Welcome Guest Author: Charlie Cochrane!

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!)

It was a useful session on all fronts, not just as an ice breaker. Several authors have said it’s made them rethink about how they tackle the first page. Infodump needs to be dumped entirely—nobody liked that—as does masses of description. Readers wanted engaging dialogue or characters, something which drew you into the tale. As someone pointed out, we’re not like the readers of Dickens, for whom serialised stories were almost the only artistic entertainment, so those stories could be slow and involved and full of descriptions. Ours can’t.

I’ve tended to use dialogue as an introduction to the story, not least because it’s a great way of getting characterisation up and running. So my latest instalment of the Cambridge Fellows Mystery series, Lessons for Survivors, starts:

“Stand still.”

“I am standing still.”

“You aren’t. You’re jiggling about like a cat after a pigeon.” Jonty Stewart made a final adjustment to Orlando Coppersmith’s tie, then stood back to admire his efforts. “I think that’s passable.”

“You should wear your glasses, then you wouldn’t have to go back so far. You can’t use that old excuse about your arms getting shorter so you have to hold the paper further away.” Orlando turned to the mirror, the better to appreciate the perfectly tied knot. “Faultless. Thank you.”

The hallway of Forsythia Cottage benefited from the full glare of the morning sun through the windows and fanlight, enough for even the vainest of creatures to check every inch of their appearance in the mirror before they sauntered out onto the Madingley Road. Still, what would the inhabitants of Cambridge say to see either Jonty or Orlando less than immaculate, especially on a day such as this?

“It’s as well you had me here to help, or else you’d have disgraced yourself and St. Bride’s with it.” Jonty smiled, picking at his friend’s jacket. If there were any specks on it, Orlando knew that they were far too small for Jonty to see without his glasses. “I’m so proud of you. Professor Coppersmith. It will have a lovely ring to it.”

Orlando nodded enthusiastically, sending a dark curl springing rebelliously up, a curl that needed to be immediately flattened, although even the Brilliantine employed recognised it was fighting a losing battle. His hair might be distinctly salt and pepper, but he was still handsome, lean but not angular, nor running to fat like some of his contemporaries. He’d turned forty when the Great War still had a year to run so there was a while yet before he hit the half century. Jonty was a year closer to that milestone and was never allowed to forget it. “I won’t believe it until I see the first letter addressed to me by that title.”

“Conceit, thy name is Coppersmith.” Jonty nudged his friend aside and attended to his own tie. Silver threads lay among his own ruddy gold hair, now, and the blue eyes were framed with fine lines. He knew he could still turn a few heads and young women told him he was handsome. If the young women concerned were his nieces…well, that didn’t invalidate their opinions.

For me, I hope that opening conveys a sense of the setting – post WWI England – and begins to paint the characters of Jonty and Orlando.

Back to the UK Meet event! I’m a better judge of short stories than I am of long and shared one of my particular bugbears with short stuff, which is too many characters introduced too soon and without establishing any of them. I have a theory that it may be due to writers moving over from fanfic, where they can go straight into a plotline just using names and everyone will know what the characters look like, their personalities,  etc.

Other turn offs which readers suggested included starting off with steamy sex scenes, especially when you didn’t feel any empathy for the characters. And one of the audience took arms against stories which begin well and then chapter two sends you straight to a flashback.

What floats your boat/gets your goat about the first bits of a story?


Biog:  As Charlie Cochrane couldn’t be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice—like managing a rugby team—she writes. Her favourite genre is gay fiction, predominantly historical romances/mysteries.

Charlie’s Cambridge Fellows Series, set in Edwardian England, was instrumental in her being named Author of the Year 2009 by the review site Speak Its Name.

She’s a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, Mystery People and International Thriller Writers Inc, with titles published by Carina, Samhain, MLR, Noble Romance and Cheyenne.

Charlie’s website

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  1. Thank you so much, Charlie, for being my guest! The UK Meet sounds like it was amazing!

    As for novel openings, I quite enjoy stories that either start out with some kind of action, or with dialogue and characters. I tend to start my stories that way as well. I’m not big on mass description, or starting with a sex scene, unless it’s important to the story.

  2. @Charlie Cochet
    Thanks for hosting me, Charlie. For me the biggest turn off is opening a book/looking at an extract and seeing acres of description…

  3. The best opening I’ve ever read is in Sylvian Hamilton’s historical mystery, The Bone Pedlar.
    ‘In the crypt of St (something or other/can’t remember), the monks were busy boiling up the bones of their bishop.’ Grabs your attention and sets the scene in one sentence!

  4. @nicolaslade

    That’s great. I like the start of the Alien book. “Seven sleepers.”

  5. This sounds like a most enjoyable and useful session! In fact it sounds as though the Meet as a whole went very well.

    Since I have a horror of spoilers (I like the book to be revealed precisely as the author wrote it) I never read the blurb and I only skim reviews. So the first few paragraphs are vital for me, as they are what determines whether I buy the book or not. (This is one reason why I love the sample process on Kindle – how else can one read the first few paragraphs of an ebook?). I don’t like extracts unless they are from the very beginning of the book.

    So although I don’t really remember any beginnings to use as examples, they have to grab me and make me want to read more. I agree with all the points you make – no long slow descriptions or info-dumps, ideally dialogue or the POV character thinking or experiencing something which reveals them to the reader. Nothing which makes you go “huh?”.

    Just found a good beginning – this is Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey:

    ““Aunt Bee,” said Jane, breathing heavily into her soup, “was Noah a cleverer back-room boy than Ulysses, or was Ulysses a cleverer back-room boy than Noah?”
    “Don’t eat out of the point of your spoon, Jane.”
    “I can’t mobilise the strings out of the side.”
    “Ruth does.””

  6. @Helena

    Ages since I’ve read any Josephine Tey. She has such a good ‘voice’.

    I agree about the “makes you go ‘Huh?'” bit. I don’t mind something which intrigues me, but anything which makes me confused that early on is a no goer. Or anything that smacks of the author trying to look clever.

    UK Meet was smashing (but I’m biased).

  7. Now I’m going to be even more confused – I already get my Charlie’s mixed on a quick glance at an abbreviated header and now you’re both in the same place at the same time!

    Those first few paragraphs are vital – I know you’re supposed to give a novel three chapters, but the first page or two is often enough to know if getting past chapter three is going to be pleasure or pain or highly unlikely.

    The UK Meet was most excellent fun. The Novel Openings ice-breaker was inspired and I want to buy them all – if only I could remember the titles of the wips, at least I got the author names written down so I can check their book lists. I do already have the ‘Once upon a time’ one.

  8. @maraismine
    It’s a Charlie extravaganza! Wish I could have been there at the UK Meet, sounded great, and I certainly would have loved to have met everyone. Maybe next year!

    I tend to try and follow through with a book once I’ve started, and luckily, so far with MM Romance, I’ve only ever given up on one book halfway through, and that was years ago, but the best books are the ones that hook me right from the start. Those are the ones that usually have me up until 4am reading when I should be sleeping. 😀

  9. Thanks for the mention, Charlie! It took quite a bit of editing to get that line into the tight word-limit you gave us! Then again, a good edit was just what the start needed, so I guess the lesson is – as always – that first impressions really do count.

    I’ve been finding myself judging stories far more harshly recently – partly due to the abundance of freebies on the UK Meet ‘swag stick’ – if I’m zoning out by page 3, I just don’t bother reading any further… I could be missing some gems, but even the prettiest jewel doesn’t look much before it’s cut & polished.

  10. Lovely post, and very good advice for writers.

    I was startled by my own reactions to the novel openings. In every case I wanted to know more and want to get the book when it comes out but three or four – no names, no packdrill – made me go “Gimme! want more NOW” in a very childish and grabby way. First lines are vital! :)

    Must admit that my heart sank a bit abut flashbacks. I have quite a big one in one piece, after teasing a lot about it, in about chapter 3. But the editors will probably nuke it. :)

  11. @maraismine

    I’m sorry we confuse you. Just remember I’m the rugby one.

    I agree with all you say, although – as confessed – my judgement of novels on first pages is poor. I’m sticking to the “they spruce up the start” theory…

  12. @Charlie Cochet

    I’ve had a few bad experiences with m/m recently. No names, no pack drill…

    Next year’s UK Meet is in Manchester. July. :)

  13. @sandra-lindsey

    Of all the starts, yours is the one I remember most vividly. I can “see” it in my mind, almost like a TV scene, if that makes any sense.

    And “hear hear” to the bit about jewels…

  14. @elingregory

    Flashbacks can be brilliant, but they need a really skillful touch. And if they’re just in place of infodump or “as you know Bob” then they feel clunky. I used to use them all the time in fanfic and now I think “Oh, that was awful”.

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