Field Notes from a Book Editor
An occasional blog offering observations on the fiction industry and the elusive craft of storytelling.
The Sky Is Blue*:
Pitfalls to Avoid on the Opening Pages of Your Novel
*Not azure blue. Not a deep, stunning blue. And never a cerulean blue.
[Note: At the recent "Muse and the Marketplace" writer's conference in Boston, a panel of four Editors and Literary Agents held a clinic identifying common mistakes writers make on the opening pages of their novels—mistakes that are so fundamental they would persuade at least two of these four experts to stop reading the author's manuscript and turn to the next submission in their In Box. What follows below is a summary of the panel members' comments at this clinic, and at a similar clinic at the 2018 Boston Book Festival. The panelists' names can be found at the end of this post.]
Pitfall #1: Starting a novel with an "action forward" scene.
Action-forward scenes are scenes that emphasize action at the expense of all other literary components of fiction—character, voice, and setting, to name a few. As its name suggests, action-forward scenes are often fast-paced vignettes that are meant to pack a wallop. (Think car chases, gunfights, murders, prison breaks, etc.). An example:
For the fifth time in the last minute, Adam glanced in his rearview mirror. As expected, the blue and white police car lights were still bearing down on him. He floored the gas again. The '84 Camaro sped through the Stop sign then continued down the road, heading for the state line. The car was nimble and fast...but was it fast enough?
As pointed out by the members of the panel, action-forward scenes tend to present characters in a situation of extraordinary duress. That is, the reader doesn't yet know how the protagonist responds under ordinary circumstances...so how can the reader get a beat on the protagonist when he (or she) is under duress? That is, how can the reader form an emotional bond with the protagonist—a bond that invests the reader in the protagonist's ordinary, everyday fate and thereby keeps the reader engaged?
Perhaps another way of saying this is, character is action. Authors can trust their readers to enjoy gradually getting to know their character—his or her tastes and behaviors and foibles and inclinations—as internal and external conflict steadily develop the character throughout the entire novel.
Pitfall #2: Using the opening paragraph—or the opening pages—of a novel to establish mood or atmosphere rather than to develop character.
Openings that try hard to set a tone of mystery or fear, or just general oddness—or that spend their time worldbuilding or providing backstory—are common in thrillers and fantasy but can occur in any genre.
The forest spread quietly below the winter's full moon. The trees rustled in a light breeze. As clouds skimmed across the dark sky, the remaining moonlight stole through the branches, illuminating red eyes glowering with hunger—first one pair...then a second pair...then three or four dozen. A single low growl was quickly answered by the entire mob. Claws dug into the earth as the drooling creatures advanced quietly through the forest, soon emerging from the trees. They paused briefly then quickly charged the houses of the sleepy village.
Here, a lot of space is being devoted to convey the threat of the creatures as they advance through the forest before descending on the village. As one panel member pointed out, why not say, simply:
The beasts were back.
As the same panel member suggested, carefully orchestrated but overly extended descriptions are the literary equivalent of a baseball pitcher winding-up to throw his pitch: the author is taking a long time before actually releasing the ball toward home plate—that is, before making his pitch to the reader.
On your opening pages, be especially aware when you are "winding up"—that is, setting up your story—rather than actually delivering your pitch to the reader. Then look for a faster, more concise way to release your literary fastball to home plate!
Pitfall #3: Opening a novel with a trendy or clichéd scene.
Although literary tastes and trends change continually, trendy (or clichéd) openings currently include:
• Dream sequences (or characters waking up from a dream sequence)
• Characters regaining consciousness after a drunken stupor
• Characters talking to their therapist
• Scenes set in specific cities on specific holidays (e.g., Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts, Carnival in Brazil)
As the panelists pointed out, describing a character waking up or regaining consciousness is almost inherently clichéd; this is because the author is presenting their character immediately after he or she has had an experience that is mostly symbolic, rather than presenting the reader with the larger truth of the character's specific real-world circumstances. Again, it is those real-word circumstances—not a dream sequence or a regaining of consciousness—that allow the reader to authentically connect to a character in the opening pages.
If you wish to have your protagonist experience a dream, consider including that dream further along in your book, once the reader has a better understanding of what the dream "means" to the character, and how the dream's symbolism fits into the overarching themes of your novel.
Regarding drunken-stupor scenes: One panel member mentioned that in these scenes, authors always seem to mention vomit, urine, and spilled beer...often in that order. The panelists indicated it is best to avoid such scenes altogether. That said, if you must include these scenes, be sure not to dwell on the "piss and vinegar" aspects of the stupor; rather, simply convey that your character perhaps went a tad overboard with his or her binge drinking, and then move on with the scene.
Regarding opening scenes set during specific holidays: these scenes tend to be very cinematic and visually engaging, filled with party-goers and costumes and parades...but, as with action-forward scenes, the reader's engagement with character tends to become secondary to the visually stimulating action. If you wish to include these scenes in your book, consider moving them out of the opening pages and placing them deeper into the book, where the reader has a richer connection to your character and thus can more fully connect with the joy, thrill, or chaos your character feels as s/he participates in the colorful festivities.
Pitfall #4: Not being "inside" the protagonist's head sufficiently (that is, not maintaining a consistent point of view throughout the opening scene).
The example given by the panelists—a first page of a manuscript that one panelist actually received—was of a female protagonist who, while walking briskly down a city street, falls and twists her ankle. While she is in excruciating pain and lying flat on her back, she looks up...and happens to notice the stunning beauty of the azure blue sky above her. (This manuscript is one of the "blue sky" examples cited in Pitfall #5, below.)
Here, the panelists questioned whether the protagonist would actually focus on the color of the sky while she lies writhing in pain in the middle of the street. The disconnect between the protagonist's emotions, on the one hand, and the author's focus, on the other hand, distracts the reader—would someone who just twisted her ankle appreciate a mundane detail such as the sky's particular shade of blue?
In order to ensure you remain sufficiently inside your character's head, imagine yourself as a bystander in the scene: a man walking past the woman as she falls, for example. This technique might help prevent you from writing the scene from the perspective of a disconnected writer looking down from high above while typing at your keyboard.
Another way of saying this might be: Try to see the scene from a worm's eye view rather than a bird's eye view.
Pitfall #5: Over-written descriptions.
The panelists said they are commonly exposed to overwriting; in one case, consecutive manuscripts in their In Box described the sky as "cerulean blue," "deep blue," and "a stunning azure blue...." But lips are red. Trees are green (...at least in summer). And the sky is blue. In these examples, any qualifiers try hard to improve on everyday imagery that readers can inherently imagine for themselves.
To avoid instances of over-writing that might give an agent (or any reader) pause, review your descriptions carefully. Consider creating a new version of your manuscript, deleting all (or most) adjectives. Then reread the new version a day later, reinserting adjectives only where they seem lacking.
Pitfall #6: Opening a novel with words that mimic sounds, such as Tick, tock. Tick, tock. or Ding-dong.
As with action-forward scenes, words that mimic sounds ignore all other aspects readers expect in a novel, particularly character, tone, and voice. They short-circuit the reader's desire to be engaged by a rich, thoughtful narrative. Furthermore, as the panelists' reactions implied, they tend to offer melodramatic and clichéd renditions of the complex sensory experience of hearing; that is, they are a way of showing, not telling. They also create doubt in agents' heads regarding whether the author is capable of writing a full sentence. For these reasons, all four panel members indicated they would immediately stop reading any manuscript that starts with onomatopoeia, merely skimming the first few pages to see if, in fact, the author can put a verb and a noun together; or they might simply discard the manuscript altogether. Other examples of onomatopoetic openings to avoid include:
Beep! Beep! Beep! Marisa's alarm clock sounded loudly on the night table. She reached her arm out sleepily and slapped it off.
Ro-a-a-a-a-r! The lion leapt out of the jungle before Lynda and I had a chance to run away.
Screeeeeech! Torie watched as the driver behind the wheel of the Mustang slammed on his brakes, stopping the car in the middle of the intersection.
Swish. The basketball dropped quietly through the hoop then bounced three times before rolling down the driveway. Dave Blackwood had beat me at Horse for the third time in a week.
In nearly all instances, the opening words can be deleted, allowing the reader to see the action rather than having it told to him/her/them.
[End Note: The panelists at this session of the 2019 Muse and the Marketplace writer's conference were Sorche Fairbank, Steve Woodward, Kiana Nguyen, and Serene Hakim.]
* * *
Take the A Train...or Not
At one of the first literary conferences I attended, a veteran literary agent explained the types of manuscripts she looks for. “You know it from the first few sentences on Page One,” she said. “It’s a voice you haven’t heard before.”
She then told the audience that she frequently takes manuscripts home with her on the subway, either a hard copy or — more often, these days — an electronic version. And when she reads a manuscript that grabs her from Page One, she becomes entirely absorbed in the story.
That is, she’s not worrying about the heel of her shoe that broke that morning, or wondering whether she has enough green beans in her refrigerator for dinner that night, or whether global warming is about to melt the Arctic ice cap and suddenly flood lower Manhattan....including the subway car she's riding in!
Instead? She’s just sitting in her seat on that slow, clackety subway, reading a story.
And because she’s so absorbed in the manuscript, when she finally does look up to catch her breath, she often realizes she’s missed the stop she normally gets off at to start her walk home.
That’s when she realizes — she’s going to accept the manuscript.
Our challenge as writers is to keep that agent in mind — to write a story that makes that agent miss her stop.
This doesn’t mean going out of our way to be overly inventive — to throw everything into our plot except the kitchen sink. This is a common mistake virtually all literary agents cite as a primary reason for declining a manuscript: novels by beginning writers tend to be unfocused, reflecting the beginner’s (overly) eager desire to include every trendy and clever, kick-ass idea he or she can think of.
A fantasy novel by a first-time author, for example, might include four or five different humanoid races (elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, and wraiths, say), a malevolent dragon or three, talismans that give their users magical powers (the ability to jump back and forth in time, say, or the ability to throw a protective shield around the bearer, in order to ward off the wraiths’ fiery breath or the orcs’ sharp axes), plants that glow mystically to guide the protagonists along their perilous quest, and a healthy dose of whiz-bang wizardry that is highly derivative of Lord of the Rings.
Another example: a murder mystery that revolves around a schizophrenic cyberwarfarer who has amnesia and whose long-lost, pathologic twin brother is a high-powered arms dealer and whose power-hungry mother is a first-term U.S. Senator involved with a mysterious religious cult bent on obtaining multiple nuclear devices.
Rather than allowing the “kitchen sink syndrome” to stew and simmer in the mind of the literary agent riding the A train, we should concentrate on crafting clear, concise writing that invokes a strong “voice” in the agent’s head. A voice that is enabled by clean, “no frills” writing but that is nonetheless distinct. A voice that the agent will still be hearing long after she’s looked up from the manuscript (or her smart phone) and realizes she’s got a much longer walk home than she had planned on.