The legendary Victor J. Banis has written so many posts on this site he needs no introduction, other than he has written 200+ books during his career and his work is much loved by his fans. Although the series Ins and Outs of M/M Romance has now concluded today Victor is offering his own brand of writing advice which, as always, is very soound.
Livia Blackburne, a guest blogger on the blog A Guide to Literary Agents, recently wrote about the Writer Idol Event at Boston ‘s Book Fest and a panel both unique and, one would hope, instructive. In order to avoid copyright questions, I’m paraphrasing here some of what she had to say but I think I have the gist of it right.
The panel was made up of an editor and three agents. Manuscripts were chosen at random and an actress read the first 250 words out loud for the audience and the panel. Whenever she reached a point where one of the panelists thought he would stop reading the submission, he raised his hand. When two or more had raised their hands, the reading ended and the panelists discussed why they had stopped where they did. In the rare cases where the reading went on to the end (roughly less than a fourth of the manuscripts) the panelists discussed what worked for them.
In general, the panelists cited 7 common reasons why they would stop reading.
1. The Beginning Is Too Generic: The panelists particularly disliked stories that opened with the date or the weather. According to one of them, you are only allowed to open with the weather if you are writing a book about meteorologists.
2. The Beginning Is Too Slow: Here they cited unnecessary background information or pedestrian detail.
3. The Writer Tried Too Hard: This included using big words to impress, or flowery prose. Sometimes the big words were used incorrectly. Awkward or forced imagery was also a turnoff. One writer described a character’s eyes as “little lubricated balls moving back and forth.” Ick.
4. Too Much Information: No one wanted to hear overly detailed descriptions of bodily functions, e.g. or medical examinations.
5. Too Many Clichés: How many times have you read of a character looking into a mirror and telling you what he sees?
6. The Story Loses Focus: It hops disjointedly from one theme to another.
7. The internal narrative is unrealistic: What the character is thinking or feeling doesn’t match up with reality. As an example, a character who is being strangled wouldn’t think a long, eloquent narration of what it feels like. And avoid having the character think about things just so you can let the reader know about them.
Now, those who have read my writing advice before know that I am a big believer in an author’s following his own instincts, and those instincts become more reliable as he gains experience. Advice that might be sovereign for a writer’s first book might not be so important for, say, his tenth. Here, as an example, is the opening from my longish short story, The Emerald Mountain. This story was chosen for the lead story in a prestigious online zine, it has been included in several anthologies, and will soon be released in e-book format by MLR Press – so, clearly, it has met more than once with editorial approval, despite its early references to weather (and it has, I might add, gotten me much approving fan mail).
We are all hearts in exile, stumbling alone in the dark, trying to find the path that will take us home. It may well be that God’s greatest gift is the loneliness of the journey.
Rain becomes San Francisco. The purples and pinks and oranges of the Victorians are softened to dainty pastels in the rain’s mist, the leaves that are gray with dry summer’s dust turn green again, and the sidewalks are washed clean of the dog droppings that in the dry season tax the unwary pedestrian.
I wasn’t there on that particular day, when Simon came up from the underground station, but I have imagined it so often, have dreamed it so vividly, both awake and sleeping, that I have only to close my eyes to see the scene as clearly as if it were fixed in my memory, and not a product of my imagination.
In my dream, I see him pause at the curb, waiting for the traffic signal, enjoying the brush of the soft rain upon his upturned face. People, passersby and those waiting with him, would look at him, quick sideways glances. The wind tossed his fair hair like a lover’s fingers, and rouged those marble cheeks. No doubt he smiled. He liked to smile, and when he did it lit up his face in a magical way.
Yes, no question of it, people looked….
It’s true, I could have simply deleted that second paragraph about rain in San Francisco—but, my instincts told me it set the mood and the rhythm that I wanted. More to the point, the weather—rainstorms, lightning, thunder—are essential elements in the story that unfolds, and I wanted consciously to introduce them right up front. Which is to say, my point was not simply to break the rule. Apart from my instinctive feelings, I had reasons—valid, thought out ones—for going against the grain, so to speak.
Now, does this really negate Rule # 1 above? No, but it does confirm what I have said often—an author must trust his muse, his inner writer. It is your book, after all, and you are the critic, the editor whom you must please first and foremost. The history of publishing is replete with stories of books and authors turned down again and again by agents and editors who thought they lacked talent, or perhaps polish (or perhaps the right opening scene), and who went on to become major bestseller. J.K. Rowling is one famous example, and James Lee Burke another. And here is a story I know firsthand. My one time agent, Jay Garon (now deceased) got a manuscript from an unknown author who told him frankly that it had been turned down by scores of publishing houses and more than a dozen agents. Jay, however, thought it had promise, and spent the better part of two years trying to sell it to publishers. He did finally succeed. The book was John Grisham’s first, A Time to Kill. Within another two years, Jay was making so much money that he had dropped all his other clients and represented Grisham exclusively.
Now, I have no doubt that one or more of those agents might have held up their hand early on if they had read the opening of that book. It’s not that they would have been wrong, either, to do so—they would have been right according to their own opinions—but, and this is essential to realize, those are only their opinions. Editors, agents, publishers, reviewers—all have their own opinions, but they are not necessarily any more valid than the author’s. This does not mean that you ignore them—if, say, several agents or editors have the same criticism or advice to offer, you might want to consider whether to heed it. No artistic endeavor can really be said to have “rules” but there are generally guidelines as to the accepted way of doing things, and you can wisely look upon them as rules until your own experience proves otherwise. Departing from the guidelines just to be different is silly and probably counterproductive. Having mastered the guidelines or rules, however, you are then free as an artist to adhere to them—or to break them, according to your own artistic vision.
Is doing so the right decision? That I can’t tell you. Only you, and your muse, can answer that question. But I can tell you this: From the moment of its first idea in your head, your book is already written somewhere inside you. It is hard to get used to the idea, especially at the beginning of one’s career, but even when, on a conscious level, you think you are entirely at sea, the Writer Within knows exactly where your boat is headed and will get you safely into port if you get yourself out of the way and let him do his job.
Admittedly, if you do it your way rather than that suggested by editors and agents, you may find it more difficult to place a story—as Grisham did, and Rowling and Burke et al. You will note that each of these writers has his or her own distinctive voice. Voices like that can be difficult for the establishment to appreciate at first encounter. The publishing establishment is more likely to be looking for a clone of the last big success, not something new.
On the other hand, if you follow your own instincts, develop your own voice, you will most likely feel better about yourself and your writing. Only you can decide the relative importance of that. Moreover, those artists who stick by their own artistic vision, when success finally does come, often seem to have the greatest successes. I personally think that is because readers feel the artist’s integrity when they read his works. It is a matter of courting success rather than selling your soul for it. The line that distinguishes a prostitute from a courtesan may be a faint one, but I believe most of us instinctively know the difference when we come across it.
Still, the rules I quote above do reinforce what I have stressed often before and which every author must realize—the importance of an opening scene. Many of these faults could be fatal anywhere in a manuscript, but they are especially so in the first few pages. So, let me say again what I have said before.
The most important chapter in any book is the first one. In that chapter, the most important page is the first one. On that first page, the most important paragraph is the first one. And, yes, in that paragraph…well, you get the point.
You want to hook the reader. You want to make him wonder what happens next, wonder enough to read on to the next page, and the one after that. A first page, a first line, must capture the reader’s interest. He should ask himself, “What is going on here?” or, “Why is that man running down the street in a panic?” or some similar question that makes him want to read on to find the answer.
I penned this opening years back, for instance, and have never used it but I have often wondered where it would go: “The screaming never stopped. She would surely go hoarse or run out of breath, you thought, but no, on and on it went, filling the parlor, filling the house, until it seemed the walls must burst. How could I be the only one who minded? The only one, it almost seemed, who even noticed?”
Movement is useful in an opening; the reader tends to want to go along with the character to see where he or she is going. Michael Cunningham begins The Hours (Fourth Estate, 1998) with Virginia Woolf hurrying from her house—on her way, in fact, to commit suicide, but you don’t realize that for a page or so. The point is, you realize from the first sentence that she is going somewhere significant to do something important and you follow in her wake.
If you look at opening pages specifically to see how good writers do it you will find that they often begin with a character in motion—driving, walking, running. The movement inspires the reader to “move” as well—i.e., to run his eyes down the page, to turn to the next page. Try writing an opening scene with someone swimming, perhaps in icy, shark-infested water with no shoreline in sight. Your reader is guaranteed to wonder where he is going and why on earth he is swimming there. Or try writing an opening paragraph in which your character is frozen in place, stock-still—make the reader wonder why he cannot or dare not move.
Of course, the best beginning lines are often astonishing in their simplicity. One of Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew books began, simply, “Bang!” Now that’s an effective opener.
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