mind-blowing to rekindle interest later on.
Even then, I’ve always said that an author is asking too much to expect readers to hold out for half a novel or more for the story to get good.
Very good post! It all makes a lot of sense.
Mine was one of the ones with a prologue, and a baby, LOL. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a mystery baby since you find out who the baby is within the first couple paragraphs, but it does have 2/3. I honestly haven’t looked at it in a while. This post definitely makes me want to look back over the first couple pages to see how well they flow though.
Reblogged this on Evil Toad Press and commented:
Some excellent thoughts on novel beginnings from Elitist Book Reviews. #SPFBO
Excellent! This was a great read.
After reading this, I feel as if I took a stroll through a green meadow and only saw the ‘DANGER! LANDMINES!’ sign after I got back on the path.
On a more serious note, it can be incredibly difficult to tell a story that’s been building inside you for months or years (particularly true of fantasy novelists) – especially figuring out where to start. It becomes this huge ball of yarn that you can’t find the beginning of. You know too much. Too much of the story. Too much of the back story. Too much about the characters – more than any reader would ever want to know. And so you start too early, or stuff the beginning with expository frou-frou.
I think everything Steve mentioned about beginnings is true. I would only add that it might be helpful for writers to come up with multiple versions of the beginnings of their novel – say just the first page. It only takes a little extra work, and then you can pass around the three or four different beginnings and ask friends and family which one they would want to continue reading.
Reblogged this on Amid The Imaginary and commented:
Here’s an awesome article about the beginning of a novel, what to avoid when writing one and what to be sure is included. Although I always read 100% of the books I agree to review, many readers don’t. Take heed of some of the pointers give here!