Kathleen's blog post yesterday about Cornwell's The Last Kingdom got me thinking about beginnings in general and tied into something I've been doing for the last week or so: judging an "opening chapters" writing contest. I enjoy judging for several reasons--not least of which is reading new authors and later learning whether my opinion of talent is reflected in the listing of finalists (gratifying in its own way). It's also an opportunity on a craft level to recognize what works and what doesn't.
Without naming names or divulging plot specifics, I'd like to talk about how the openings of the entries I've read this year are working for me or not. Just my opinion here; take it for what it's worth.
First of all, nothing loses me more quickly than huge gaps in logic. A pair of sisters turn a persistent refulgent green in 1405, but they aren't ostracized or cast out of the country or burned at the stake for witchcraft when they're still green five years later? Hmm. (No, that wasn't an actual plot, but I read one that was close.) Now, I can suspend my belief in a fantasy-type book and allow that people may turn green via some wicked-witch curse or whatever, but I can't swallow putting aberrant characters in a real-world situation without real-world consequences. Likewise, I need to believe in a relationship's progression, whether the relationship is between strangers, family members, lovers or even man and nature.
Making me believe in a story is the first step to making me care about it. Making me care about it is instrumental to making me want to continue reading it.
Another common problem was the dreaded backstory dump, like the writer who had nothing but character history on her manuscript's first 8 pages. Yaaaaawn. Think about it: Would you rather sit down to dinner with a stranger and hear their entire life story in the course of three hours, or would you like to engage in a conversation with that stranger, feeling intrigued as the evening progresses and learning more about that person in due time?
Other problems included awkward point-of-view switches, grammatical gaffes and blunt-as-spoons first-scene hooks. One writer began the story on the edge of an action scene, but without introducing a single thing about the characters or otherworldly setting. I'd never read anything like it. I was cast into story conflict without even the teeniest chance of caring about it, and the writer kept the pacing so overwound that there was never an opportunity for correcting the fatal flaw.
I have to be honest: though I've committed to reading these partial entries through as a judge, regardless of their readability, I wouldn't have finished most of them if I wasn't obligated and they'd been before me in completed book form. I would've read a few to the last page, though, despite some grammatical errors and tedious opening lines; in fact, I would've been glued to at least one of them, bound to the couch for a day with the story in my hand and a cat in my lap.
While I appreciate a witty line and a well-crafted scene that propels a story forward, what really hooks me is a smooth voice, unique story concept and great characterization. In truth, I even would've read more about the "green sisters" because the author had a lyrical voice and hooked me with her strange premise by page 10. (I forgave the one glaring flaw in the story's logic, but the author had to earn this...and did.) Other things this particular author did right:
* The story is full of golden sentences that do more than provide info. They contain layers of meaning, revealing something about the characters or society, or giving some hints re: conflict to come.
* The characters are not only interesting, but I can identify with their stakes (even if I can't identify with their strange situation). These stakes are high, involving not only them, but the fate of an entire township.
* The story "world" is well painted on the page. I can see the setting in my mind's eye. This ties back into what I said earlier: "Making me believe in a story is the first step to making me care about it." Making me SEE it is part of making me believe in it.
* There was an unexpected and mega-interesting twist in the synopsis, which makes me REALLY want to read more. If I were an editor, I would definitely ask for a "full" based upon these few chapters plus synopsis.
Bottom line: Judging in a contest can be a great way to reinforce what you've learned about writing--especially about writing bad and good beginnings.
(An aside: One of the links on our blog leads to the Bulwer-Lytton (Bad) Fiction Contest. Also online is the American Book Review's 100 Best First Lines From Novels. It's always good to know the good from the bad.)