Monday, May 20, 2013

3 Hacking Away At Your Opening by Claire LaZebnick

When my agent agreed to represent my first novel, she told me that she had almost given up on it right at the start. Luckily for me, she kept going. But her very first note was that I had to change the first few pages, which she said were too slow. “Lose all of the set-up, start with the second chapter, plunge us right into the story,” she advised.

So I took a hatchet to the first chapter, hacking away at it until it was almost completely gone, salvaging just a few important bits, which I stuck in later. And I learned my lesson: the beginning of a novel has to grab the reader immediately, or she may well toss it aside. I had naively thought I needed to explain everything that was happening, but a touch of mystery is a good thing. Like in The Hunger Games: You may not know what the strange lottery is that everyone’s so worried about, but you’re intrigued and eager to find out.

An early draft of my YA novel Epic Fail began with a long explanation about how Elise and her sister had had to leave their old school on the east coast and enroll in a posh private school in Los Angeles. Remembering my agent’s advice as I sat down to rewrite it, I once again grabbed that trusty hatchet and cut most of the exposition, starting instead with the very immediate “The front office wasn’t as crazy as you’d expect on the first day of school” and placing Elise right in the throes of being the new kid. If readers wonder how she ended up there, great—they’ll keep reading to find out.

Setting the right tone immediately is so important. I made a mistake with the beginning of a different novel, not by being slow and boring, but by making my protagonist too unsympathetic. She’s about to take her dog on a walk when she gets an unexpected phone call that changes her plans, so she takes off the leash, apologizing to the dog. Some readers never forgave her for disappointing that dog and just couldn’t warm up to her after that; I learned that it’s important to have your main character be relatable and sympathetic right at the start. Save the bad behavior for later on, when the reader is already on her side and willing to forgive a few mistakes.

Of course, for sheer staying power, nothing beats a truly terrific first line. The really great ones stick in your head forever, like the opening of the classic Daphne DuMaurier novel Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” You instantly think, Where’s Manderley and why isn’t she there if it’s the kind of place she dreams about? It’s so simple but so intriguing.

But, to me, nothing compares with the first few sentences of Albert Camus’ great existentialist novel The Stranger: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure.” How great is that? I mean, yeah, it’s awful, but it sets up the tone of the book (distant, almost inhuman), and raises so many questions in the reader’s mind, like what kind of person is so indifferent to his own mother’s death that he doesn’t even know the exact day she died?

And, just to balance out the chill of my Camus quote, I’m going to throw in a far warmer great opening: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” If you don’t recognize it, you need to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice immediately. Austen puts her tongue firmly in her cheek with that beginning and sets the (lighthearted and brilliant) tone for what’s widely regarded as the greatest romantic novel of all time. And one, not coincidentally, that I paid homage to with Epic Fail.

About the Author

Claire LaZebnik has published two YA novels with HarperTeen: Epic Fail and The Trouble with Flirting, both loosely based on Jane Austen novels. Her third, The Last Best Kiss, will come out the summer of 2014. She has also written five novels for adults, including Same as It Never Was (which was turned into a movie for ABC Family, called Hello Sister, Goodbye Life), Knitting under the Influence, and The Smart One and the Pretty One. She’s the co-author of two nonfiction books about autism, Overcoming Autism and Growing up on the Spectrum, and has been published in The New York Times, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Self, and many other magazines and newspapers.

She lives in the Pacific Palisades with her husband Rob (who’s a co-executive producer on the animated show The Simpsons), her four kids, and too many pets to keep track of. Feel free to email her at cslazebnik {at}, or visit her author page on Facebook or her blog.

About the Book

Franny’s supposed to be working this summer, not flirting. But you can’t blame her when guys like Alex and Harry are around. . . .

Franny Pearson never dreamed she’d be attending the prestigious Mansfield Summer Theater Program. And she’s not, exactly. She’s working for her aunt, the resident costume designer. But sewing her fingers to the bone does give her an opportunity to spend time with her crush, Alex Braverman. If only he were as taken with the girl hemming his trousers as he is with his new leading lady.

When Harry Cartwright, a notorious flirt, shows more than a friendly interest in Franny, she figures it can’t hurt to have a little fun. But as their breezy romance grows more complicated, can Franny keep pretending that Harry is just a carefree fling? And why is Alex suddenly giving her those deep, meaningful looks? In this charming tale of mixed messages and romantic near-misses, one thing is clear: Flirting might be more trouble than Franny ever expected.

Buy The Trouble With Flirting on Amazon
Find The Trouble With Flirting on Goodreads


  1. That's hilarious that some readers didn't forgive you because your protagonist didn't walk the dog in the end.

    Great advice. I don't think I've written a book yet where the first chapter hasn't had to be removed or reworked. Maybe one day I'll get it right the first time.

    1. Disappointing a dog is unforgivable. I know that now! I work and work on my first chapters, too.

  2. Great advice on reworking first chapters, Claire. One of my favorite first lines is from Earl Emerson's THE SMOKE ROOM: "Experts estimated the pig fell just over 11,000 feet before it plunged through Iola Pederson’s roof."

    How could you resist reading on? I work hard to come up with "grabbers" for the first part of my novels.


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