As part of my job in judging in a writing contest, i am reading a book that became really excellent — on page 157. Had I been reading for pleasure, I wouldn’t have got that far.
I also get this problem when editing books by new writers. For one reason or another, the start is less than inspiring, but the book improves as I get into it.
This is not a good idea.
What are some of the reasons an author may start a story in a way that fails to do it justice?
1. World building through info dumps
As a beginning writer, I was very focused on informing my reader, making sure I specified everything I knew about the world my characters inhabited. I thought this would bring a story to life.
This is a common attitude among inexperienced writers — and it’s wrong.
World building is necessary. It is needed even when the setting is perfectly well known to the book’s intended readership. An airport lounge will be familiar to most readers, but all the same, the specific sights, sounds, people and events need to be described. This requires the writer to pass information on to the reader.
My point is, this must not be an info dump, but a magical trick by which this environment is perceived through the consciousness of a character. This way, the name in the book becomes a person; someone whose thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations are influenced by the immediate environment, so that the facts are background.
Here are two versions:
The airport lounge was packed with humanity. Everything was gray in color, except for the sickly green of the announcement board lights. The air smelt stale. Incomprehensible announcements blared. A woman two rows away was changing her baby’s diaper, and the child set up a wail.
John checked his watch again. The plane was two hours late.
This definitely sets up an atmosphere. It is good journalistic writing. However, it is all from the outside. Who observes all this? Why should I bother to read about such a depressing scene? Let’s try again.
John checked his watch again. The plane was two hours late, and he felt like running out, away from the press of people, the depressing grayness of the lounge, the stale air, the blare of incomprehensible announcements, the scream of that infant having its diaper changed.
In a short essay, I needed to give a short example. But imagine a journalistic description that goes on for a page or more before John enters the picture. You are bound to ask, “Why should I be forced to study this place? What’s it about anyway?”
2. Starting a sequel with back story
The author shall remain nameless. The cover screamed “HIS NEW BESTSELLER.” I was short of both time and reading matter, and the genre is one I enjoy from time to time: naval fiction from the Napoleonic era. So, I grabbed it off the library shelf.
Inside, I learned that this was the twenty-fifth book in the series. Must be good.
First I was treated to an editorial from the author, sketching the naval situation immediately after Napoleon’s defeat. Oh well, it was only a little over a page long.
Then the hero started musing about events from his past, obviously the author giving me back story. It went on, page after page. And then we switched to a second character, who also mused about the past, his own and the hero’s.
I am overly persistent, and read on. We switched to a third character, and guess what he was doing? Yawn.
It occurred to me that this was an opportunity for research: how much longer can a best-seller book go without any excitement?
Thirty-five pages. That was the end of chapter 1 (way too long), and during all those pages, nothing much had happened. A ship set sail.
Then at last, at the start of chapter 2, we were in a storm. Only, by now I’d been thoroughly conditioned to be bored, so my reaction was ‘so what.’ I never finished chapter 2.
Maybe a best-selling author can get away with it. Maybe his fans know to go straight to chapter 2, skipping the rehash. Just the same, this is a self-defeating technique. Readers who know the story don’t need to be endlessly oriented. New readers will react like I did, and probably never get to the fun bits. (I’m assuming there are fun bits, or else how did he become a bestselling author?)
What else could he have done?
How did he do it in the first book? Presumably, that was not about our hero as a newborn babe, or even a Midshipman. He was most likely a dashing young Lieutenant, gaining advancement. And anyway, even a newborn baby has background.
I haven’t read the first book of the series. I imagine it was gripping, and quickly captured the reader. Otherwise, how did the author ever get it accepted by a publisher? I imagine he gave background as needed, through dialogue and action, and occasionally through reporting the thoughts of various characters. I am sure he did not spend page after page on just this last device.
That is a good way of introducing the first book into a series, or a stand-alone book. It is an equally good way of introducing the twenty-fifth.
3. Not yet living the story
You have an idea. You invent a few characters, and with or without a predesigned plot, you start writing. Gradually, the people and their story catch fire in your imagination, and you’re writing well. So, eventually you are writing stuff that’ll fire the reader’s imagination too. But what about the first parts, when you were not yet inspired, when it was still taking form?
I think this happened for the author of the book I mentioned at the start.
The simple answer is: rewrite. Put the project away long enough for it to get “cold,” then read it. Having got to the part where you as reader find yourself engaged, stop, and rewrite everything up to that point. The characters and the events in their life are now real in your mind, and so they will be in the new opening chapters.
4. Being stuck in straight-line chronology
A person once sent me a manuscript. He used to be a drug addict, but permanently recovered. He wanted to assist other addicts in gaining self-understanding, inspire them, and show them a path of recovery. Being a psychologist, I approved of his aim, and started reading with interest.
The first chapter of about 3000 words was a summarized biography of his father. The second chapter was the same for his mother. I waded through impersonally told facts. I read the first 1000 words of the third chapter, which covered the author’s birth and infancy.
I sent the manuscript back, with instructions for a rewrite. No reader would ever get to the important parts.
I assume his parents gave him a dysfunctional upbringing, and therefore the influences that shaped them were relevant to his message. However, the theme of the book was not their life story, but how a person may become an addict, and what to do about it. Reading about the lives of strangers was irrelevant, and boring.
How should he have started?
His life must have had a crisis point: the moment he decided to reject a drug-dominated lifestyle and build a new future for himself. THIS moment was the correct starting scene. He could have presented it vividly, with a lot of emotion and immediacy. That would have instantly made the book a page-turner for anyone, particularly those wanting to follow his example.
When biographical background was needed, it could then be put in, but always in small chunks, and always related to the theme.
The first chapter should be the best in the book. The first page, even the first paragraph, needs to grab the reader’s attention. I have presented four traps to avoid in achieving this.
Dr. Bob Rich is a professional grandfather. His main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which his grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that’s now threatening us with extinction, and replacing a culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
So far, he has retired 5 times as:
– Research scientist
– Builder’s laborer
– Director of his professional association
– Counseling psychologist
He is still going strong as a storyteller, writer and editor. To date, he has 15 published books you can inspect at his website (read the first chapter of each). Five of them have won awards. Also, he does professional editing for a number of publishers, and a steady stream of writers pre-submission.
What genre does he write in? Rather than a square peg in a round hole, he is a fractal-shaped peg that makes its own hole, so his writing doesn’t fit in genres. His main aim is to entertain, but as with every other writer, his belief system underlies everything he writes.
What is that?
Have a read of his essay, How to change the world.
Bob’s 15th book, the novel Ascending Spiral, has already received a long list of 5 star reviews, and Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s Noble Award. It is the journey of a person through many lifetimes, in order to make amends for a terrible ancient crime: destroying all life on a planet like Earth. Right now, this person is Pip, who knows he is here either to witness the destruction of humanity, or be an agent in saving us.
To do his work, he needed to recall a few of his many past lives, and the majority of the book covers exciting times full of challenges, going round and round from life to life, but always learning and growing.
Would you like to join Pip in saving a future for our children, and their children and grandchildren in perpetuity?
Bob chose to present his call to action as an exciting novel rather than as a lecture or sermon. However, the message is just as valid.
Buy ‘Ascending Spiral’ here