Have you ever read a novel where the main character sounds like the next James Bond only for him to mysteriously vanish? Or maybe that character somehow manages to end up bludgeoned to death in an alley. If you’re like me, then you start to secretly plot the second murder of that character in your head because you’re so annoyed. I’m like redrum all the way, baby! (The Shining reference. Sorry, I can’t help myself. Stephen King is brilliant and it’s my horror month.)
Well, I can tell you that’s one way NOT to start a novel. In fact, this book deserves a scathing negative star review and the rant of all rants.
I made a lot of mistakes when I started writing fiction, and now over two years later, I have two completed manuscripts, though I still need to finish editing one of them. Some of the points I mention in this post I already knew before I started writing my first draft because I cannot stand to see some of these things in books.
Are you having issues figuring out how to start your novel? Don’t worry because all writers struggle with writing a first draft. When it’s your first time writing fiction, it’s hard to figure out where to start your novel, what things to avoid, and how you can make your novel incredible, and more importantly, how to make it salable.
While some writers say they write for themselves, we all know that’s not true. Because what’s the point of writing the greatest novel ever written if no one, not even your mother, is going to read it? And it doesn’t matter what you write. Even if you write short stories, there’s no reason you can’t turn those ideas into a novel. Stephen King is one of the best short story writers and look how many novels he’s written.
10 Things To Avoid When Starting A Novel
#1 False Starts
Don’t open your novel with a dream. I hate when I read this really cool action scene and the character wakes up to the alarm clock. This is a no no that should be avoided as it does not serve any purpose other than annoy the reader.
#2 Forget the Prologue
Whether you have an issue with them or not, no one likes a prologue. It’s lazy storytelling. Readers don’t like prologues and neither do literary agents. It’s one thing agents consistently complain about on their blogs. Save yourself the headache of receiving a pile of rejection letters. And don’t say, but George R. R. Martin uses them or reference some other huge author because you can’t compare yourself to people who are established and famous. If you need to start your book in media res, you can use similar techniques, like those used in Homer’s The Iliad, but it needs to make sense. This works with The Iliad because of the length of The Trojan War, but if the story doesn’t need to open with action, then don’t use it as a cheap way to lure in your readers.
#3 Too Much Narrative
I know we’ve all read a book that opens with ten pages straight of nothing but narrative. And our brains are screaming for dialogue. We get to know the characters through their words and actions, and when the author drags us along with a bunch of dense or boring prose that serves no purpose other than to fill us in on some back story or describe the setting of their fictional world, as readers, we all start to get a little bored. I love reading brilliant prose, and one of my favorite authors that does this well is Stephen King, but even he doesn’t open his books with pages of nonsense.
#4 Opening With Dialogue
Have you ever read a book that opened with a really long conversation between two or more people without being properly introduced to the characters? I attempted to read a popular romance novel a few months ago that had an entire chapter of dialogue that takes place between three people in a bar without the author explaining more than their name and basic details of their appearance. I had no idea what they were talking about or why I was supposed to care. So, you know where that book went? Right in my DNF pile! Later, baby!
#5 First Day Of School
How many times have you read a book that starts with the buzzing of an alarm clock? Or maybe you’ve read a book where the parent is waking their child up for their first day of school. And somehow we’re supposed to be interested in this person waking up, taking a shower, brushing their teeth, and eating breakfast. That’s so thrilling. Oh go on, please tell me more! And it’s almost impossible not to wonder if the author is serious. Why would anyone care about the wakeup routines of a person unless it directly relates to the story. Unless it’s the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, where I want to see if his day stops repeating, then I don’t care what the main character is doing each morning. Boring!
#6 Using Mirrors Or Clichés To Describe Characters
Oh, hello, Anna from Fifty Shades of Grey! It’s no surprise that we’re introduced to the world’s lamest character from the world’s worst book with Ana looking at herself in the mirror, describing her boring appearance. No one cares about your wayward hair!
I don’t understand why some authors feel the need to use this tactic when they could just as easily use other ways of describing the main character. This shows lack of experience and confidence in your readers. And if we’re invested in the book for the long haul, do we need to know every detail of the character’s appearance on page one? I’ve read plenty of books that give three details about the character, and that is it!
I worked with a very reputable editor and published author in the past, and he told me that less is sometimes more when it comes to describing characters. He also recommended to give three facts about a person that will stick with the reader, which means those three things better be good.
#7 Slow Starts
Most of the time these slow starts have a lot to do with the author telling us things instead of showing us. Show don’t tell is one of the most important rules for an author to follow. Sadly, a lot of these hyped books are written by inexperienced writers who blab on about what someone ate for dinner last night or some mundane chore they did after work instead of “showing” the readers why their book is worth the time. Most readers will hang in there if they get a sense of the characters in the first few chapters, but when it’s full of useless dialogue or too much narrative, that creates a slow start that will most likely lead to the DNF pile for a lot of readers.
#8 Too Much World Building
I love to see how an author will develop a fantasy world or what their take will be on time travel in a science fiction novel, but too much world building or description can be a real killer. I almost gave up on Red Rising because of the slow start and too much world building. I’m glad I stuck with it because it’s hands-down one of my favorite books, but I also found the beginning to be very slow and too much information dumped on me all at once. I didn’t feel as though a lot of it happened organically in the first fifty pages or so and that’s when we have the problem of too much world building. Later in the book, I appreciated some of the details I learned early on, but I also think they could’ve been placed throughout parts of the novel where I would’ve easily digested them.
#9 Opening With Sex
Anyone who knows me knows I like my romance books with lots of kissing and cuteness, so for me to say opening with sex is a bad move, means it’s really a bad move. I’m very tolerant of most books with explicit content, but I also don’t want a sex scene shoved in my face at the start of the book. I’ve read two books in the past few months that opened with a rape scene. And it was also in the prologue! Two things I do not want to see when I start reading.
I’m more than okay with reading books about rape, because I’ve read plenty of them, but I also don’t like when an author adds a prologue, describing the rape so we feel bad for the main character. Yes, this will generate some sympathy from the reader, but I feel like this is almost cliché at this point with romance novels. I also don’t like when authors use the main character’s relationship with the guy who heals her as the central point of the story without allowing the character to heal on her own. This is not realistic in my opinion.
#10 Too Much Backstory
Some novels open up with more than one chapter of consecutive backstory. One book in particular is Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. Simon is telling us about his magic school, his powers, and his friends by recounting past events. This works on occasion, but it starts to get a little annoying when you’re on chapter 5 and you’re still hearing about the past. I want to scream at the book and the author, “Work it into the story!” Even the dialogue was all in the past. I have yet to move past page 38 in Carry On because of the backstory.
What do you guys think? Have you had similar experiences with books you’ve read? Are you working on a novel and keep falling into these cliché habits? Talk to me, peeps!