Friday, May 26, 2006

Tired Openings

"In the novel, [blank] awakes from a colorful and frightening dream."

If I read this opening scene one more time, I’m going to slash my wrists. Only kidding of course, but I can see by the gleam of joy in your eyes that you think this not such a bad idea. :)
Writers—do not open your novel with someone waking from a dream or a nightmare or even after enjoying a raucous roll in the hay. Why not? Because it’s been done hundreds of times by every writer under the sun, that’s why. Like most clich├ęs, the waking up opening is so shopworn that it smells like old wet sweat socks.

Of course, other openings are just as shopworn, such as the ringing phone or moving to new home or a different town or a new home in a different town. It seems every YA or middle-grade novel written these days begins with a student whose parents have moved and Janie or Jacky or Kayla is having a difficult time adjusting to the new kids or whatever. Surely there is something else going on in young adults’ lives besides facing the trauma of fitting in at a new school. On a side note, another idea that has become totally overused is that the main character in the novel is some kind of writer, whether it’s for adults or for kids. This has been done for years, and I think the shine has definitely rubbed off of it by now.

And, of course, these openings are going to be overused because they seem like natural places to begin a novel, especially the waking up idea. But to be taken seriously, you are going to have to do better than to copy everyone else. Yes, I know, the damn DaVinci Code started with the guy waking up and it sold millions of copies. This, however, proves my point. It’s been done, so think of another way to open your story.
If you want to be taken seriously as a new writer, you cannot copy what someone else has done and that includes ideas, plot lines, characters, and all the other elements that made up someone else’s success. There is only one DaVinci Code and one Harry Potter and one Mineral Spirits (hey, like I’m not going to plug my own client here?), so copying any of its aspects only gives me and every other agent a built-in excuse to reject your work. Don’t make it so easy on us.

Where to begin then?

Start your novel with something happening. Something has changed to cause a shift in what was done the instant before it occurred, and because of this change the world is now a different place. That’s where you start your novel. You begin your book the instant after this disruption of the norm. The change can be good or bad, and it can be a small thing or it can be huge. It’s not the type or amount that matters, only change. And why is this? Why change? Because humans hate change, that’s why. Change disrupts comfort. It makes us modify the way we did things before it occurred. Making changes can be scary and hard work. It requires thought, even. It can turn our peaceful existence upside down. Consequently, it’s the natural place to start a book.

Losing one’s job, a divorce, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a change in weather, tearing down the house next door, a new washing machine, winning a contest, finishing a sewing project—even an unexplained crack appearing in the family room wall can cause a disruption that will throw a person or family into a vortex of disruptions that challenges our normally peaceful day-to-day existence. This is your gris; this is the propellant that drives your story forward until its ending.

Let’s take a crack in the family room wall, for instance. What if the crack is being caused because the house is sitting across a fault line, and it’s a harbinger of a mammoth earthquake? Or suppose that the houses in this area were built where there once was a cattle ranch, and the ground underneath is where the rancher buried his cattle after they all died from anthrax. Do you think with this opening you could complete this story? Of course you can. Why don’t you try it and see? You can go many different directions with this. Dark suspense is really hot right now, why not that? Or maybe somehow you turn it into the romance. Ask the big question, “What if?” and go from there.

So, as you can see, there are many ways to begin a story and just as many ways to sustain drama/tension after your beginning. Just add some imagination and away you go. Good luck!!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Keep it simpe--please!!

Lately I’ve been seeing loads of queries with great ideas that just don’t come to fruition when I request the full MS. What I’m seeing is new writers trying to write like pros that have been in this business forever. You shouldn’t do this if you have your publishing goals straight.

First of all, if this is going to be your first and only book—ever, don’t bother to query us. We would prefer not to represent one book-wonders. If, on the other hand, novel writing is your career goal, you have plenty of time to experiment. So, with that in mind, keep your first book technically simple. Choose a one narrator and stick with that person, object, alien, or whenever throughout your novel or book. To do otherwise weakens every other character in the book and makes a difficult job more difficult or even impossible before the novel’s end.

Along this same line, write with one voice. I recently requested a full submission in which the author decided to switch from third person-limited to first person. The villain’s voice was in third and the protagonist’s in first. It didn’t work as well as it could have; it just made the character foil seem washed out, and the book eventually ended up with a very bland lead character. I knew what he was trying to do, but unfortunately it didn’t work. This often happens when a writer takes bold risks early on.

When writing your first book, your goal should be to get it published so you can start building a name and an audience in whichever category or genre you choose to write. Therefore, use simple technique to write a great story. Use the extra energy that complexity requires to develop a great story with memorable characters.

Along that same line, don’t send me work whose premise has already been exploited a thousand times. The other day a writer sent me a query in which he proclaimed that he had written the new Da Vinci Code. There is only one Da Vinci Code, and there will never be another. Don’t try to emulate a bestseller because you are again wasting your effort. No one will take your work seriously because it’s already been done. Use that effort to recycle an old theme with a new twist. There are only so many plots, and every one has been used thousands of times. What’s new is the angle and the twist, so write from a new angle in a different perspective. What is the Da Vinci code but Raider’s of the Lost Ark with a different angle? Like all the experts say, most of the information in the Da Vinci Code is readily available in many other books. Dan Brown just uses that information and takes it to the next logical fictionalized step. He uses a tool available to all fiction writers and that tool is—“What if!”
Think of it this way: What if you kept it simple?