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ASK THE EDITOR How to Begin a Novel

By Susan Malone

January 2001

Last month we talked some about characterization, and now let's turn to plot.

Specifically, let's focus on how to successfully begin a novel.

Isn't that just the hardest part? I get a lot of mail from folks trying to figure out where to start, and how much to tell up front, and how active page one needs to be, etc., etc. And the answers vary. A lot. Depending upon in what genre you're writing, for one thing. A Thriller must begin very differently from a Western or a Romance or even a Cozy Mystery. But as far as the writer is concerned, the inherent factors remain the same.

The best way to begin a novel is just to begin it. In other words, quit obsessing and write. If you're serious about the process, no one will ever see the first draft anyway. And even if you're of the sort who specifically outlines from alpha to omega, much will change once you get to that first 'the end.' At which point, you'll always go into revisions by rewriting the beginning. Often, many times.

All right, so the original creation process is finished, and you're into revisions. What do you want to accomplish with your opening? HOW you do this will vary by genre, but WHAT you want to get done in the beginning crosses them all.

By far the biggest glitch I see is that the novel really begins about fifty pages in. Writers, especially those who haven't gotten their sea legs yet (no matter how long they've been at it–learning to write is not a matter of time so much as it is of willingness, dedication, and application), ramble along for a good way before finding the track of their story. Even seasoned writers do this, especially those who write from "discovery"–not knowing exactly how to get where they're going until it opens before them. The difference is, professionals then go back to cut and begin again, and aren't afraid of killing their own words to do so. Your editing arm will learn to point out where the pacing lags, or how much ancillary material needs slicing because much of that was necessary for the writer to know, but not the reader. Remember, your reader is trusting you to tell him ONLY those things that pertain to these specific characters in this specific story. The rest is just background material for you, the author.

The next problem I see has to do with the book's hook. Now, entire volumes have been published regarding this subject, so I'm not going to delve into it deeply. In fact, I really believe too much has been made of it, in that now writers are so sensitive to setting said hooks that their books' beginnings are often contrived. Settle down here. Yeah, your book needs a good hook, which is no more than a reason for me to keep reading. And yeah, I need a sense of where the book is heading and who the main folks are from the set up. But I don't need a crash course in the characters' histories, or an intricate foreknowledge of what's to come. That produces the opposite effect of what you seek-turning off your reader so much with all the detail that he spits out your lure and swims back into the bookstore's sea.

A hook can be nothing more than a quirky character about whom I want to know more (unless of course this is a Suspense Thriller). Or a bizarre event that tweaks my interest. And yeah, it needs to come early enough to catch my curiosity so I keep going. Rule of thumb in Murder Mysteries is that the killing should occur on page one. If you can't hook 'em with some sort of unique slaying, you need to pick another genre in which to write. In all categories of Romance, my heart should stir in chapter one. In Mainstream I should find a character compelling enough to cause me to want more, and in Literary, the writing needs to take my breath, at least for moments.

Here as well is where you establish the Protagonist-the person with whom your reader is to travel the course of this novel. And, you must give a sense of his/her conflict(s)–even if the catalyst for the conflict (be it man or beast, internal or external, supernatural or drought) isn't itself in evidence. The point of the conflict on the main character is the important thing, not the conflict itself.

You must also firmly set the tone. If this is to be a Murder Mystery of some sort, someone gets killed straight out of the gate, thereby setting an ominous tone (if it's well done). If the book's a Literary one, the writing itself must effect the resonance that you seek. The first sentence of any book is absolutely crucial, and you may spend as much time on it as the rest of the tome combined. Think of the opening lines to famous books. As an example, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," would be looked upon as somewhat contrived in a novel from today, but it still holds up, having set the tone for one of our lasting works of literature. Nothing does more to set said tone (or not) than your first line.

Accomplish these essential elements, in the fewest number of words possible, and you'll be well on your way to writing a smashing book!

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. SEVEN books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last two years. Her own newest nonfiction, FIVE KEYS FOR UNDERSTANDING MEN, co-authored with Gary L. Malone, MD, is out now. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com