Hey y’all, batter up! It’s your Magical Words Designated Hitter here. Faith will be back next week, she’s fine but had some stuff she needed to take care of this week, so I’m stepping in to lend a hand.
As some of you may know, I’m currently reading submissions for an anthology I’m co-editing for Kerlak Publishing. The anthology is entitled The Big Bad – an Anthology of Evil, and the only requirements that I gave for content were that it couldn’t be tasteless, and the protagonist had to be someone that would typically be considered a villain. For roughly 20 open slots in the anthology, we (my co-editor is the lovely and talented Pea Fairie from right here at MW!) received almost 200 submissions. So we have ten times as many stories as we need.
I have faith that we’ll end up with enough good stories to fill the anthology, but honestly, a 10% acceptance rate out of a pool of open submissions is incredibly high, and the curve is skewed because some awesome people like Sean Taylor and James R. Tuck have already hooked me up with great stories. BTW, it’s release week for James R. Tuck’s new book – go check out Deacon Chalk Book 2 – Blood and Silver!
But reading the submissions for this anthology has given me the topic for this week’s blog post – compelling beginnings. Anyone that I’ve critiqued their work in the past six months knows the biggest note I give – cut out Chapter One. That’s because people spend so much time writing all this awesome world-building and backstory, that they don’t get to the action or the interesting bits until Chapter Two. But people want to read the interesting bits. Most people don’t care about the interior layout of the starship that your story is set in. You have to know all about it, but until someone issues the Technical Manual as a companion piece to your novels, you don’t need to share that information with readers.
Seriously, focus on making your first paragraph – no – your first sentence – as compelling as possible. Because an editor, agent, slush reader, or book purchaser may not give you more of a chance than that to sell them on your book. You must grab the reader by the throat (or anywhere else that you want to grab to make a convincing argument) early and never, ever let go.
A lot of people refer to this as “tension on every page,” and one of the very best examples that I give people of this is Faith’s Raven Cursed. That book is a textbook example of increasing some type of tension at every step. It might be Jane’s tension with Beast, it might be Jane’s tension with local authorities, it might be Jane’s sexual tension with (pick your favorite, I’m not getting in that fight), it might be the tension between Jane and her own guilt over the repercussions others have felt because of their association with her. But the point is, there is always, always, always something increasing the tension and driving the action.
Yes, I know that in some books you need breaks. I am a theatre guy after all, and there was never a greater master of comic relief than Shakespeare. Check out the gatekeeper scene in the Scottish play if you need a refresher in that. But even those scenes need to add something to the build of the book or story. Your characters barely ever get a relief from the tension, and if they do, it should be for a very good reason.
Yes, I know there are wonderful books that start out slow. There are wonderful books that don’t ever really go anywhere at all. But this is genre fiction, and things need to happen. And especially in the early going of your career, you don’t have the credibility with readers to start slow. Neil Gaiman can go all those pages in the beginning of Neverwhere before things start rolling, because he’s Neil Gaiman. And we’re not. There are a lot of things fighting for readers’ attention, and if you don’t grab it and wrest it away from Team Dressage or whatever Olympic sport is going on, you’ve lost the first battle. And you might never get them back.
I recommend action early and often, and dialogue early and often. Or at least present a compelling situation. I started Hard Day’s Knight with my protagonist tied to a chair with no idea how he got there. I started Genesis with my protagonists running out of the school with no explanation of why they’re running. I start many of my Bubba stories with dialogue between Bubba and Skeeter. Find whatever works for you, but as I’ve recently learned, starting a YA novel with a character getting ready for school is a good way to get laughed out of the submission pool. So I’m reworking that beginning, taking my own advice and putting some action in there.
Hooking a reader in the first paragraph is essential, because an editor may not read further if you don’t. I’ve talked to editors who promise to read the first page, but that’s the only guarantee they give. I promise to read the first paragraph of any submission, but that’s as far as I’ll promise. And I know editors who will reject a submission if the opening sentence doesn’t grab them. It’s a cruel truth, but given the volume of submissions everyone receives, people are looking for reasons to reject your stuff. Don’t give them one. Do all the other things right, like the cover letter, formatting and all the stuff that more qualified people than me can talk about here, but start off with a bang. A big one.
So here’s my question to you – what’s the last book that grabbed you early and never let go? Mine is Feed, by Mira Grant, an amazing zombie novel that keeps piling on the twists and new revelations and is one of the rare books that the sequel loses no steam and is just as good as the first book.