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Common Problems With Beginnings
For the last couple of weeks, I've been reading 2013 Baker's Dozen Agent Auction slush with Authoress Anonymous, which is always a lot of fun. I mean, it's a lot of work, since we usually go through batches of fifty submissions or so until we run out, but the company makes it fun. And it's always really educational.
As with regular agent slush, we reject a lot of what comes in; there are only so many spots open in the contest, so we have to be particular and accept only what we think the participating agents will be interested in.
One of the things about reading slush is that you become really quick at identifying what works and what doesn't. There were times we knew immediately why we'd have to say no to something, while other submissions took a little more discussion before we figured out what was keeping us from wanting to say yes.
Here are a few of the most common issues we found:
1. Starting in the wrong place. Though we had only a small slice of every story, this was actually pretty easy to identify. We saw lots of characters discussing something interesting that had happened just before the story opened—and the reader never got to see it. Or long descriptions of setting where nothing happened. Or what might have been an interesting opening paragraph, immediately followed by a flashback, rather than story movement.
These next couple are related to this, but were so common they get their own numbers on the list.
2. Car crashes. These aren't always car crashes, of course, but there were enough that stories starting mid-danger without grounding grew "car crash" as our codeword. I think the tendency to start stories with danger like this is because of the popular advice start with action.
But action without context is meaningless. It's just a jumble. Someone's in a car crash—and that's very sad, but in a distant sort of way. Wouldn't that car crash be more effective if the reader cared about the characters before their lives were in peril?
3. Instacreep. So named because something is instantly creepy, without grounding the reader into the character's life and voice. These often began with a character performing a mundane task when there's a crash outside, or while a disembodied narrator watches them, or they sense something's wrong but the reader has no real idea whether something is actually wrong or the character is just paranoid.
Think about your typical horror movie: you get a scene or two of the characters' real lives before scary things start happening. It's supposed to make you like them, make you care about what's happening to them. Then, when the eerie music starts and you sense something is going to happen -- maybe not now, but eventually—you actually care. When they start feeling creeped, you do, too.
4. No grounding. There were a lot of entries where we never felt quite settled into the story. I know it's difficult to do in 250 words, but that great dialogue could be happening in the school hallway or a coffee shop or on an airplane—and we'd never know, because the narrator never mentions the background laughter and teasing and sneakers squeaking, or the clatter of dishes and hiss of a steamer, or the high-pitched whine of a jet engine and passengers muttering to one another. What about the scents of sweat and perfume, or coffee and baked goods, or recycled air and the person who must have smoked six packs of cigarettes before boarding? You could even choose movement—kinetic details—like stepping out of the way of someone hurtling through the hall, or tearing open a packet of sugar, or thumbing through Skymall.
All of those details can be added in a phrase without distracting the reader from the story, and it takes only one or two perfectly timed details to make the reader feel utterly immersed.
5. Unsympathetic characters. That doesn't mean the character needs to immediately do something to get sympathy, but if the first thing we see is a character screaming at their parents—when the reader has no idea what happened, or had a chance to see what actually happened—it's unlikely I'll want to spend another 300-400 pages with them.
I, as a reader, need a character to connect with. They don't have to be ridiculously good and selfless right off, but don't let the character immediately push the reader away.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Strong writing and strong voice occasionally made us say things like, "This is a car crash beginning, but it's working for me," or "Man, I hate this narrator, but they're hilarious so I think I like them anyway."
What does that mean? It means this isn't a list of don't do this rules. There is only do what works, and the best way to learn that is to keep learning, and keep writing.