What are your thoughts on our First Five round? Thanks to all of you who took the time to leave thoughtful feedback.
So, let's talk about the fine art of not confusing our readers. One thing we need to bear in mind as we are writing our opening scene is that we know EVERYTHING about our world and our main character, and our reader knows NOTHING. So we need to ease the reader into the story in such a way that time, place, and character are immediately apparent.
This does NOT mean:
Gregory Cheeseneck was a typical twelve-year-old with wiry hair and precisely thirty-nine freckles on his cheeks, who lived in a handmade, split-log house with his parents and four younger sisters at the end of the line, a quarter mile from the station and no fewer than fourteen steps from the outhouse, since these were the days of no indoor plumbing.
It might mean:
Gregory yanked up his trousers and tore from the outhouse, sure as sure that he was going to be late for school again.
Example #1 is heavy with description and telling, and sounds "narrator-y". Example #2 brings us right into Gregory's head and shows us immediately (trousers, outhouse), that we are in an earlier era. It also gives us our first glimpse at Gregory's voice ("sure as sure") and character (he runs late a lot).
In our opening paragraph (and pages), we need to find the delicate balance between "too much" and "not enough". And in my editing experience over the past couple of years, I find that the "not enough" is more common. IMPORTANT: By "not enough", I don't mean to imply that the problem of over-writing doesn't exist. OH, GOODNESS, IT EXISTS. But you can over-write and still not give the readers what they need to actually be grounded in your story. And if they're not grounded on the first page or two, you'll lose them.
Here are some common problems that I've seen:
1. ANNOYING HINTS AND REFERENCES THAT MEAN NOTHING BECAUSE WE DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT
Like I said above--you know your world and characters, but the reader doesn't. So avoid doing things like this:
Marshina slammed the door and locked it. Nobody else was going to get in and steal another sacred poo-poo bead. No one.
It was just like that other time. Marshina shuddered. That other time almost cost her sixteen hours of freedom--and Sue-bear's life.
What would Sue-bear think now?
(We don't know what a sacred poo-poo bead is, we have NO IDEA what "that other time" is, or why Sue-bear would think anything at all. You may think you are being mysterious and tempting when you do this, BUT YOU ARE ONLY BEING ANNOYING. Trust me.)
"You have no idea what you're talking about."
I stopped in my tracks. Yes, of course I knew what I was talking about. I thought everyone knew. But here I was, being accused of not knowing anything for the third time this week, and it was starting to annoy me.
(We're opening with dialogue and we HAVE NO IDEA who is speaking, and the protagonist is referring to something we don't know about either.)
2. GOING HEAVILY INTO SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY WORLDBUILDING WITHOUT HELPING US TO UNDERSTAND WHAT THE HECK YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT
This one is self-explanatory:
L'trxvy tiptoed around the detran, careful not to drop his f'nee in the mud. Breathing deeply, he sensed the nearness of his k'n'oo. That was reason enough to be wary. His k'n'oo should have been halfway to Meerduck by now. Everything was off balance, and it was only the second cycle of Gorshnik.
3. DROPPING US INTO ACTION BEFORE WE KNOW ANYTHING AT ALL ABOUT YOUR MAIN CHARACTER OR HIS WORLD
I've railed about this one many times in the past. This is what Jodi and I refer to as "the car crash opening". We can't root for a character whose legs just got blown off if we haven't even met him yet.
Glass shards everywhere.
I threw myself again the nearest wall, pressing myself flat as a leech. Outside, a third explosion rocked the foundation of the old building, and I stumbled sideways, landing hard on my knee.
The shard pierced my patella, sending hot pain shooting up my leg. I cursed as blood began to soak my pants leg.
(We have no idea what's going on. We don't even know if our protagonist is male or female. We don't care about the explosions or the wounded knee.)
Nathan gripped his handlebars and veered sharply to the left. The road was slicker than he'd expected, and his sudden turn made him lose control, his front wheel jacking to the left and skidding for several yards until the bike flipped end over end.
Nathan landed hard on his back, his breath slamming out like an implosion.
(We know what's happening, but we don't know Nathan, and we don't know why he's riding his bike down a wet road. So it's hard to care.)
And there you have it -- a mini-primer on How Not To Open Your Novel. Mind you, I don't have all the answers. Like I said, it's a delicate balance, and I continue to rewrite and tweak my own openings as many times as it takes to get them right. But the huge faux pas mentioned above are easily avoided. Let us SEE (show, don't tell) your protagonist in his setting, and draw us into the world (show, don't tell) by letting us SEE and HEAR and SMELL and FEEL it for a little while. Insert a sense of tension right away, remembering, of course, that TENSION IS NOT THE SAME AS ACTION. If you do this, then chances are high that your readers will want to keep reading.
All right, then! Have a wonderful weekend.