Sunday, May 1, 2016

5 Questions to Ask About Your Book’s Beginning

So you’ve finished the first draft of your novel or memoir—congratulations! Now you’re on the road to revision and you need to ask yourself some hard and pointed questions. Of course a good place to start the analysis of your manuscript is at the beginning. Your book’s opening pages are the place where you make a contract with your reader. You’ll want to draw her in and keep her reading. And if this reader is also an agent, making the best impression you can is even more important.

Ask yourself the following questions and make some notes on your manuscript. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with a hard copy or Scrivener or something in between—use what feels the most comfortable.

1 - Are you spending too much time warming up?

A lot of newer writers feel they must set the scene and prepare the reader for what’s to follow. Or they think that they need to warm up with a long description of the trees dotting the mountaintops and the clouds billowing in the sky before getting to the action. Am I saying that you can’t have some description in your beginning? Nope. But you need to get things moving—to not waste any time in getting to the interesting part of your story.
You don’t want to put your reader to sleep. Now there are some writers who are so skilled at their craft that they could make the dullest environmental impact statement riveting. I am not one of them and neither, probably, are you. So think about dispensing with the dull and irrelevant bits and don’t hesitate to get to the point. You can always fill in other details later if necessary. Show the action first and explain later.

2 - Is There An Inciting Incident or Triggering Event?

This is the interesting part (see above). A lot of time this will have to do with something that happens to your protagonist, not necessarily something he is actively pursuing. It can be, for example, when the dead body is discovered or when the protagonist receives an invitation to her college reunion or when a father receives a call that his son has just been arrested. The inciting incident or triggering event usually signals that the stability of the protagonist’s world is in jeopardy. Remember the Teletubbies? When something happened that wasn’t quite right, little Po was sure to say, “Uh-oh.” Make sure your beginning has an “uh-oh” moment or two.

3 – Is There Too Much Backstory?

Sometimes critique group members might complain that they want to know more about your protagonist. This can be a legitimate concern, but the trick is to not be bogged down in the beginning with lengthy explanations about the character’s background. If you can pull off a riveting opening and show your character in action with a problem at hand, you’ll find that readers will be patient enough to wait for more details that will fill in the blanks. You should be evoking the feeling that they’re in good hands with you as a writer, that you will be taking care of them in due time.

4 – Why Should the Reader Care?

A reader wants to feel that he is getting somewhere as he reads and not just experiencing a series of random events without any cause and effect. You should be evoking a feeling of forward momentum and emotional energy and urgency, and this is whether you’re writing a coming of age journey, a tale of suspense, or a love story. Of course not everything needs to be revealed immediately, but your reader needs to feel rest assured that there is a point to all of this and that it’s worth his while to keep going with your book. It’s a big question and it bears repeating: Why should the reader care?

 5 – Is That Prologue Really Necessary?

Yes, there are certain genres where it seems to be de rigueur that you start with a prologue. But often prologues can be red flags to agents. In the hands of a less skilled writer, they can simply be construed as a filling in of a plot point that should be employed elsewhere or not at all—or trying to fix a plot hole. Or giving a point of view of a mystery character who we don’t end up hearing from until 200 pages later and by then he’s long forgotten. And readers often skip prologues anyway. Think outside the box and see if you can’t employ your prologue’s information in another way or dispense with it altogether. Ask yourself objectively what it truly adds to your book.

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