Today we have a Guest Post from novelist, Mary Smith, who suggests some ways around the difficulties involved when beginning a novel and includes some helpful examples.
Journalist and writer Mary Smith is the author of No More Mulberries, a novel set in Afghanistan. Her latest work is Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women, a non-fiction account of her time working in Afghanistan. Her first full length poetry collection, Thousands Pass Here Every Day, was published in 2012.
For more information on her work her website is at http://www.marysmith.co.uk
You will see that there are some definite similarities between beginning a short story and beginning a novel, though the length of the journey will be quite different.
Think of the months, possibly years, you have laboured over your novel before sending it off to publishers. Now, think about how long it takes to read the first three pages. That, apparently, is roughly how long it takes for a busy editor to decide whether or not to continue reading it. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? You can’t argue, can’t tell her it gets better in chapter two – those first three pages are make or break so it really is vital they are as compelling as you can make them.
As with the short story (in which you have about three paragraphs to hook the editor) the novel needs to begin with something which will draw readers in, make them turn that first page in eager anticipation, then the next, not wanting to put your book down.
How do you ensure your first three pages are riveting? Well, the most important point to remember is that you DO NOT start your story at the beginning. You jump straight in, slap bang in the middle of it. The start of your novel – those first words on the page – will be quite a long way into the story you are telling. The literary term for this is in medias res: in the middle of things. The main advantage of in medias res is to open the story with dramatic action rather than exposition which sets up the characters and situation. This means your opening pages will throw the reader straight into the first crisis involving your central character.
Ah, but, you say, I need to provide the reader with some background so they know about the events leading up to the crisis. And, indeed, you do – but NOT in those opening pages. You don’t want anything which will slow down the start of your novel. You can give such information later, either through flashback or in dialogue between characters, or a character remembering events from the past.
The crisis or conflict need not be highly dramatic. In fact it’s better not to have too much of a volcanic eruption at the start because it will be difficult to continue with such a high level of drama. The crisis should be appropriate to what is going to follow on and be in keeping with the story. In other words, don’t throw in a bit of conflict at the beginning just for the sake of providing a hook – make it credible and consistent with the story you are telling.
In my novel No More Mulberries the first hint of conflict appears by the end of the second page. The first page sets the scene in which Miriam is preparing dinner, her husband returns from walk, they start their meal, chatting together about work. Her husband tells Miriam he has stopped the English classes she gave to some of the village boys – and suddenly we are into the crisis. Miriam is furious with his high-handed attitude, Iqbal refuses to back down and the reader understands this couple’s relationship is not going well, despite the harmonious domestic scene of moments earlier.
At this stage, the reader will have many questions – what is this Scottish woman doing in Afghanistan? How did she come to be married to an Afghan doctor? How long has she been there? Is it during the war? If I tried to give answers to all those questions it would be pages, if not chapters, before we reached the point of crisis – the point at which I hope the reader will park the questions and just go with the story to find out what happens.
In fact, dumping too much information on them is a bit of an insult to your readers – as if you don’t quite trust their ability to work out what’s going on. If your opening pages grab the reader’s attention he or she will want to read on, trusting you, the writer, to fill in the back story as and when it is required.
While beginning in medias res is the most important and effective way to start your novel other elements need to be incorporated: characters and setting. You can’t have a crisis without a character or two and they need somewhere in which to be facing the conflict.
The reader should meet your main character – the protagonist – and at least one of the other characters early on. You do not have to provide a physical description of your protagonist at this stage (possibly not at any stage – but that’s another topic). More than what the person looks like, as readers we need to know what kind of person he or she is – how she behaves, reacts, speaks.
In ‘Being Emily’, Anne Donovan uses a few lines to present her character Fiona:
“Ah was at the sink in the kitchen, washin the dishes wi Spirit of Haworth propped up behind the taps, practising bein Emily Bronte. Ah’d read that she baked the family’s bread and learned German at the same time, book in fronty her. Since then ah’d developed a new interest in housework, so long as you could dae it while you were readin. Up till then ah thought if you were gonnae be a poet you had tae float aboot in a dwam or lie on a couch all day.”
In less than 100 words we have learned Fiona is Scottish and thinks and speaks in Scots and is such a fan of Emily Bronte, she wants to be her to the extent of even tackling housework.
Where does the story take place? The days of long descriptive passages such as written by Thomas Hardy or Dickens have long gone. In those days people did not travel much, nor did thy have television (or Google) so the descriptions were important as a way of showing readers where the novels were set. People who would never visit London would not have witnessed the kind of fog Dickens describes in great detail in the opening to Bleak House. Attention spans are shorter for another thing,
Use specific details so the reader conjures up a picture, can hear the sounds and smell the scents, feel as if they are there. It is all about writing a scene rather than exposition – showing, not telling.
Judy had lived in Dumfries for two years but she still didn’t much like the town finding it noisy and dirty. When the branch manager called her into his office she was hoping it was to tell her she was being transferred.
For the two years she’d been living in Dumfries Judy fell asleep (or didn’t) to the sound of boy racers roaring along the Whitesands – except for those times when the river burst its banks and flooded their meeting ground. Every morning she walked to work to the accompaniment of huge gulls raucously planning their food raids. Doonhamers knew not to eat outside; visitors vowed never to return after they’d been dive-bombed for an incautiously held burger.
The specific details of the thieving gulls, the boy racers, and the river bursting its banks all bring the place alive
To sum up:
Jump straight into the first point of crisis. Trust your readers – don’t feel you have to try to tell them everything they need to know in the first pages. Bring in the main characters early – and make them come alive. A setting your readers can ‘recognise’ as being real.
I hope you have enjoyed this post of Mary’s. In the next series of posts I will be looking at the problems you are likely to encounter when inventing and developing characters for stories and I will be suggesting some potential solutions to these problems.
Next Post: How do I know what to tell a reader about a character and what to leave out? I think I’ve put in too much detail.