Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Perfect Beginnings

Once you set out down that twisted, winding road to publication, one thing becomes clear; the importance of your opening pages. They must be perfect, more perfect than anything else. But how do we do that? I mean beyond tightening and polishing, what do agents and editors really want?

Let me share a tweet I saw yesterday from Kate Cuthbert, Managing Editor of Escape Publishing (E-Harlequin Australia)

"I'm still knocking back a ton of submissions because the narrative starts chapters ahead of the story, and mires the reader in exposition"

When I first read this tweet, I sighed... It's such a loaded statement, and one that pretty much addresses the two biggest things holding almost everyone I have ever critiqued back! At least in my humble opinion it is. Where your story should begin, and introducing the complex and layered world you have created without drowning your reader in exposition (otherwise known as info-dump/back-story).
I can see how learning these two concepts has taken my own writing from - "not quite there " - to - "getting there", to the kind of place I was hoping to be.

It's been hard, really getting it has meant I had to shelve my first two beloved MS's and focus on my latest two which are on the right path.  

Where to begin your tale?

My first two MS's began in my heroines day-to-day life. I introduced the characters and set up the story. I had some lovely feedback, but they didn't seem to be getting anywhere in competitions, and the few queries I sent out came back to me with form letter responses.

It was then that the contest feedback proved invaluable. I got some wonderful advice; cut the lead up - begin by throwing your heroine right into the middle of it. I did, and that's when things started to improve a little, almost finaling, and personalised rejections.

More Twitter/blog stalking Editors and Agents and further key first page ingredients were thrown in the mix;

·         OPEN WITH YOUR HOOK Can I emphasise this any further?

Your opening pages must hook your reader, force them to keep reading. They must be dying to find out what is going to happen! Your heroine running late for work, or stuck in meetings all day, or hanging around with friends is not going to cut it. Ouch, I felt that, been there.

·         Get hero & heroine together asap (on first page usually). Essential for romance. Yes, more pain, more great pages of character building going to the trash heap where all boring beginnings go to die.

·         Establish whose skin you are in immediately. This means the reader must know who your character is AND connect with them immediately. That means not starting with "the man", "the girl", or "I sat" etc, for three pages until we learn who the character is, and why we should care. Unless of course, it's one of those suspenseful antagonist POV preludes.

We have the ingredients! Yay we're there!!! Kind of, almost, no not really. Having applied these elements to my work, and imparting them to my CP's, there was one more thing creeping in to crush our dreams... EXPOSITION!! That second part of Kate's tweet, and perhaps the trickiest.


So now instead of having artfully set up the context of story, we have ruthlessly cut all that out and have our hero dangling precariously off the edge of the cliff. Therein lies the temptation to dump all the set-up on the reader in a great explanation!! We all know what showing and telling is, but usually still struggle with back-story.

The hero is dangling off the edge of the cliff because he is a secret vampire prince on the run from vampire hunters who have finally caught up with him...

How can you get this across without drowning your reader in info-dump?

It's easy once you get your head around it. You delicately lay down clues... Just hints, they tell the reader so much more than we think. Remember - readers are clever.


Instead of telling - Show the hero clinging to the cliff in a feat of superhuman strength. He is glancing at the horizon, his un-dead heart pulsing furiously, as the morning sun begins to rise.  

See? No telling words, no explanation, but most people will get that he is a vampire, and about to be fried vampire in a life and death literal cliff-hanger (hook).

Car doors slam and flashlights flicker over him. He slips into a crevice in the rock.

Without explanation we know the hero is being searched for, but does not want to be found. We also get the clue that they are human and do not possess his skills, as they require searchlights to find him and cannot scale the cliff themselves.

I could go on, but you get the point. It's all about clues and letting the reader work it out.
You would be surprised how much information you can impart with a glance, a single line of internal narrative, and cleverly phrased dialogue.

It's something having applied to my writing has turned a corner, finally making finals and getting the responses we like to get. I am still to see what will come but at least I know I'm starting with the right kind of bang.

Was this helpful? How has the way you approach beginnings evolved?


  1. Amber, this post is just what I needed. Some wise words here.
    I'm struggling with the opening to my story. The action starts on page 5. I thought I'd placed a hook on page one, paragraph one, but now I'm thinking the hook needs to be amongst action.

  2. Thank you! I'm so happy you think so:) The hardest thing is, Agents agree they usually make their decision by page 1, they will go to page 5 if they are unsure... So the pressure is on to sell it from the first sentance.

    Good luck with your beggining, I'm sure your going to ace it!

  3. My CP's read my WIP and said I needed more exposition in the first chapter! LOL! I hope I fixed this issue and added a little, but not too much. :)

  4. LOL I know what you mean, it's a fine balance. But we are allowed a certain amount of description :) I try to save it up for settings.