Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Some Thoughts on Things to Consider When Trying to Make The Opening Pages of Your Novel Stand Out From The Crowd on a Slush-pile

This isn't really meant to be a 'how to write' blog, much more a 'how to go about submitting what you've written to slush-piles in the best way' blog, but, as the opening pages are the essential part of a slush-pile submission, I thought it would be worth giving them a little thought here.

It should go without saying that the best opening pages are the ones that immediately engage you in a novel – they either introduce you to a central character in a way that instantly makes you care for them and their fate, or they set a chain of events in motion that unfold without giving you any space to decide you can't be bothered to read on.

If they don't do any of the above, the chances are they're not the opening pages of a debut-novel.

How do you go about achieving these things with your own writing? I don't think there's a sure-fire way, and although I've heard a lot of successful writers talk about how much time and effort they put into their opening paragraphs/pages, I don't think I've ever heard a single one explain the nuts and bolts of the thought process they go through as they sit there for hour after hour desperately trying to get it just right; they usually just say something glib like, oh, yeah, my opening paragraph, I spent seven months writing that...

And, as with all forms of writing, every novel's different, every writer's different, so there's never going to be a 'one size fits all' approach.

From personal experience, the only thing I think most writers would benefit from keeping in mind is that the time to seriously worry about getting your opening pages right is usually only when you've got a reasonably complete draft together.

Why? Because, chances are, until you've written through to the end, you won't really understand the plot you're working on well enough to have started your novel in the right place – all the time I was working on the first draft of Broken, for instance, the start I had in place ended up five or six pages further in soon after the end was in place: It wasn't until I knew how the novel finished that I realised there was a much better way to get readers into the story.

Although the time I spent polishing that old 'opening page' wasn't wasted because it simply got shunted a few pages in, I've spent hours fretting over other opening pages that have ended up being deleted from a novel completely, and, I believe, that time would have been better spent getting to the end of the first draft rather than constantly making minor adjustments to the start and not pushing myself to keep moving things forwards.

Once you've reached the end of a relatively polished first draft, though, these are the questions I think you should be asking yourself:

  • What would be the most exciting way to start the novel? Does it presently start there? If not, why not?
  • What's the best way to introduce the main character in the most interesting way? Does this happen right now? If not, why not?
  • What's the earliest action needed to drive the plot forward? Where does this presently take place? What are the reasons if this isn't presently on the first page?
  • What's the theme of the novel/the thing that drives the narrative forward, and is there a way to hint at it on the first page?
  • What's on the first page at the moment that might make someone stop reading? How can you get rid of that? If you can't get rid of it with the novel in its present format, what new opening can you come up with that will?
  • What's on the first page at the moment that might make someone keep reading? How do you get that in earlier or make it more prominent?
  • Are the opening pages of your novel interesting? Not to you and your family and friends, but to someone who doesn't know you or care about you in the least?  If they're not, and you really want to be published, you need to rework them.     

For me, the best opening pages of novels I've read and loved have all contained some sense of immediate reality that makes the opening scenes seem true to life - no matter what genre I'm reading, I love it when I feel I'm reading about people and realities that feel as if they actually exist.  Because I know this approach works for me, it's the one I strive for with my own writing.  I think the best way for any writer to up their game is to look at what excites them about other writers and try to get their own work as close to that level as possible.  What are the novels you love/admire?  Look at the opening pages of these novels, then go back to your own work and think about what you can do to push for the same standard.  This, I think, is the best way to try and challenge yourself to really improve.

With that in mind, if you're an unpublished writer, I think you need to be reading the opening pages of as many debut novels as possible.  They're often fresher and more vibrant than those written by people further along in their careers, and this, if you're submitting to slush-piles, is what you need to be aiming for - unlike someone with five or six novels behind them, you don't have the luxury of allowing people's attention to drift.