HOW TO START A NOVEL

How to Start a Novel: A Checklist Posted by Laura DiSilverio

Great opening lines

Consider the following . . .

“All this happened, more or less.”  Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”  The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

“‘What makes Iago evil?’ some people ask. I never ask.”  Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion

“The snow in the mountains was melting, and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.”  The Secret History, Donna Tartt

“I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault.”  To the Hilt, Dick Francis

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Did these first lines draw you in, make you want to go find the books and read them? Look what a single sentence can do!

No one will deny that a novel’s beginning is key to its success. Some might argue that its ending is even more important, but we’re not here to have that debate. Instead, we’re going to talk about how to start a novel—specifically, how to craft a stellar opening line and great opening paragraphs.

The writer’s goal for page one

Before we can discuss the specifics of how to start a novel, we need to talk about a writer’s goals for a story’s opening paragraph. Your primary goal is to make the reader keep reading. Sounds simple. But we know from our own experiences as readers, that it’s not so simple. How many times have you pulled a book off a library shelf, perhaps intrigued by the cover, read the first line or three, and re-shelved it? Hundreds of times, right? Do you read two or three pages, or an entire chapter while standing in the bookstore? I don’t. If a writer hasn’t snared me by the end of the first paragraph, I don’t pull out my Visa.

What keeps a reader reading?

Books and articles on how to start a novel sometimes list dozens of things that will keep a reader reading. In my experience, they boil down to only two reasons: a compelling character (not necessarily “likable”) and/or getting swept into the action. Both of these hinge on evoking curiosity, making the reader want to know more about the character or find out how the action turns out, and setting up conflict. (There is a special, third way to start your novel, that I’ll discuss at the end.)

How to start a novel with a compelling character

No one technique will snare all readers, but we can make some generalizations. For the purposes of this section, let’s consider the opening paragraph, only three sentences, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.*

Raise questions.

If your opening line or opening paragraphs raises questions in the reader’s mind, she is more likely to read on to discover the answer. The immediate question Gaiman’s first line brings to mind is “What did Shadow do to end up in prison?” We keep reading, hoping to find out.

Introduce a multi-layered, interesting character.

Shadow’s a big, apparently tough dude in prison, but he’s teaching himself coin tricks, of all things, and he loves his wife. These front-and-center contradictions pique a reader’s interest (and all promise conflict). As a bonus, he’s sympathetic. We tend to be drawn to smart, curious people (teaching himself coin tricks), and people who love their family members, so we’re pre-disposed to like Shadow, even though the first thing we learn about him is that he’s in prison.

How to start a novel with action

In his book The Watchman, Robert Crais opens with the kind of action that keeps a reader reading. (Note: This great opening paragraph is only two sentences.)

The city was hers for a single hour, just the one magic hour, only hers. The morning of the accident, between three and four A.M. when the streets were empty and the angels watched, she flew east on Wilshire Boulevard at eighty miles per hour, never once slowing for the red lights along that stretch called the Miracle Mile, red after red, blowing through lights without even slowing; glittering blue streaks of mascara on her cheeks.*

Engage the reader in the action.

Confess—you don’t want to keep reading this to find out who the woman is as much as to see if she crashes and what happens then. Will she die? Will she kill someone? Crais has roused our curiosity and promised conflict with “the accident” and what we think is an impending crash. Book beginnings like this make us keep reading.

Introduce a character.

Any character. Even when opening with an action sequence, you still need a character. There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about a screenwriter pitching a producer on his script. The screenwriter describes in great detail an opening sequence featuring a Mercedes speeding down the road, skidding off a cliff, and bursting into flames when it hits bottom. The producer asks: “Yes, but who’s in the car?”

Part of the reason we keep reading The Watchman is because there’s a woman, and she’s got fanciful ideas about the city, and maybe she’s crying (the mascara on her cheeks). She is by no means compelling (certainly not like Shadow in the earlier example), but she’s there and she’s got the hubris to think of Los Angeles as “hers.” It’s enough, in concert with the action, to make us read on.

How to start a novel with the power of language

I know I said that readers keep reading only if you arouse their curiosity by introducing a compelling character or involving them in action, both of which promise conflict. There is, actually, a third method, less often used because it requires a master’s hand, that I call “the power of language,” that does neither of those things. It can be a descriptive passage, a ruminative nugget of interior dialog, or some other bit of narrative that bowls the reader over with the beauty of the language and the narratorial voice. Consider this opening from Alice Hoffman’s The River King.

The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan River, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start. That very first year, when the whole town smelled of cedar shavings, there was a storm of enormous proportions, with winds so strong that dozens of fish were drawn up from the reedy shallows, then lifted above the village in a shining cloud of scales. Torrents of water fell from the sky, and by morning the river had overflowed, leaving the school’s freshly painted white clapboard buildings adrift in a murky sea of duckweed and algae.

There’s no character here, no action. It’s a description of a past storm and its effects. Put like that, it’s not very compelling, is it? The only whiff of present-day conflict lies in “had proven disastrous from the start,” which seems to foreshadow more disaster in the story ahead. But Hoffman’s description, her use of conflict-laden words like “precarious,” “disastrous,” and “torrents,” and that one beautiful image of a shining cloud of scales, reel us in. We want to lose ourselves in this language, in the world Hoffman is creating, and so we keep reading.

You cannot spend too much time getting your first line and opening paragraph right, making them great. Here’s your checklist for how to begin a novel:

Does it raise one or more questions?

Does it promise conflict?

Does it introduce a compelling character?

Does it sweep the reader into the action?

Does it exhibit the power of language?

If you have included one or more of those elements when you are starting your novel, you’ve probably got a great opening paragraph. (If not, you may have veered into some of the classic ways not to start a novel.)

What’s your favorite opening line of all time? Tell us on our Facebook page.

 

LAURA DISILVERIO is the national best-selling and award-winning author of 21 (and counting) novels, including standalone suspense novels and several mystery series. Her teenagers coaxed her into writing a young adult novel, and the result is the dystopian Incubation Trilogy, an Amazon bestseller. She is a past President of Sisters in Crime and a frequent keynote speaker and teacher at writers conferences and events.

 

 

A Halloween Poem: The Witch of His Dreams!

THE WITCH OF HIS DREAMS

She comes to him at Midnight,

The Witch of his Dreams,

Her eyes a forest green,

Her hair, dark and long,

Her voice, a sweet magic,

Calling out his name,

He could not help but watch her,

Dance among the flowers,

Beneath a waxing moon,

She whirls and cast her spells,

Upon him,

A haunting chant she sings,

And soars into his soul,

On gossamer wings,

She whispers things he longs to hear,

Of secret longings in his ear,

She enchants him with delights,

Though she must fly into the night,

She tells him of her love,

And casts her spells upon him,

To love him evermore,

Though never shall she return,

For she was only ever,

The Witch of His Dreams.

Composed by K. D. Dowdall October 2017

How to Beat the Query Game: The Truth About the Slush Pile

How to Beat the Query Game: The Truth About the Slush Pile  by Paula Munier 

Everywhere I go I hear writers complain about the black hole that is every literary agent’s in-box—the slush pile—that dark and dangerous place where their queries and manuscripts go in, never to be seen again. Kind of like all those socks that go into the dryer, never to be seen again.

I sympathize, up to a point. Here are the slush-pile facts of the matter, and what to do about it:

Some slush pile stats

I receive some 10,000 queries a year. I got more than a thousand of them my very first week as an agent, and I’ve been behind ever since. Way behind. Most of my fellow agents are drowning in a similar tsunami of unsolicited material. Note: This doesn’t count all the material—queries, proposals, sample pages, partial and full manuscripts—that we’ve asked to see.

For this reason, many agents do not read unsolicited queries at all. Nor do most publishers. I know, I know, it’s a Catch 22.

For many of us who do read unsolicited queries, well, that’s why God made interns. I can hear you cursing at me from here, mortified that the precious job of finding talent should be relegated to interns. I repeat: 10,000 unsolicited queries a year. And may I point out that my actual job is not to read unsolicited queries, my job is to sell my clients’ work.

Only 1 in 200 queries is well-written enough, well-conceived enough, and well-targeted enough to prompt me to ask to see more material. Why? Because many writers simply write a one-size-fits-all query, set up a mail merge that includes every agent in Literary Marketplace, and hit send. This means that they haven’t done their homework and they know nothing about me or the kind of projects I represent. Note: The salutation “Dear Paula Munier” is a dead giveaway.

What to do about it

You can beat the odds, simply by making sure that your queries and proposals and manuscripts fall into the solicited, rather than unsolicited, category.

Research the literary agents you pitch, and only pitch those who rep your genre. Go to conferences, and meet the agents. Hang out on twitter, and meet the agents; participate in online and offline pitch contests and meet the agents; go to your genre association functions and meet the agents. Then, when you follow up, you can set your communication apart by referencing your previous contact in the subject line.

As in: “Requested material from Bouchercon” or “Nice meeting you at the Boston Book Festival” or “Twitter pal writes mystery” or “Loved your panel at the MWA meeting” or “WD says you’re looking for Domestic Thrillers.”

By putting this kind of headline in your subject line, you’re far more likely to catch the agent’s attention. I always skim the subject lines of all the emails that come in, and if I see something from someone I’ve met, I’ll look myself. (The rest of the slush pile I often leave to the interns.)

Beat the in-box odds

Whenever you send out an unsolicited query, you are in effect making a cold call. Any good salesperson will tell you that cold calling sucks, and that the best leads are the qualified leads. So use these end-runs around the slush pile to figure out which agents to approach, make initial contact, and beat the query game.

Research and networking pay off in publishing as in any business, and they beat cold calling any day. All evidence to the contrary, agents are people, too, and face-time and familiarity make a difference.

I’ve edited bestselling authors from a myriad of worlds with vastly different viewpoints: Judge Robert Bork, Michael Chertoff, GenXer Doug Coupland, Irish rebel Gerry Adams, conservationist Mark Kurlansky, activist Rita Mae Brown, among others. I never questioned whether any of these authors should be published. I believe all voices should be heard.

In my editorial role, it doesn’t matter if an author makes a point with which I personally disagree. I strive to help that author clearly articulate their vision, making it comprehensible to readers.

I sometimes encounter passages in which I fear a novel’s readers may misconstrue an author’s intent—for example, a hypothetical margin note might read, “I worry some readers could view the portrayal of this character as stereotypical. Want to tweak the characterization so the character becomes more vividly real for readers?”

Ick

Err. Actually, I feel the need to digress, recalling an anecdote illustrating a notable exception to my high-minded “publish everyone” screed just above. Years ago, with a millisecond’s adeptness, an assistant clicked through a telephone caller that had been bothersome to my boss: “Dana, David Duke for you.”

Oy! The former Grand Wizard of the KKK had heard that the imprint where I worked published “controversial books,” as he put it, and Duke had a book to sell. My last name made him assume I was Jewish so I proudly was for that one day. Astonishingly, he quickly told me how before World War II the National Socialists had a plan to settle European Jews in Madagascar. I managed to end the call. Unfortunately, only later did I think of all sorts of wise, witty, pornographic comebacks I might have lobbed back at him.

Anyway—him. He shouldn’t be published.

Hate speech should not be published.

Paula Munier

PAULA MUNIER is a Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services. She boasts broad experience creating and marketing exceptional content in all formats across all markets for such media giants as WGBH, Disney, Fidelity, Gannett, Greenspun Media Group, F+W, and Quayside. A dedicated writing teacher, Paula is a popular speaker and lecturer at writing conferences, workshops, and retreats both online and on-site across the USA.

 

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Top 10 Reasons Your Book Will Sell: An Agent’s Checklist Posted by Paula Munier

 

Writers are always asking me how I decide to sign new clients—why this writer with this project, and not that writer with that project. As an agent, my primary job is to sell my clients’ work. Ergo, I sign writers whose work I think I can sell. And remember, we agents work on commission, so I don’t make any money until I sell the work. I can’t afford to take on a project, however wonderful the project and/or however wonderful the writer, if I don’t think I can sell it. Literally.

How do I know if I can sell it? It’s more art than science.

And God knows there are no guarantees in this business. That said, there are certain criteria that can help me predict what may work in today’s tough marketplace:

  1. I totally LOVE LOVE LOVE the work.
  2. I can pitch the story in 50 words or less.

In other words: It’s based on a high-concept (or at least unique) idea written by the writer born to write it. As in:

Everlasting Nora is a middle-grade novel about 12-year-old Nora, forced to live in Manila’s Cemetery City after her home burns down in the fire that takes her father. When her mother goes missing, Nora must find her—before it’s too late. A heartwarming debut by Filipino-American Marie Miranda Cruz.

  1. Readers will fall in love with the protagonist, just like I did.

Give me Bosch, Bridget Jones, Harry Potter, Stephanie Plum, Atticus Finch, Everlasting Nora.

  1. The story is written in a distinct and engaging voice.

Think Alice Hoffman, J. D. Salinger, Maya Angelou, Anne Lamott, David Sedaris, Isabel Allende, Pat Conroy, Roxane Gay, Sue Grafton, Lee Child.

  1. The story falls within a known genre.

Which means that: a) I know where it fits on the shelf; b) I can reference good comparable titles within that genre; and c) The publisher will know how to sell it.

  1. The protagonist drives the action from beginning to end.

Imagine your story as a film—would the A-list actor you want to play your hero agree to take the role? Hint: He’d have to do all the good bits, that is, take down the bad guy, get the girl, save the baby/world/universe.

  1. The structure is sound.

The plot works. The heroine’s dramatic arc is in place. The writer has remembered that: The first page sells the book. The last page sells the next book.

  1. The writer has a strong idea for a second standalone or the second in the series, whichever applies—and is already working on it.

The writer is in this for the long haul.

  1. The writer is professional, cooperative, and collaborative.

The writer understands that editing is part of the process—from my notes to the acquisition editor’s notes and beyond. Resistance is futile.

  1. The writer is prepared to make the transition from writer to author.

Notably: The writer is an active participant in his/her writing community, and is willing and able to do the promotion work required to publish successfully in the 21st century.

How’d you do? Are you ten for ten? Let’s discuss on Facebook.

Paula Munier

PAULA MUNIER is a Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services. She boasts broad experience creating and marketing exceptional content in all formats across all markets for such media giants as WGBH, Disney, Fidelity, Gannett, Greenspun Media Group, F+W, and Quayside. A dedicated writing teacher, Paula is a popular speaker and lecturer at writing conferences, workshops, and retreats both online and on-site across the USA.

The Soulful Arc of the Universe

 “….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand dark midnights. Let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

MLK

Three Secrets to Great Storytelling!

Whispering

 

 

 

3 SECRETS TO GREAT STORYTELLING as presented on Writer’s Digest. I found this article by Steven James helpful in forming the structure of scenes.  (this is a re-blogging from 2014 but I thought it deserved a revival now, because it is simple, straightforward, and to the point.)

As a novelist and writing instructor, I’ve noticed that three of the most vital aspects of story craft are left out of many writing books and workshops. Even bestselling novelists stumble over them – Steven James But they’re not difficult to grasp. In fact, they’re easy.And if you master these simple principles for shaping great stories, your writing will be transformed forever. Honest. Here’s how to write a story.

Secret #1: 
CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE KING.

Everything in a story must be caused by the action or event that precedes it.  As a fiction writer, you want your reader to always be emotionally present in the story. But when readers are forced to guess why something happened (or didn’t happen), even for just a split second, it causes them to intellectually disengage and distances them from the story. Rather than remaining present alongside the characters, they’ll begin to analyze or question the progression of the plot. And you definitely don’t want that. When a reader tells you that he couldn’t put a book down, often it’s because everything in the story followed logically. Stories that move forward naturally, cause to effect, keep the reader engrossed and flipping pages. If you fail to do this, it can confuse readers, kill the pace and telegraph your weaknesses as a writer.

Secret #2: 
IF IT’S NOT BELIEVABLE, IT DOESN’T BELONG.  

The narrative world is also shattered when an action, even if it’s impossible, becomes unbelievable. In writing circles it’s common to speak about the suspension of disbelief, but that phrase bothers me because it seems to imply that the reader approaches the story wanting to disbelieve and that she needs to somehow set that attitude aside in order to engage with the story. But precisely the opposite is true. Readers approach stories wanting to believe them. Readers have both the intention and desire to enter a story in which everything that happens, within the narrative world that governs that story, is believable. As writers, then, our goal isn’t to convince the reader to suspend her disbelief, but rather to give her what she wants by continually sustaining her belief in the story. The distinction isn’t just a matter of semantics; it’s a matter of understanding the mindset and expectations of your readers. Readers want to immerse themselves in deep belief. We need to respect them enough to keep that belief alive throughout the story.

Secret #3: 

IT’S ALL ABOUT ESCALATION.  

At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. At its core, a story is about a character who wants something but cannot get it. As soon as he gets it, the story is over. So, when you resolve a problem, it must always be within the context of an even greater plot escalation. As part of the novel-writing intensives that I teach, I review and critique participants’ manuscripts. Often I find that aspiring authors have listened to the advice of so many writing books and included an engaging “hook” at the beginning of their story. This is usually a good idea; however, all too often the writer is then forced to spend the following pages dumping in background to explain the context of the hook.

IN CONCLUSION

By consistently driving your story forward through action that follows naturally, characters who act believably, and tension that mounts exponentially, you’ll keep readers flipping pages and panting for more of your work.

 

The Beautiful Words, A Poem by K. D. Dowdall

The beautiful words,

That ring so true,

Bring me but dark memories,

From a time and a place,

Best forgotten,

Yet always, just beneath,

The surface of a black night,

Filled with anguish and loss,

Of fear, trepidation, horror,

Not of this world,

Not now, I pray,

but then it crawled

Into being, by what force,

I know not,

They say, nonsense, but it lives,

Somewhere, now,

To come again,

To crush, destroy, all the goodness

The world has ever known.

The pinnacle has arrived,

Once again, we face, the face,

Of evil incarnate, we see it,

Daily,

but never acknowledge,

What we see,

We feign ignorance,

Deny what we see,

Yet, it creeps to our door,

Seeps under the floor,

The poison of its words,

It lies so beautifully.