Sunday, March 18, 2012

11 Ways not to start your novel

I'm about to read a lot of first pages from hopeful authors. I've done countless critiques over the years, and so I both look forward to and dread this job.

Opening up the pages of a book is a bit like opening up the front door for a blind date--except that it requires no effort on your part . . . such as doing your hair, or sucking in your stomach so you look thinner, or whatever else you do on your blind dates. (Really, it's none of my business, and I don't want to know.)

The point is, you're hoping for something good and you're often disappointed. In the gentle-hearted spirit that I am well known for (Oh, all right, Sarah Eden still refers to me as Attila the Hun because of a certain edit I did for her) I'm going to offer fellow writers a few tips.

Here are a few ways not to start your novel.

1) With your character waking up.

I wake up at least once a day. You could say I am a veteran at waking up. I never like it when I do it, and I probably won't like it when your character does it either. Give me something more exciting.

2) With your character running away from someone or something.

One would think that this would nicely take care of my first objection, and it would--if I hadn't already seen it about a hundred times. A good chase scene is nice, but not at the beginning of a book because A) I don't know enough about your character to care if they get away and B)I'm pretty certain your main character won't be killed off in the opening scene as that would make for a very short novel. So it isn't really a high tension opening anyway.

3) With huge chunks of back-story.

Yeah, I know, Charles Dickens gave us character life sketches right off, but styles change and this sort of thing doesn't work now. We also don't wear top hats anymore. Go figure.

4) With action that is so confusing I don't know what the heck is going on.

Sometimes an opening starts with people being bombed, or someone being attacked, or just people sitting around talking about other people. Whatever it is, it has to make sense. I'm already doing the brain-intensive job of transforming printed words into a lush and vivid landscape in my mind. Make it easy for me. This isn't the place to be obscure or mysterious.

5) With so many characters I can't keep them straight.

It's always better to start with a limited amount of characters until the reader has time to get people straight. Opening with lots of characters feels like one of those parties where you meet fifteen people at once and you know that no matter how hard you try you won't be able to remember any of their names tomorrow.

6) With a mean character.

Hey, if I'm going to step into a character's skin and be that person for hours or days, I don't want to be someone I don't like. Ditto for stupid characters. And while you're at it, please make me pretty too.

7) With a run-on sentence.

This is akin to getting your first glimpse of your blind date and noticing his shirt is dirty. If he didn't take the time to fix that, the rest of him is probably not going to be much better.

8) With a statement that doesn't have anything to do with anything else.

For example, if you start your first chapter with the sentence: Betty's ghost was not the forgiving type. (Which, by the way, is a great first line. I should use it sometime.)You should let us know about the ghost and why it's holding grudges fairly quickly. Don't go on and on describing Veronica and her trip to the mall. Your reader will be gritting her teeth and thinking, "Who's Betty? Did Veronica kill her? What is her part in all of this? Is this author trying to irritate me?"

Probably not, but the result is the same anyway.

9) With a bland sentence.

I have enough bland sentences in my life already. They're sort of like dust and they settle on everything. If the first sentence isn't good, what are the chances I'm going to find captivating ones later on?

10) With a flashback.

If you need to flashback in the first scene, you probably haven't started your book in the right place. Plus, editors and agents tend to hate flashbacks. Many of them were bitten by flashbacks at some point in life, so you really can't blame them for this prejudice.

11) With the phrase,"The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit." (Apologies to Scott Westerfeld) Okay, it's original, but I have a large supply of cats, and now any time one of them throws up, I think, "Um no . . . I don't think I've ever actually seen the sky that color . . . I wonder what Scott's cats have been eating?"

You just don't want to do that to your reader.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

My First Kiss

My first kiss was a bit usual. As a teenager, I loved drama (the kind on stage, not the kind that happened with a bunch of mean girls whispering at their lockers) and when I was 15 I was in a play where my character kissed a guy. I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16, so kissing wasn’t a familiar activity for me.

Granted, I had thought about kissing. Well, worried about it actually. Because according to the massive amounts of romance novels I had read, the first kiss was really important. Apparently you were supposed to feel all sorts of mystical fire-like sensations that left you dizzy and incoherent.

Plus, I had heard all sorts of horrible tales about people who were bad kissers and the social damage this produced. The problem was, I had no way of knowing whether I was a bad kisser or not. It’s not really the sort of thing you can practice beforehand.

What exactly was a person supposed to do with their lips the whole time? No one had ever told me this vital information.

I don’t remember why I took the part of the girl who kissed a guy in the school play. Perhaps I didn’t thoroughly read the script. Perhaps I thought that the drama coach wouldn’t actually have me kiss a guy—just like drama coaches don’t actually make characters kill other characters in the production.

But no, the teacher wanted a real kiss. And that meant we had to practice the kiss. There is probably no more awkward way to have a first kiss than to have it in a lit auditorium in front of your peers while a teacher yells out stage direction.


That said, I offer my public apologies to Blake Limburg who was a very nice guy and much more adept at kissing than I was. I don’t think I was ever able to look him in the eyes again.

Thankfully, fiction isn’t real life, so my characters have much better first kiss experiences. Here’s Cassidy’s first kiss in my new ebook, Blue Eyes and Other Teenage Hazards.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you don't want to know which guy Cassidy kisses until you read the book, don't read this scene.)

Josh was still studying me. “You’re not mad at Elise for going after Bob, are you?”

“No. He’s just a friend.”

“Oh.” Josh nodded, considering this. “Is there anyone you like more than a friend?”

My gaze went to Josh’s. Why was he asking? Was he just making small talk or did he have a personal interest in the subject? He was looking at me intently, his blue eyes locked on mine.

I shrugged. “There might be.”

“Anyone I know?”

“Maybe. You know a lot of people.”

Josh put his arm on the back of his seat, his fingers nearly brushing against my shoulder. “What’s he like, this guy?”

Normally I wouldn’t have admitted to anything, but I was tired of all my moments with Josh being ordinary, safe. This was one I was going to seize. “He’s the usual sort of guy that girls get crushes on. Smart. Funny. Really responsible.”

“That’s the usual sort? Why don’t I have girls swarming me?”

“He’s also tall, dark, and handsome,” I added, “Plus he’s got these gorgeous eyes—all deep blue and mystical.” I looked away from him then. I couldn’t keep looking at the eyes I’d just described.

Josh leaned a little closer to me. “A rich guy with a sports car?”

“Not really.”

Josh nodded, his gaze still intense. “Would I approve of you with this guy?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Would you?” I let my gaze slide to his then, just long enough to see him smile. I wasn’t going to say more. I wasn’t about to admit to everything when he hadn’t admitted to anything yet.

“I think I might approve of this guy.” Josh kept smiling. His voice was soft now, as lulling as the heater. “You said Bob didn’t kiss you. Have you ever been kissed?”

“Sure, if you count the time in the fourth grade when Jonny Miller cornered me in the coat closet.”

“No, I’m talking about a real kiss.” Josh moved even closer to me. “You’ll always remember your first real kiss.”

I thought about asking him if he remembered his first real kiss, but on second thought, I didn’t want to hear about any of his past kisses. “You’re probably right,” I said.

“If I was to kiss you now, I’d go down in your personal hall of fame. The opportunity is irresistible.”

And then he kissed me, and it was a real kiss. He pulled me closer. His lips were soft against mine, a question—one that I wanted to answer. In essay form.