Episode 171: Off to a Good Start

In the first episode of 2022, Kasie and Rex take on the first page of the story. Not without a little goal setting conversation first, though. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

New Beginnings – Great Opening Lines and Pages

Agenda

  • 2021 Review
  • 2022 Goals and forecast
  • What makes a great opening line?
  • Why the first page is so critical
  • How to write a kick-ass first page
Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com

Segment 1

We had a good year in 2021 and want to thank our patrons and our sponsors for their generous support. The South Carolina Writers Association invites you to join the ranks of over 400 writers in the state who are workshopping, fellowshipping, and honing their craft together. The Writing Conversations series kicked off this past Thursday with a generative session with David Schwartz, as one participant said, “a great way to start the new writing year.” Next week we’ll hear from memoirist and novelist Brad Land during the Thursday, noon session. Visit myscwa,org to learn more and register to receive the Zoom link.

Carolyn Hartley, author of the historical fiction piece, Redemption: One Woman’s Dream to Overcome Oppression; Find Family, Love, and Forgiveness and patron of the show, has another novel on its way. She’s been kind enough to include me in advance readers and I’m loving it so far. Visit jmerrillpress.com/shop to purchase your copy of Redemption in advance of this next title, Reconciliation. You’ll become a Carolyn Hartley fan, I promise you.

And CJ Heigelmann released a thriller, Can’t Hide What’s Inside, last fall. We didn’t get a chance to give it a proper read and review, but we’ll recommend taking a look. Visit mustreadcj.com to learn more about the book, CJ, and his other work.

Additional patrons and supporters of the show include Rose Mooney, Randy Mac, and Julia Daily. Thanks to all of you for your continued support. 

We’ve done a series of interviews with authors that can be found on our YouTube channel. Go out and meet some of our patrons and other SCWA members who have spoken with Kasie via the internet to promote their work. If you’d like a Write On SC interview for your media collection, send Kasie an email at kasie@clemsonroad.com and she’ll let you know what it entails.

Okay, so our own goals for 2021 were to grow our patrons list (and earnings) and we did that. Albeit modestly. But Kasie also published her second novel in 2021 and Rex successfully pitched a horror series to a publisher. So let’s talk a little about how those goals have shaped up. Kasie also secured an agent, Amy Collins of the Talcott Agency, to represent the vampire book, Being Blue. 

What about 2022? What’s on the horizon?

Segment 2/3

Okay, today’s writing-related (non-goal) topic is Great Beginnings. New Beginnings. First lines and first pages. Starting off on the right foot. All those euphemisms for the most important page in the book. The first one.

When we did this topic in May of 2020 (episode 94) I told you about a terrible beginning to a romance novel that had triggered my gag reflex. It’s often the case that the first page of a book is a bit of a difficult entry point. Even a more recent read (that turned out to be quite good), The Beautiful, struggled to pull me in. Too much world-building and exposition dumping. Needed information? Sure. As fascinating to me, newbie to the world, as it is to the author? Probably not.

So here are five bad beginnings of novels. Not based on agent feedback from slushfest – although that’s a great way to learn these things – but based on our own experience reading over 100 books per year. 

Took some of these from John Fox (link here) of BookFox.

Dream Sequence

The problem with a dream sequence is we think it’s real. We don’t know it’s not. So the first thing you’re doing is tricking us. That sucks. I (Kasie) don’t really like dream sequences ever. But I understand their usefulness in some cases to show a person’s subconscious preoccupation or neuroses.

KM Weiland writes these five ways to do it successfully:

  1. The dream isn’t really a dream (it’s a vision, a premonition, or a memory)
  2. The dream is a hook: it’s visual, it asks a question
  3. The dream isn’t a fake beginning if it’s followed by a second hook
  4. Make the dream action immediate to what happens next in the “awake” plane
  5. Tell the reader immediately that they’re in a dream (zero gravity, historical figures incongruent i.e. Abraham Lincoln is a vampire hunter)

But starting with a dream is hard, and our friend Jane Friedman elaborates on why here. But explains that some authors say to hell with the rules and do the dream thing anyway and it works. Specifically: 

  • “When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant beetle.” The Metamorphosis, Kafka
  • “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.” The Dinosaur, Monterroso

So bringing whatever was happening in the dream into the reality of the immediate, the moment, is a way to make the Begin with a Dream effort work.

World Building

So this was the challenge with The Beautiful. It’s a vampire book and spent the first two pages explaining the complicated political history of the story’s specific vampire covens. Why is world building bad to begin? Because it’s usually theoretical, or the kind of dry factual writing found in history books.

What is world building? We did two episodes on it (ep. 4 and ep. 116) and there’s this blog from Self-publishingschool.com to help define it as well. Essentially, it’s the rules that govern the social, environmental, political, economic, technological, and legal aspects of the fantasy world you’re creating.

World building to begin can be one successfully when you begin the story with a regular day in the life of the world and show the character moving through that world. As Suzanne Collins does in The Hunger Games, showing Katniss going about her normal morning routine while giving details about the fencing, the hunting, and other aspects of the economy that Katniss experiences. This blog has a list of novels with really good world building.

World building can also begin the story if the main character is going to be our “new lens” – someone else seeing the world for the first time like we are. Think Harry Potter’s fateful birthday after those bizarre owl attacks and Lucy Pevency meeting Mr. Tumnus in the wardrobe.

Backstory

If the book begins by explaining what happened 300 years ago, 15 years ago, even 5 months ago, I’m going to wonder when the story plans to actually begin. Backstory or exposition matters, certainly, to put events in context, but shouldn’t be the beginning of the story because what we want is the immediate – the action – of the story we’re reading.

Description of a character

Maybe it’s a driver’s license rendering, or the adoration of an author in love with their Mary Sue, but beginning with looks kills it for me. We need basics – is this person old or young? Male or female or nonbinary? Urban or country? Employed or not? Wealthy or struggling?

Reading a character sketch is boring. Put the character in action. Give them something to want, even if it’s a small want related to the big want.

  • Young woman at an audition, not the prettiest in the room
  • Old man in the post office, his former place of employment
  • Kid on a playground watching an alien spaceship land on the soccer field
  • Older sister feeding her siblings dinner again sees a flashlight in the window
  • Dad checking son’s homework notices a discrepancy in a history answer, he was there and knows it didn’t happen that way

Starting with dialogue

I don’t agree with this unless the dialogue is boring as hell. As a reader, dialogue is interesting to me and I want to know who’s speaking and what they’re talking about. But, some readers might not care what the person has to say unless they know who the person is, so it’s a risk.

Here are some dos and don’ts about starting with dialogue.

  1. Introduce your main character first.
  2. Create context around the dialogue.
  3. Hint at the story’s main challenge or conflict.
  4. Minimize the number of speakers.
  5. Give your characters distinct voices and personalities.

Avoid:

  1. Talking head syndrome – multiple speakers not knowing who is speaking
  2. Trivial characters – a cab driver, a ticket taker, a flight attendant, people who don’t matter
  3. Pointless or procedural dialogue – “hi, how are you?” or small talk isn’t engaging or dramatic
  4. Talking in a void – where is the conversation taking place? In person? On the phone?
  5. The name game – characters addressing people by their names repeatedly.

Segment 4

This blog on reedsy has some tips for great ways to start a novel:

  1. Think about the novel as a whole – themes and tone
  2. Set the mood of the book – urgent? Cautious? Reckless? Mysterious?
  3. Choose your point of view – genre rules apply
  4. Craft a great opening line (love this advice cuz, ‘duh, but how?’) – consider Orwell: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Just yes.
  5. Introduce the characters early but go easy on the backstory – a few key details, not the summary of their life or the driver’s license description.
  6. Establish the stakes of the story – what matters here? 
  7. Develop the inciting incident – why this moment? What happens now that makes this the right beginning?
  8. Revisit the opening as the book evolves – you may decide to add or exchange information as the plot unfolds through the draft. Be open to the evolution of the first scene, too.

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