At the recent UK Meet for those who love GLBT fiction (authors, readers, reviewers, publishers, you name them, we had them) one of the sessions was called Novel Openings. In this, twelve victims – I mean, volunteers – came up to the front of the room in batches and read 150 words from the start of one of their stories. I kept order and, helped by the lovely Jenre from the Well Read site, opened a discussion on the topics of “Can you tell how good a book will be from its first chapter?”, “What’s the deal clincher for you as a reader in the first few lines?” and “When looking at a short story, what makes an opening really bad?”
I’m the worst judge of a novel by the first few chapters (not sure if that’s me or if it reflects that the first chapters are often the most polished because that’s what goes to submissions editors…) but it seemed I was in the minority for that one. What struck us all was how clearly the author voice came through in just 150 words, which is less than I’ve written here, so far. The setting, the era, the tone of the tale; in the hands of a skilful author those first few paragraphs told us a lot.
One of the authors had the audacity to start her story “Once upon a time”. But it wasn’t a cliché – her adept use of language made the phrase both fresh and slightly knowing. There was laughter throughout the room and I scribbled down a prospective joke about, “at least nobody used ‘It was a dark and stormy night’!” which I wanted to say when next we broke for discussion. Stap me vitals, didn’t the next but one author start her novel with just that? Mad applause from the audience at the sheer chutzpah on show. And yes, that cliché worked in context, too!
(Although the prize for the best start had to go to Sandra Lindsey, from a WIP. I won’t quote it but if I say it involved a garden and chickens and two men flirting, you can guess which pun got the biggest cheer of the session!)