Friday, May 14, 2010

Janice Hardy's "Seven Deadly Sins"

A couple weeks ago I did a library presentation called "Novice to Novelist" that focused on how to polish writing for publication. In it I included a list of "don'ts," such as "stick your character in front of a mirror," "assume you'd make a great protagonist," and "begin with a scene in a confessional." YA author Janice Hardy (THE SHIFTER) has nailed that and more with her fabulous post about how *not* to write a first chapter. Here's her list of cliched openings:

"Someone waking up in the morning.
Someone looking in the mirror and describing themselves.
Someone getting a "message," be it a phone call, letter, or arrival of a mystical person with information.
Someone leaving on a trip.
Someone writing in a journal to "tell you about what happened."" (from her blog)

I admit I've toyed with these things myself (there is-- I'm sorry to admit-- a mirror scene in my first novel, "In Stereo Where Available"). And sometimes some of them can work, like the "going on a trip" one, if they're done well. But originality is crucial, and there's no way to overstate how important it is to really nail those first ten pages if you hope to attract an agent's attention. When my Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest excerpt made it to the quarterfinals and became a downloadable Kindle item, I began getting one review after another in which people said, "Good writing, too bad nothing happens in it." At this I was a little miffed, so I went off to my office-- also known as "a nice hot shower"-- and thought, "what do I need to do to get their attention, have my protagonist spit in the face of a corpse?" I thought about that for a moment, my mind blustering in full Yosemite Sam mode, and then I thought, "Not a bad idea." So I changed the second scene to my protag spitting in the face of a corpse. After that, I got an agent.

With regard to first chapters, the one bit of advice I'd add is not to agonize over it too much in the early stages. Get past it and write the rest of the book. Your first chapter needs to show your "A" game like no other in the whole manuscript, so you're better off refining it once you're done-- when your skills are at their most practiced to date, and you have a full knowledge of what Chapter 1 needs to do to prepare the reader for what's in store. Write everything else, then come back and rework the beginning. And for the love of all that is good, don't start it with "Dear Diary."

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