Newbie Mistakes #1: Let’s start at the very beginning…

13 Jan

On a couple of occasions recently, a student has asked me: ‘Miss, what qualifications do you need to be a writer?’

Unfortunately, I reply, it’s not as simple as getting a certificate and magically becoming ‘a writer’. There is really only one way to be a writer and that is to write.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to be learned about writing – on the contrary, there’s a lot to get your head round. Having spent a few years now on the YA scene, I’ve seen a lot of new writers make the same mistakes – and made them myself. So, in a small series of posts, I’m going to discuss some of these classic newbie errors – and how to avoid them.

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In the immortal words of Maria Von Trapp, let’s start at the very beginning…the beginning of your book…

Lesson One: Delete. Your. Prologue

I fell prey to this one almost straight away when I opened my first book with my villain, musing on his great and evil plan as he surveyed the land. Oh geez. I realise now what an enormous cliche this was.

The thing about prologues is, they just delay the good stuff. I was making my reader wait several hundred words to get to the beginning of the story. The prologue didn’t have any real value, because it was all info-dump. I thought I was setting up tension, but there was nothing to hook the reader – no sense of investment for them. Even if they were intrigued by the villain’s viewpoint, I never came back to that in the rest of the novel. It was pointless.

That’s why most agents advise against starting with a prologue. I know there are some writers who use them well  – such as George R.R. Martin, who uses his to build detail and set up story threads in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. But you are not GRRM. You are a new author who can’t afford to wait several pages to hook the agent/editor/reader into your story.

Which brings us neatly to…

Lesson Two: Start at the Start

So, after reading some advice online, I realised my prologue wasn’t working and I deleted it.

Now my story started with my main character, Becca, waking up on the morning of her birthday and getting dressed. Great, I thought. I can tell the reader what she looks like and what her everyday life is like before I hit them with the action.

Big mistake. Again, I hadn’t given my reader any reason to stick with Becca’s story. So she puts on a jumper and goes out for a walk? So what? And the long passage where she looked into a mirror and described herself was just a load of boring ‘infodump’. I was telling the reader everything rather than showing it.

Luckily, the lovely Susanne Winnacker helped me come to my senses and see that I needed to start the story at the start of the story. I wove my background information and description into her pattern of thoughts as her adventure began, which ultimately made for a much more gripping and interesting first chapter.

So, it’s wise to avoid the ‘I woke up bright and early that day, feeling like everything was totally normal’ cliche. If your story really does start when your character wakes up, look at how Suzanne Collins (author of The Hunger Games) manages it – by building tension around the coming Reaping. This is not just another ordinary day in Katniss’s world. This is a day we want to read about.

Lesson Three: (Don’t) Dream On

I’ve never written this one myself, but I know a few people who have. The book draws you in with a wild, heart-pounding action sequence or spine-tingling horror scene – then reveals it’s all just a dream. 

Oh. 

Unless you are extremely skilled, this kind of opening can come across as a cheap way to hook the reader, and leave a nasty taste in their mouth in the process. It’s also usually followed by the character waking up and going about their normal life, which we’ve already ascertained isn’t really the best start.

Re-read your opening chapter. Find the point at which the story really starts. If you pick the right moment, this should be enough to hook your reader without resorting to gimmicks – and if it doesn’t, you might need to think again about your plot. Your story should have momentum. You just need to find the right place to get it in motion.
For more on this topic, I recommend the always excellent Janice Hardy   (two links for ya there), Nathan Bransford and Uncle Jim.

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3 Responses to “Newbie Mistakes #1: Let’s start at the very beginning…”

  1. beautiful loser January 13, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

    Great advice!

  2. Carissa February 26, 2013 at 7:13 am #

    I totally agree that prologues need to go – especially when querying an agent … it’s just (a) way to hard to hook someone with Not-The-Beginning and/or the opposite problem of (b) misleading the reader if the prologue hooks, but the story itself follows a different, much slower plotline.

    But I do think that after getting an agent/publisher, there can be a time and place to add prologues back into certain manuscripts.

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