Novel Openings: Nail the Opening Chapter

Oceans of ink and blog posts have been spilled talking about novel openings and hooking your reader in the opening chapter. And with good reason. Your novel’s first pages are the only thing an agent gets to see before they make their decision about you. Well, that and your query letter and synopsis, which is why those are such hot topics. But how do you nail your novel’s opening? The advice may be simpler than you think.

novel opening, opening chapter, novel opening
Don’t underestimate the importance of your novel opening pages. But don’t try to do too much, either. It’s a tight balancing act.

Great Novel Openings Start With Conflict and Action

I cannot overstate this point: Conflict and action are ways to hook a reader and transport them into your story. This is exactly the goal of your novel opening. So start in action, start with conflict. You may want to use a smaller, scene-specific conflict (or “bridging conflict“) to get readers on the bus initially. That also puts less pressure on you to start with mind-blowing high-stakes conflict, which can be difficult to pull off before the reader knows your character.

Basically, you want to give them just enough of your character so that they care, without over-indulging in information (see next section). And you want to put the character in motion. They want something, they’re experiencing an obstacle, they are frustrated or full of longing. This is a good state for your character to be in.

And, very importantly, they are starting in action, where they’re either being frustrated by an obstacle or striving toward something. You need that balance of internal conflict and external conflict.

If you start with too much external action right away, readers may not care because they don’t know the character, their objectives, or motivations.

If you start with no external action, then it’s easy to get bored. For example, a character sitting in their room, philosophizing about life and all the ways in which it has gone wrong. Maybe you start with generalities, for example:

Life can be funny sometimes. I spent 13 years thinking I was normal. Totally lame. And then one day, everything changed.

But the character is just sitting and thinking. There’s no action. This is 100% internal conflict, and you want to avoid it because nothing is actually happening.

Avoid Too Much Information in Novel Openings

In the same vein, information overload can sabotage your opening chapter in other ways. You might start with action, like the character getting bullied, but then you stop and go into great detail about the school, everyone in it, and the character’s history with the bully since kindergarten.

“Context is important!” you say. But you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. If you start a story with a ton of information about everyone we’re meeting and all of the details of a character’s life, the plan will not get off the ground, so to speak.

There has to be a balance of action and information, and if in doubt, action should win out. For every piece of information that you introduce in the first few pages of your opening chapter, ask yourself: Does this really, really, really have to be here? Otherwise, you may insert it later, or not at all.

Pick a Moment You Can Sustain

Finally, to tie your novel opening together, you need to pick a moment you can sustain for two or three pages without either stopping the action to give tons of information, and without leaving the moment to go into backstory (more information on writing backstory).

You want your readers to get a foothold in the story. The way they do that is to sink into a moment they can lose themselves in. If you open with a bullying scene, let’s get that scene from beginning to end. Let’s get dialogue. Let’s get action. Let’s get a sense of our character as he or she experiences this, otherwise called interiority. Put the reader in the moment.

If you currently start with general philosophizing (per the example above), a ton of information, a lot of jumping around in time to gather various details, or without a sense of balanced internal and external conflict, it’s time to take another look. Your beginning really is your make-or-break. So it’s your job to make it good.

Struggling with your first pages? My Submission Package Edit revamps your first ten manuscript pages, query, and synopsis, so you can make an amazing first impression in the slush. Hire me today!

How to Write the Beginning of a Novel Without Setting Description

Wondering how to write the beginning of a novel? Starting a novel with setting description is a big no-no. Learn why setting description is played out in today’s video response.

What follows here is a transcription of the video. You can watch for the advice, or read it below. I have a question today from Melissa who wrote in to ask how to write the beginning of a novel. Is starting a novel with setting wrong? What if the setting description reveals something about character?

Novel Beginnings Are Incredibly Important

Writing a novel and beginning a novel are two of the biggest question categories that I get. And a lot of writers have heard, yeah, maybe it’s not so great to start with setting description because it’s static. It’s not active. There is really nothing going on.

There’s a concept called the objective correlative, which is a literary device where you use something inanimate like the weather or setting to communicate emotion. So a really typical example is, starting a novel with setting like a storm, and that’s a literary device for conveying that there is something going on. There’s a big storm raging in the story.

And so I think Melissa is asking this question because maybe she’s been turned away from starting with setting description. Maybe she has been told that starting with setting is not a really great thing. And my response to that would be when you’re starting a novel, you really want to ground the reader. And there are two components to grounding the reader.

One is the reader wants to know where they are, and then the reader wants to know when they are. And this applies to starting a new chapter as well. So when you’re starting a chapter after there has been a break, you really want the reader to catch up with where they are after you spit them out after the break and when they are relative to where they came from. The same concept applies for the very, very beginning of a novel which is excellent real estate.

Grounding the Reader But Giving Them Context, Too

So sure, you want to know how to write the beginning of a novel, and you’ve heard that you have to ground the reader at the opening. Setting description is a wonderful way of doing that because that takes care of the “Where are we?” question, right? But the other concern that you really have to have when you’re beginning a novel is action. There are way too many novels that begin in a completely static way. It’s the character in their room, and the room might tell the reader a lot about the character, you know. We’ll see kind of what kind of posters are on the wall. We’ll see the paint color is very, very dark which is meant to evoke something about character.

So the writer thinks , “I’m really doing my job starting a novel with setting. It’s evocative. This setting description tells the reader a lot about the character. My work here is done,” right? Well, that’s static. Nothing is actually happening, so I would say that the sweet spot would be, to answer Melissa’s question, a strong sense of setting which is essential for the beginning of a novel or a beginning of a chapter, but you can’t rest on your laurels with a really strong setting. You have to do a little bit more. You need to introduce the character, so the character does need to be on the scene, at least for me. That’s what I would recommend. It gives you a much stronger foot up in the beginning of your novel.

how to write the beginning of a novel, setting description, novel description, starting a novel with setting, beginning a novel, starting a novel, setting description
Starting a novel with setting or weather or a big event is just one piece of the puzzle.

Adding Character and Plot to Setting Description

The point is, setting can’t be the end-all and be-all. Character, you need to put the character in the setting, and the character should be interacting with the setting somehow, or something needs to be happening which brings me to the third component which would be action, which would be a sense of plot. Now, you don’t have to kick right into your main plot at the beginning of a novel.

I think doing so is problematic because if you start…you come out swinging with a giant plot, readers are not gonna be invested enough emotionally in what’s going on. So they’re gonna have a hard time caring about it right at the onset. So if you come to us with a huge, huge plot right away, you’re gonna be overcoming some obstacles because the reader will be like, “Wait a minute. What’s going on? Who is this person? I don’t care about them yet, so I’m not really getting invested.”

So you need to have something, and Donald Maass who wrote the wonderful book, Writing the Breakout Novel, calls it bridging action which is it is action, something is actually happening. It’s not just static at the beginning of your novel, but it can be a smaller conflict. So it’s something to get the reader a little invested, give them the come hither finger, but it doesn’t have to be, you know, high stakes, huge action right away because that could be a little alienating.

How to Write the Beginning of a Novel

So to recap the beginning formula for starting your novel, setting? Yes, Melissa, novel setting is very important, and you should be beginning with a strong sense of setting absolutely. But we also need character. We need a strong sense of who the character is. Ideally, they’re interacting with your setting. They’re existing in it but in an active way which brings me to three. Something needs to happen right away.

And when I hear writers asking about setting and why can’t I start with setting? It’s usually because they’ve created a setting, they’ve put the character in the setting, and they really wanna get away with the character sitting there and existing without anything happening on top of that. And that’s what I think a large pitfall could be with this question. If you have a setting, if you have the character and you’re hoping that that is enough magic for the start of a novel, what you really need to do is actually add plot.

Examples of Taking Setting Description to the Next Level

If we were to take the example that we started this video with a character sitting in their room, we have setting. We have character. We’re hoping that they are evocative and letting the reader into the character’s world. But something needs to start happening. For example, somebody comes home. Mom comes home and slams the door so hard that the whole house rattles, you know, so something literally happens to the setting. Something literally happens where the character’s emotions get involved because “Oh, no! What’s happening now?”

Or something, something…maybe the character is rearranging their room, for example. So they’re in their setting. We have the character, but there’s a lot of action. Maybe it’s like, you know, all of the pictures that the character has of them and their best friend, they’re ripping them down off the walls. And you know, throwing a picture frame and the glass breaks, you know, these examples are off the top of my head, so some of them might feel a little familiar. There could be some clichés, but they’re meant to illustrate a point.

So you don’t just have setting and character, you have plot as well. So something is happening between setting and character. So I would say that Melissa’s onto something, but the advice to not start in setting, there is a strong basis for that advice. So as long as you’re hitting these three points with the beginning of your novel, you can absolutely start in setting. It just has to be a little more dynamic than just straight-up setting description. I hope that helps, and thank you for asking.

Get actionable, personalized, one-on-one novel advice if you hire me as your developmental editor. We can work on your query, your novel beginning, or the entire manuscript.

Starting a Novel With Aftermath

Starting a novel with aftermath (the reaction to a big event) is hugely tempting. After all, writers are inundated with the advice to “show, don’t tell,” start with action, try raising the stakes, etc. etc. etc. It puts a lot of pressure on beginning a book!

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Whoa whoa whoa, what happened here? Let’s take a step back…

Starting a Novel With Aftermath Is Jarring

The other day, I was working on an editorial project, and found myself not quite invested in the opening. I should’ve been — when you’re beginning a book, that’s prime real estate. And the novel beginning was a high-stakes trial. But there’s often a problem with stakes in writing: when they’re too high right off the bat, it’s harder for the reader to get emotionally attached. When we’re screaming about the end of the world from page one, the reader is trying to muster up an insurmountable level of caring.

So when this client project opens with a trial, the real issue is that the conflict is already behind us. There’s no time to fill in context, let the reader discover who the character is, or foster emotional connection.

The interesting deed is done, the problem has happened, and now we’re knee-deep in aftermath. So how should we look at starting a novel?

How to Begin a Novel

Instead of taking this dramatic approach when starting a novel (or writing a prologue that’s high stakes right from the get-go), think about the balance of action and exposition in writing. You want to present the reader with a compelling character who has a manageable problem. Donald Maass calls this “bridging conflict.” The problem is manageable enough that we’re not completely overwhelmed with high stakes. Nonetheless, the problem matters to the character. As a result, we start learning about the character and what their objectives, motivations, priorities, etc. are.

When we’re starting a novel here, instead, readers see your characters in the middle of this problem, trying to work through it. This is much more compelling than seeing them after the problem has already happened. We see them getting invested or emotional or upset. Our attachment to them grows. Then the initial problem is either solved, or it grows into the larger problem that’s going to carry the entire plot.

By this point, the reader should have an emotional foothold not only in the problem, but in the character, and as a result, the story.

Start Your Novel With Action…But Not Too Much

Without introducing a smaller problem and the character first, you’re going to have a hard time selling the reader on the major plot points you’ve cooked up. So when you’re beginning a novel, it’s ideal to start with action —  but maybe not too much action.

And as you layer in that action, make sure to layer in context about character. When we start with a trial, for example, I am much more interested in what happened, who did what, and most importantly, why the crime occurred. The dry legal procedural stuff? It’s near the bottom of my list. My curious reader mind wants all sorts of other fodder.

When you’re starting a novel, go where you think your reader wants to be. Court rooms are inherently full of tension, sure, but when you start in one, you’re trying to harness tension you didn’t earn with plot and character first.

Are you beginning a book? Do you need help nailing your novel beginning? Let me be an expert pair of eyes on your first pages. I’ve read tens of thousands of novel openings, and bring that experience to my editing services.

Great First Line Workshop

This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

Dreams in Fiction are Cliché Book Openings

You’ll want to think twice about using dreams in fiction, especially when you’re planning how to start a story. It’s the most cliché of cliché book openings! Allow me to illustrate:

dreams in fiction, cliché book openings, cliche book openings
So many dreams about starting a novel, so many potential cliché book openings…

I walk down the darkened alley underneath the old Smith and 9th Street subway station, on my way home from a publishing mingle in Midtown. The humidity is thick and there’s nobody else out on the street. They’re all huddled ’round their AC, exactly where I should be at the moment. But then I hear footsteps approaching behind me. I glance over my shoulder and see a man with a black velvet cloak hanging from his tall frame. He walks faster, his footsteps echoing. With a jerk of the hand, he draws something from the folds of his garment. It flashes in the streetlight. A dagger! I gasp and will myself to scream. A shriek pierces the night…

…and it’s my alarm clock. I jerk awake, cozy in my bed, and listen to the reassuring hum of my air conditioner.

HA HA HA! I fooled you all! This is the best novel beginning ever. Right?

Dreams in Fiction Are Cliché Book Openings

Wrong. If I read one more “it was all a dream” or “I’m actually in a video game” cliché book openings, I am going to make like dagger man and stab someone. This is one of the biggest writing clichés. And perhaps a cliché squared because it’s piled on top of the cliché of having a character waking up at the beginning of your story.

I don’t care if you are writing a book about dream worlds. I don’t care if your character is the Sandman. I don’t care if she absolutely positively has to experience the first morning of school, from alarm clock to breakfast to shower to bus. I don’t care if “That book by that really famous author that was published last week does this so why can’t I?” I simply don’t care.

Stay Away From Clichés

Everyone else has ruined this cliché for you. It’s cheap and it’s fake. It disrespects the reader and sets them up not to trust you from page one. It’s a flimsy Band Aid that’s doing nothing to address the problem of otherwise low tension in the beginning you’ve chosen (which may not be the right beginning). And I am on a personal vendetta against dreams in fiction, especially as book openings. Why jerk your audience around with tricks when you can tell a story? Aim higher. Aim fresher. Read more about how to avoid clichés here.

Looking for help with starting a novel? Hire me as your fiction editor, and I’ll help you dodge cliché book openings and nail your first pages.

The First Chapter: Should I Write a Prologue?

This question about first chapters and the pros and cons of writing a prologue came in through my MG and YA webinar that I did for Writer’s Digest last Thursday. But this is pretty much the idea behind every novel prologue question I get, so the wording isn’t especially important:

What are your thoughts on prefaces/prologues? Do they ever work for you? Many people have told me that everyone HATES prefaces/prologues so I cut it. However, my beta readers LOVED the preface. It made them want to keep reading to see what really happens in that moment. What to do? Do prefaces/prologues ever work? Will you pass on a MS because they include a preface/prologue?

first chapter
Writing a prologue with high tension might seem like a good way to start your story, but are you setting your reader up for Prologue Deflation in chapter one?

Yep, this is the point of a writing a prologue. It usually teases the reader with a high-tension moment from later in the book and it starts the manuscript off with a bang — because, as a writer, you know to do that. Tensions are high. Things are really exciting. This is great!

Writing a Prologue: Crutch for a Boring First Chapter?

Then the real first chapter starts. And the ol’ Prologue Deflation kicks in because the writer is usually dragging the reader into an ordinary beginning which is, let’s face it, kinda boring. Sure, there’s always that story tension that you’ll go back to the exciting prologue stuff later. And that’s what the writer is counting on. But most of the time, this kind of prologue tension feels like a lazy cheat to me, to tell you the truth. A lot of writers resort to writing a prologue because they don’t know how to otherwise make their first chapter exciting.

Failure of Imagination? Lack of Experience?

A novel prologue isn’t an automatic rejection for me but they almost always leave me underwhelmed because the beginning after the prologue is usually a failure of imagination. Most likely the writer didn’t know how to start writing a book, so they throw a fake-out on the fire and hope that it’s enough to carry you through to the good stuff that’s buried later. It’s the equivalent of a writer saying, “Well, I really want to send you the first 50 pages because it doesn’t really get going until Chapter Four.” Why hide the goods? Why resort to tricks and manipulation? Why toy with the reader and cover up your own plot insecurities? I’d rather have a well-crafted, gimmick-free, honest-to-goodness beginning to a novel almost every time.

Sure, prologues start with tension and they’re popular, but they set my expectations low in terms of the writer’s overall craft level, to be perfectly honest. There are definitely exceptions to the rule and some prologues work as a first chapter. Regardless, lots are published. But just know that we’ve seen the novel prologue bait and switch too many times to really have high hopes in most cases.

Whether you’re an experienced writer who’s experiencing a block or a new writer who doesn’t know how to start, I’d love to be your book editor and help you craft the perfect first chapter.

Beginning Workshop #5

This submission comes from Mike Hays and is the final beginning workshop for this round. This workshop will be a bit more nitpicky, and so I will make bolded comments within the paragraphs as well. Enjoy!

Ellis opened the front door to the Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community. He could kick himself for not seeing this before. The “it” here is vague, especially for an opening. Doesn’t ground the reader. So, this is how Alicia Swanson beat him again and again in sales contests. Still unclear…does he see her or what? What does he see? It was a good thing he called her house to ask about that algebra assignment. Her mom told him she was out selling tickets in the northwest part of town. Sentence ends with “of town.” After searching the few existing housing additions in that part of town, Town the only place left was an old retirement community which sat isolated near a cornfield on the edge of town. “of town.” The sheer size of the Wonderland Gardens complex led one to believe there were many residents. This is a prime example of dry voice. “Sheer size,” “complex,” “led one” and “residents” aren’t words that a 13-14 year-old kid would use. This reads more like a business memo. Many elderly residents who could fall prey to her It’s been a while since we mentioned Alicia, reintroduce her name. syrupy sweetness sales pitch and buy her tickets to the upcoming Plainfield Youth Summer Theater’s production of Alice in Wonderland, The Musical.

I’m missing some of the motivation. Are both Ellis and Alicia in the production? How are they connected? What do they get if they sell the most tickets? Etc. Build up the stakes. Dry voice here makes for a dense first paragraph.

Of course she would win most ticket sales, Italicize verbatim thoughts… Ellis thought as he stepped across the threshold. She always won, especially against him. Every lead in every show, every spelling bee, math contest, art contest, science fair, etc., etc., etc. (or at least that is how it felt). Even after leading the 8th grade football team to the city championship as quarterback last fall, he was still mercilessly harassed for getting beat out by Alicia for the 7th grade QB position the year before.

There is a lot of telling as he talks about his feelings here. Also, a co-ed football team? My school didn’t have a football program, so maybe I’m missing something. The last sentence is overlong. Try reading it aloud.

He dreamed of being able to seek revenge for the thousand ills of Alicia he had endured “The thousand ills of Alicia he had endured” is clunky…a convoluted way of saying something simple, and this is not the voice of a 13 y.o. boy, even one who is steeped in Poe. like in his favorite Edgar Allen Poe story, THE CASK OF THE AMOTILLADO. The title of the short story, which should be in quotes instead of caps, is “The Cask of Amontillado,” with a missing “n” in there and without the second “the.” Maybe not sealing her in an underground vault to die, but…

“Oh, Mr. McGregor!” An ancient, but bubbly voice came from the shadows inside the lobby. “Another visitor!”

Actually introduce the speaking character, especially for their first dialogue. It’s always a stronger image when characters speak, not their disembodied voices. We do get some of Ellis’ character her, maybe even a spark of a sense of humor, which is good.

The door closed behind Ellis. He took a few measured steps toward the voice as his eyes adjusted from the bright sunshine to the shadowy darkness of the lobby. This is play-by-play narration, we don’t need all of these details, and they’re crammed into a sentence that could otherwise be cleaner. The smell of old flooded Flooded his senses. The flood Flood of memories from his experiences visiting his grandfather reminded him of how he disliked these places, places where they send great old people to get older and wither away, like his grandpa did.

Try to rephrase this last sentence without having to say both “grandfather” and “grandpa.” The implication that his grandpa went to an old age home is clear…if an old age home reminds him of his grandpa, that’s the obvious inference. There’s some over-explaining going on here.

A shiver ran up his spine Physical cliché as he walked into the lobby. He saw the origin of the voice Convoluted way of saying something simple, “origin” is also dry voice, a frail elderly woman. She sat behind an oak table in a red velvet arm chair and next to her, in a matching chair, was an equally old tall man. On the table sat an old fashioned black rotary dial telephone and a gold sign that read, “Welcome to The Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community, Angus and Matilda McGregor, Hosts”

A vivid bit of description here, but the syntax could be smoothed out for all the writing so far. Read the work aloud. I don’t have a finger on Ellis’ voice, and don’t really know much about him as a character, nor why he cares about this ticket sales contest (other than to beat Alice). I’m finding that I’m not connecting as much as I need to be in order to hook into a beginning.

“Young, sir.” Comma before a “said” tag…a period goes after dialogue only if you’re moving on to an action tag. said the old man. They stood up and walked around the table to meet Ellis. They wore matching khaki slacks and red flannel shirts.

Ellis is a bit of an impartial observer. All of this is told in a very measured way. There’s no reaction, no Ellis spin on any of what he’s describing. He’s acting like a camera, just recording the scene. That is one of the reasons why we aren’t bonding with him as a character…there’s no personalized spin on what he’s telling us about. Reactions? Thoughts? Etc.

“Welcome to Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community,” This one would be a period, then. Why do we need dialogue welcoming him if there was already a sign? Redundant. The man swung his long arm in a arc Before vowel-beginning words, h-beginning words, and acronyms, you use “an” instead of “a” motion “Motion” here is redundant… “swung his arm in an arc” implies “motion.” As Strunk and White say: “Omit needless words.”, his fingers at the furthest point in connected space from his lanky body. Don’t know if you need to describe the layout in this much detail, we all know that fingers are at the end of an arm…The entire lobby seemed to fall under the sweep of his arm.

Lots of play-by-play narration still going on, not a lot of emotional involvement. Some dry voice and basic writing issues here. I’d urge the writer here to work on grammar and syntax and giving us more of Ellis as a character. Then he can tackle voice.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com