Monday, June 10, 2013

46 Breaking the Rules in Your Novel Opening, Plus a Critique Giveaway by Liz Coley

Please welcome today's guest Liz Coley! She has generously offered to give away a two page (max 500 words) critique. Enter to win at the bottom of the post.

When I wrote the first three words of Pretty Girl-13, I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t planning ahead. The simple phrase my fingers produced were a Christmas present from my subconscious--more an early Christmas present, because it was November 1, 2009, the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). More than three years later, in early 2013, their significance hit me between the eyes like an arrow. I laughed as it struck home.

The first three words? “You had forgotten…”

Of course. How perfect. The whole novel is about things forgotten and things remembered, about things repressed and things recovered. But I can’t claim credit. It just happened.

Establish a Voice, a Setting, and a Conflict
In fact, the rest of the prologue chapter, Lost Time, fell out of my brain the same way, in a flash of inspiration. The final version is 99% untouched from that day because the opening did what openings are supposed to do—it established a voice, in this case a creepy and mysterious observer reporting in second person, recalling to Angie the circumstances of her disappearance; and it established a setting, a character, and a conflict. Most importantly, the opening followed the principle that I had been taught: the story starts when the world changes.

At a writing workshop I attended, the faculty read some opening sentences, and we voted on whether we would read on: yes, no, maybe. Common reasons for “YES” included beautiful language, clever imagery, engaging voice, surprises, or words having to do with death or violence. There was always the promise of time well spent.

When Your Writing Is Ready, You Can Bend the Rules
Beginning writers are told any number of rules. Don’t begin with a weather report. Don’t begin with dialogue. Don’t begin with self-examination or back story. Don’t begin with a world-building information dump. By the time your writing is mature enough to earn publication, you’ve earned the right to fold, spindle, and mutilate these rules. Some examples from my bookshelves:

(1) Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
(begins with a “weather report” like we’ve never seen)

The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.
Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavored catfood for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by high altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold.
Any other summer, a sunset like this would have been beautiful. But nothing had been beautiful since Peris turned pretty. Losing your best friend sucks, even if it’s only for three months and two days.

(2) The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert
(begins with dialogue, but what dialogue!)

“’Tis time to rob the dead.”
Nettle kicks me again. I pull my tattered wolfskin closer about my shoulders and curl into a tighter ball, scooting across the packed dirt of the floor to move as near as I dare to the embers in the fire pit.
“Rise up, lass. Stir your lazy bones, or else half the gleanings will be gone before we get there. Do not think to sleep away the day like a princess in a castle.”
She kicks me again and I open my eyes. Although she is a small woman, she towers above my pallet, her face and shoulders tense as always. If a sorcerer were to bewitch a needle into life, that creature would be Nettle.”

(3) The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart
(begins with explicit self-revelation in a voice that sings)

Before anyone reading this thinks to call me a slut—or even just imagines I’m incredibly popular—let me point out that this list includes absolutely every single boy I have ever had the slightest little any-kind-of-anything with.
Boys I never kissed are on this list.
Boys I never even talked to are on this list.
Dr. Z told me not to leave anyone off. Not even if I think he’s unimportant.
In fact, especially if I think he’s unimportant.

(4) The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick
(begins with world-building jargon, a disenfranchised hero, a killer premise)

If you’re reading this, then it must be a thousand years from now. Because nobody around here reads anymore. Why bother, when you can just probe it! Put all the images and excitement inside your brain and let it rip. There are all kinds of mind probes—trendies, shooters, sexbos, whatever you want to experience. Shooters are violent, and trendies are about living in Eden, and sexbos, well you can guess what sexbos are about. They say probing is better than anything. I wouldn’t know because I’ve got this serious medical condition that means I’m allergic to electrode needles. Stick one of those in my brain and it’ll kick off a really bad seizure and then—total mind melt, lights out, that’s all folks.
They call me Spaz, which is kind of a mope name, but I don’t mind, not anymore.

------------------------

Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes.




About the Author

Liz Coley writes fiction for teens and for the teen in you.
Her first published work was science fiction short stories, published in Cosmos magazine and several anthologies.
Self-published YA novel "Out of Xibalba" features a contemporary teenager thrown back to ancient Mayan times. "The story starts when the world ends."
Upcoming "Pretty Girl-13" from HarperCollins will be released in at least ten languages and audiobook."There are secrets you can't even tell yourself."
Liz lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband, her teenaged daughter, a snoring dog, and a limping old cat. When she's not involved in writing-related activities, she can be found sewing, baking, shooting photos, playing tennis, and singing.
Liz loves reading aloud.
Visit Liz on her website
Check out Liz's blog
Like Liz on Facebook


About the Book

Pretty girl
13 when she
went missing

lost
to her family
to her friends
to the world

found
but still missing
her self

In Liz Coley's alarming and fascinating psychological mystery, sixteen-year-old Angie Chapman must piece together the story of her kidnapping and abuse. Pretty Girl-13 is a disturbing—and ultimately empowering—page-turner about accepting our whole selves, and the healing power of courage, hope, and love.
Buy PRETTY GIRL-13 on Amazon
Find PRETTY GIRL-13 on Goodreads


46 comments:

  1. I've also heard another opening people don't like is the "My name is..." first sentence. My question is: why?

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    1. I've never seen that analyzed, but if I take a crack at it, I think it's because there is not much leeway to grab the reader. You can argue that Melville did it with "Call me Ishmael," but that's been done. At best, you're crafting a sentence that is essentially a throwaway and puts the emphasis on the second sentence to grab the reader, at worst, you're being derivative. Unless you can come up with a great twist, it's a tough road. Most important it's hard to connect to what the story is about with a start like that. And that's the job of your opening: to get into the story and the character as quickly as possible.

      Does that help any? Hope so!

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  2. I hear so many things about opening lines and "The hook" @__@ I sometimes feel like my opening is never goign to be good enough

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    1. Ellie,

      You'll get it! Sometimes it helps to think about what the book means to you. What is the one thing that you wouldn't change about the book if you HAD to change everything except one thing? Can you somehow connect your opening to that? Foreshadow it? Create a sentence that hints at it? Once you have that sentence, think of your main character doing something on the day that is different. You don't have to explain everything. Give the reader some questions so we have a reason to keep reading. Take some of the pressure off yourself and just enjoy the scene you create. Your readers will enjoy it too.

      Hang in there!

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  3. As long as I don't worry about crafting the perfect opening, it comes to me. The minute I think about it, it's all over! Openings can be so hard!

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    1. Oh, I know just what you mean. When I think about everything I want the reader to know, I psyche myself out. But when I think of it as just a scene, it's much easier.

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  4. Those are some great rule-breaking openings, makes me want to read them all - except for Uglies, which I already did :)

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    1. I loved Uglies! Scott Westerfeld is amazing, and Tally's voice is incredible. I haven't read the Third Witch yet, but I am definitely going to remedy that.

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  5. Thanks for the tips and the great examples, Liz. We loved having you on the blog today! The opening of Uglies is one of my favorites. We "get" Tally in every word. It does exactly what setting should do from a first person POV--it shows us character.

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  6. Great post and thanks for the tips :)

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  7. I think a main issue with "My name is..." is that it establishes a relationship that distances the reader. It sets up the protagonist as a narrator telling us the story, which makes it harder for the reader to inhabit the protagonist like an extension of self. If that's the goal however, to say "you are nothing like me and here's my story" or "here I am to entertain you for a while" or "let me brief/orient you" or some other rationale, then it can be a valid choice if pulled off. Janet Evanovich certainly gets away with it, though not necessarily in the first sentence.

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    1. Oh, EXCELLENT point, LIz! Especially in first person that narrative distance is a killer. The Stephanie Plum books are a great example of a gifted author twisting things up. Evanovich turns the trope into a narrator inviting us to laugh at the character as she laughs at herself: "My name is Stephanie Plum. In reality, I rarely have good hair days, and at the moment, I had a zit on my chin." There's almost always some vulnerable confession that comes right after the name that brings us in closer.

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  8. I often read the first sentence(s)/page of a book to see how the author chose to begin it and learn from there when I start to write. I do wonder at times how the beginning will set the tone of the work so it's always fun to analyze how others have done it. Thanks for the additional examples, Liz!

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    1. Hi Jenn,

      That's a smart way to break things down! I always love trying to figure out why something works. :) It's much more fun that figuring out why something fails.

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  9. Great post. Loved your samples. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. I love this! Openings are such an important part of this process, but what to do and not to do is something that can be so subjective. I blogged about this last week actually and think it makes for great debate!

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    1. I just posted a long-winded comment on your post, which was lovely, by the way! I'm not sure it's as much subjective as it is how well it serves the story. But yes, going with a trope that agents and editors see so often means that we will have to work that much harder to WOW in the first few sentences.

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  11. Oh, WOW that book looks intriguing! :D

    I love openings. They're my favorite parts to write. It's fresh, it's new, and it's exciting! I love starting and ending a book, hence the reasons I love openings.

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    1. Oh I so wish that I was you. I don't know how many times I have to write beginnings and endings before they say what I want to say. Maybe that's because although I often know what I think the book is about, I don't discover the real meaning until many drafts later.

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  12. Thank you for showing us those who break the rules and still succeed. I usually love opening with dialoge. I feel like I just walked in on a private conversation and it really draws me in.

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    1. Dialogue is great as long as we have a sense of who is speaking and where. If an author can do that quickly enough, I'll love the scene. I think for me, the important thing is that I want a complete scene soon to get me into the action! :)

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  13. Really interesting post! I love the examples you used... think I'll be adding some new books to my must-read list! :)

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    1. I can recommend them all -- except for the The Third Witch, which I've just added to my own TBR pile. :) Enjoy!

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  14. Thanks for this post. So much to learn!

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    1. Knowing that is the biggest step in actually learning. :) Hang in there, Jacqueline. We all feel like we don't know enough.

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  15. I remember being shocked then laughing at the cat vomit forecast. Thanks for the other first lines. I'll go look up those books.

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    1. i don't know if I laughed out loud then, but I certainly knew I had to keep reading. It's priceless, isn't it?

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  16. Thanks for such an informative post.

    -BPond90

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  17. There are a great number of rules for every writing situation, and it seems just as many reasons to break them. :.)

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  18. Thanks for a fun and informative post! I love analyzing beginnings. And I LOVE the beginning of UGLIES--it definitely caught my attention when I started reading the book; I had to laugh and read it aloud to my husband). That is definitely the weather taken to a new level. The other first lines are good, too!

    Liz's book descriptions sound intriguing; I like her saying that she "writes fiction for teens and for the teen in you." :o)

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    1. I love that too! There's that part of all of us that's always insecure and hopeful and a little bit flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants., isn't there?

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    2. I think I haven't entirely grown up. My fifteen year old daughter frequently accuses me of being a teenager.

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  19. Those are awesome openings! They sure grab my attention :) Thanks for the tips!

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  20. A few great openings there. I'm tempted to break the no-prologue 'rule' in the WIP. It's a tough decision.

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    1. It all depends on what will best serve your manuscript. I like to think "the rules" like that one are guidelines to help make us consider alternative ways of achieving a goal and then using the best choice instead of the easiest or first that comes to mind. If that's really the right solution for you and you feel passionate about it, then try it. But check out the post Lori Goldstein wrote on her blog. She pointed out that when she followed the rules, she was able to succeed where she had failed before. Getting the attention of an agent or editor is hard. REALLY freaking hard. Be sure you really believe in your choice. :)

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  21. What wonderful openings! I obviously need this critique!

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  22. Having heard you read your work, Carol, I highly doubt that! :) But on the other hand, everyone can always benefit from a fresh pair of eyes and a thoughtful reading! I suspect this will be a great critique, too!

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  23. Boyfriend List is now on my to-read list! Thanks for this :)

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  24. Yes, absolutely you must know the rues before you bend them! But breaking conventions here and there helps keep your work fresh.

    My opening is the most re-written part of my novel. Hmm. Wonder what that says about me. Anyway, thanks for the chance to win a critique!

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  25. Loved this post! I've always thought rules were meant to be broken;-) Your book sounds wonderful--congrats!

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  26. Thanks for your post. It's amazing how three words can represent your novel.

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  27. Thanks for this post. Very helpful.

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  28. Great information. I must have written my first lines a thousand times, especially after finishing the novel. And sending my first pages to Martina and Jan have been the most helpful.

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  29. This is such a great post. I have had huge issues with all the openings to every book I've written. Even now when I go to revise, I worry and pour over those first few pages. They cause me more stress than most of the rest of the novel combined.

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