As a novelist, you only get one chance to make a first impression with your book and win a reader. One chance. That’s it. After your big idea enters your brain and your main characters are sketched and fleshed out, your fingers will surely be itching to tap keys and plug away at your story.
While it’s great to go with the flow, whether you work it out bit by bit or fly through, having the novel practically write itself, it’s important to know what pitfalls to avoid on the rush out of the gate.
You want your kickoff to be effective so you can reel readers in and keep them riveted until the final word. To save yourself a major overhaul at revision time, or if you’ve already finished and are editing like me, here are some things I’ve gleaned from craft books and agent blogs about your first impression that you should keep in mind for your beginning.
♦ If you decide to use a prologue, keep it short. Prologues should not be pages of infodumping. They should feature something weird or compelling like in Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr or The Visitation by Frank Peretti. The prologues in those novels are short and pull readers in. Also, consider if your book can stand without it. If it can, ditch it.
♦ Dream sequences are generally frowned upon as an opener because they’re cliche. If you must use one…keep it short and vibrant or move it to a spot where it won’t seem so gimmicky.
♦ Showing common routine-type things, especially getting up in the morning, is a total yawner. Begin with conflict or as close to your MC’s main change or the dawning of the story question as you can.
♦ Starting off with extreme action or a super steamy love scene, only to have the rest of your manuscript be uneventful and more of a character study is a cheat. It’s okay to ebb and flow, but using explosions to hook readers into literary or topical fiction is just not fair or nice.
♦ Skimp on modifiers. Being adjective happy will mark you as an amateur. I’ve read some books where every noun had three or more adjectives in front of it. Paragraph after paragraph of this creates sludge no one wants to wade through. It may look pretty to you, but the eyes of readers will gloss over for sure. Definitely paint descriptive pictures, books without any can be too stark and dry, but pick the most important adjectives to provide good pacing and to make your word pictures pop.
♦ Relying on lame and lazy be-verbs or just tacking on an adverb for that extra sort of nothing doesn’t really showcase your individuality and voice. Everyone uses be-verbs, and you don’;t have to avoid them, but try to only use them when they work best and aid readibility. And adverbs have their place; just use them sparingly. Often with a little effort you can find an oh-so-perfect verb that conveys what you want to say. Instead of using an adverb on a dialogue tag, try adding action to reveal tone. You can do it. Stretch and make your prose come alive.
♦ Instead of being happy as a clam using a stale metaphor or cliché, come up with your own descriptions and similes, which will make your work zingy and fresh.
♦ Too many dialogue tags, especially fancy ones, create snags. Drop unnecessary ones. When you need them, said should be used primarily, then maybe specific action ones like whispered, mumbled or the like. Conveyed, exhorted, suggested, inquired and other awkward cousins should be cut down to one or two per book, if used at all.
♦ Don’t deluge readers with huge chunks of backstory. This should be avoided at all costs. It’s very dangerous. Very. The past is the past and is telling about the past. Readers want to know what’s happening in your character’s NOW. Sprinkle backstory throughout the novel. I had great fun hinting at something early in my book then revealing the key to that mini mystery later in dialogue.
If you have a First Person narrator telling about a past event, then providing backstory is okay as long as you have scenes and it isn’t all blocks of telling. Some entire books are windows to the past.
In Dark Rivers of the Heart, Dean Koontz does an excellent job of using backstory effectively. If you want a good example of well-rounded characters, a well-researched work and how to use backstory and dreams to HOOK rather than turn off, check it out.
♦ Tears trickle from my eyes, for out my window, beyond cherry trees and mist, pink and coral bands stretch across the darkening sky like braids or interlocking fingers, tightly woven, reminding me of the stranglehold purple prose has on my first chapter…Nix that junk post haste. You can weave some in here and there, but opening with that kind of description is a killer. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M. Bickham lists this as something agents laugh over. You don’t want your book to be the butt of jokes.
♦ Present tense should be avoided for long stories, unless it’s needed for easier readability, like if you have many jumps in time or a First Person Narrator/Partaker telling in real time. It’s totally weird and jarring for the most part. Stick with the simple past. It’s more familiar to readers. In The Face, Dean Koontz reserves present tense for one character and the rest in past. But there’s a reason for the distinction.
♦ Pages of static material is all telling and shows nothing because these aren’t really scenes. Fiction is scenes. Not explanation or lots of blather. Scenes are things going on, people talking, the plot moving forward, someone doing something, even if all alone. Established authors can get away with pages of exposition at the onset. e.g. V.C. Andrews for one. Unless you’re her ghost writer, get to the action, the dialogue, the conflict. That’s where your story is.
Avoid those deadly Noids that will turn your work into a form-rejection-letter magnet. Put your best foot forward. [Another cliché. What’s my tally, 6? haha.] Kick off strong and keep going.