2019 Novel Prize Advice and Tips: Some Very Questionable Openings
Hey guys, me again.
So everyone knows the song, but what's it got to do with our Novel Prize? Well, if you remember waaaaay back in 2018 when we interviewed the awesome Catherine Cho (who's also readying herself to reveal with winners of our 2019 Flash Fiction Prize on the 16th of September), she touched on something in our interview that I wanted to reiterate here.
The opening few lines of any novel are crucial. And while we don't like to say they're make or break, they certainly do set the reader up to move forward with the story. And, if you hit a bump that early on, then it can be difficult to pull things back.
But don't worry, we can help. We're going to go over some of the openings that can be a real mood killer when a reader picks up your work.
We'll be going over synopses in the next post, but for now, let's dive into some common "bad" openings. Of course these aren't hard and fast rules, but you can bet that if you're coming out of the gate with one of these and its not a truly masterfully written piece of fiction, then you're really laying it all on the line.
1. Wake Me Up, Before You Go-Go
If your main character is waking up in the first line, then you're already off to a poor start. And definitely -- and we mean definitely don't use the words "startled awake" in any way, shape, or form. Here's what Catherine Cho had to say about it in our interview:
Me: Is there something you read on the first page of a manuscript that’ll just stop you dead in your tracks and make you reach for that big red ‘Rejection’ stamp?
Catherine: It’s amazing how many start with a character waking up. I think that’s difficult because it’s only logical - So’n’so wakes up, and then you think ok, the story’s about to start! But actually, that just makes me go, Ugh… And it happens so often.
It doesn't get much clearer than that. But what happens if you've already got your opening and your character is waking up? Well, ask yourself, is it integral that they wake up? What's lost if they have a cup of tea interrupted, or they're mid-way through their morning cornflakes? Probably not much. You've still got time. Change it up!
2. What The Heck!
"Oh my God!" Nikki screamed. "I can't believe my friend was just hit by a car." A lot of openings begin like this, with a sudden thrusting into the action via expletive dialogue. But, it's pretty tired. You don't need to have someone shout that, and it feels pretty derivative at this point. So, if you've got something exciting happening in your opening, think of a different way to get your character into the scene.
3. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
She looked up from the basin, noting her long brown hair and emerald eyes. This was a terrible way to open a book before 50 Shades sold a bazillian copies, and now its even worse. I've made this a doubly whammy, including 'emerald eyes' too in this list of faux pas. Honestly, if you think that a physical description of your protagonist is the most important thing to get across to the reader in the first page, then your character better have something more interesting going on than green eyes and copper curls. If they've got two heads, then that's something to shout about, but you know, still don't have them look in the mirror in your opening line. This is what Catherine had to say:
Me: What about the classic standing up and looking in the mirror, and then seeing themselves and describing their features?
Catherine: Yeah! And then they describe what they see in the mirror - and you just think… Y’know, come on…
4. Isn't it Beautiful?
The land of Oodler was a lushious valley basin filled with gargantuan trees bathed in such a refulgent light they seemed almost coruscant. If your opening begins with a long descriptive sentence that shows off your vocabulary, you're already off to a rocky start. Having a great vocabulary is as much about showing off restraint as it is about showing off how many words you can use. Longwinded descriptions of place can be a tough way to start, and if you make your reader feel stupid before they're two sentences in, then it's tough to claw it back. Catherine and I spoke about this, too, and this is what she had to say:
Catherine: [...] a lot of people just start with a lot of setting and description. I personally like setting, and I think that’s a great way to start, if it’s done right, but you don’t want to get caught in the trap of over-describing it.
Translation: Tread lightly. We'll leave the rest to you.
5. A Quick History Lesson
A thousand years ago, when the first people of Imlerac began to discover the ways of the magic... Long winded history lessons are not fun, especially not at the start of a novel. If your synopsis tells us this is a 160k fantasy epic, we're already preparing for some serious lore, but smacking the reader with an introduction to the world via the voice of a very literary wizard, wise man, storyteller, or older character looking back at their life is a really good way to inspire boredom. If you've got a world that needs describing, drip feed in the important details as you go. Getting it all out of the way in the first page is not a good way to do it.
6. Before We Begin
Does your novel have a prologue? Okay, well this one is for you. Why? Why does it have a prologue? Ask yourself honestly -- if you get rid of it, will the reader be completely lost? If the answer is yes, then you need to take the information in your prologue and see if it can be worked into the story. Sure, I've read some great books that have prologues, and I appreciate their history and their use -- but this is a competition setting, and you're going up against lots of other novels in other genres. So take a long look at your prologue and try to interrogate it. Ask whether it's exactly what you want the reader to be thrown into when they open your novel. Is this a representation of the story, or is this just extra info to give context? I've read novels that have terrible prologues that tell me all about the world and the history of it, and then in the first chapter, there are people slaying dragons! Give me that first. Get your hooks into me with the story and then when I'm good and invested, tell me what happened eons ago.
So, what do we think? See something up there that you've done? Don't worry, you've got plenty of time to rectify it. Catherine Cho's interview has some great advice for novels, their openings, and how to perfect them for both competitions and pitching. And luckily, you can read the full interview by clicking on this link!
We've gone over some of the most common opening stumbles above, but honestly, I've read great novels that start with all of them. So, it isn't to say that you can't or shouldn't use the openings above -- it's just that they're tired, and they're a little derivative, so if you are, then you better be about to subvert the heck out of expectations and blow a reader's socks off.
We're talking generally here, so if you feel that you're breaking the mould and bucking the trend and you're about to have your protagonist wake up in a way we've never seen, then awesome, I truly want to read it. But, if you're not sure if you are, then maybe grab that red pen, and see what comes out of a good workshopping session. And heck, if you're really struggling, send us a message or an email and we'll see if we can give you some advice! But don't do it on the 27th, because I probably won't have time to reply...
Okay guys, as always, share this around, let us others know about this post if you think its worth reading.
Otherwise, we'll see you around!
Keep on writing,