DE Basics: Beginnings

Most contemporary readers, especially of commercial fiction, are much more impatient now than they were fifty years ago (or even ten years ago), which means that a novel has to start strong in order to get and keep their attention. Few readers will read beyond ten or fifteen pages if a novel doesn’t engage them. Agents and editors—even if interested in the manuscript—almost never get even that far before finding a reason to reject a novel.

So it’s crucial for these opening pages to be in top shape. As a dev editor, it’s your job to help the author figure out how to do this. Unfortunately, many times a novel holds promise but that promise is hidden beneath a faulty beginning, often for reasons of technique that can be identified and fixed. Here are some tips for making sure these crucial opening pages get, and keep, the reader’s attention.

  • The story should begin at the beginning. Sometimes an author needs to write the whole novel, or at least a good chunk of it, to know where the beginning is. Sometimes the beginning is clear from, well, the beginning. In any case, the novel must start where the story begins, and frequently that is not on page 1. Often the story actually starts two or three or even more chapters in. More rarely, the story starts too far forward in the action and the author needs to step it back a little to provide necessary context. As the DE, you need to be able to spot the point where the author stops clearing her throat and starts telling the story. (And one other thing: almost all prologues are unnecessary backstory and need to be questioned.)
  • The story should start as it will continue. Your author’s first chapter starts off with a swashbuckling adventure. Your author’s second chapter continues the story as a homey romance. Gnashing of teeth (by readers) will ensue. If the author promises readers a humorous romp through Victorian England, then turning the story into a horror about Jack the Ripper isn’t the way to instill a little tension into the narrative. That doesn’t mean the author can’t surprise the reader or thwart expectations.  It does mean the author has to do these things intentionally and artfully.
  • The story should deliver on genre conventions—or the author should have a clear reason why not. Connected to the idea of starting the story as it will continue is the idea that an author needs to understand, respect, and deliver on genre conventions. A romance ends with a happily ever after. A novel may be about two characters falling in love, and one of them can die at the end, but you can’t call that novel a romance. That would be a love story, which is a different creature. If an author is really talented, s/he can of course turn genre conventions on their head, break genre rules, and laugh at readers’ expectations. However, authors do so at their own peril (just ask any reader why she threw that book against the wall and almost invariably it will have to do with thwarted genre conventions.)
  • The author must keep abreast of changing tastes. Your author may, as most writers do, write for herself/himself, or write the novels that interest only him/her, but to have anything approaching commercial success, an author needs to care about what readers want, and has to understand that readers’ tastes change. Most readers happen, at this moment in time, to prefer third person limited (and to some degree, first person) point of view. Omniscient narrators are not as appreciated as they once were. Head-hopping, which no one cared about twenty years ago, is a disastrous no-no now. Lengthy discourses on the state of society were tolerated, even appreciated, forty years ago, but no more.
  • The author must give the reader something to do. Some of the most convoluted, uninteresting writing comes from writers who are trying to tell their readers exactly what they should be thinking and picturing at every moment. Story-telling isn’t cinematography, though, and much of the joy of reading comes from filling in the blanks—imagining, in your own head, what the writer is describing. As the DE, you have to help the author find the balance between dumping too much into the story and not enough. This is especially tricky to do at the beginning of the story, when the author is trying to establish characters, their conflict, the world they live in and their backstory. But it can be accomplished!
  • The author must establish  voice. The first few chapters are where the author assures readers that they’re in good hands. Having a strong voice from the beginning goes a long way toward assuring readers that they haven’t made a mistake by investing some time with the book.
  • The story must explain, or at least imply, why the characters do what they do. Because character motivations so often exist in their backstory, writers often put off showing motivation until the backstory is revealed. But that can lead to unfortunate situations where the characters comes across as jackasses or as illogical and untrustworthy, instead of as sympathetic people. If that’s the author’s intention, fine, but too often it isn’t, and there’s a divergence between how the reader experiences the character and how the writer intended the character to be experienced.
  • The author must make war, not peace. Conflict is the core of all fiction, but very often writers “save” the conflict for the end. Which means that readers yawn their way through the first 70,000 words. Tension and conflict can, and should, be built from the first page. Your author’s characters have to want something. (A great way to have conflict is to have characters who want something in direct opposition to each other.) Characters grow and change or resist growth and change. They respond to motivation and conflict in ways that are in keeping with their characters. (The Pope and a Hell’s Angel will respond to a verbal taunt in different ways. One assumes, anyway.)

Problems with these elements commonly crop up in novels. Helping your author fix them goes a long way toward ensuring a more successful ms.