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:
“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.