How to Start a Novel

Want to know how to start a novel? Let’s begin at, well… enough smart-assery for today. But seriously, let’s talk your beginning. The first sentence of your novel. The first paragraph, the first scene. This will, in most cases, determine whether an agent reads on or not. Whether an editor reads on or not. Whether a reader picks you book up, scans the jacket and then the first bit, and buys it… or not.

how to start a novel, starting a book
Want to know how to start a novel? Make sure to avoid these cliched novel openings.

How to Start a Novel: What Not to Do

Waking Up

DO NOT. DON’T. Don’t even think about it. Many of the manuscripts I get begin with a character waking up. Why are you making this choice? Most good stories begin with a character who has just been knocked out of their usual equilibrium or is going into a tense situation. Surely, you can begin in a more interesting place than waking up. And even if the character is waking up into their strange new situation, just change it. Make them awake. Do you really want to be exactly like everyone else I reject today? On that note…

Regaining Consciousness

This is also a no-no. I know a lot of people like starting their books moments after a character has just received a blow to the head. Here’s the problem. A reader wants to be grounded when they begin a story. They’re looking for basic information: Who is this character? Where are they? When are they? What’s going on with them? A little bit of confusion is fine, but that doesn’t play well with a reader, especially at the beginning of a story, because all the reader wants is information. If your character is confused, your reader is confused, they’re working hard, they’d rather put your book down and go have a cookie. You have to hook them… not give them a headache. So if your very own character is asking “Who am I? Where am I? What year is it? What’s going on?” then your reader will not have anything to hold on to. They’ll put your story down.

Scene Setting

People care about characters, not landscapes. Start your story with a person, not with beautiful prose about the glorious rolling hills of I Don’t Care. This especially goes for weather. Remember how “It was a dark and stormy night” is lambasted as being the worst first sentence ever written? Lots and lots of people start out talking about the weather… especially stormy weather… because they think it’s dramatic and will heighten tension. No, relationships between two people who want different things, in a scene together, are dramatic and heighten tension.

Emotional Scene Setting

The same goes for a long description of a character’s emotions. I read a lot of manuscripts that begin with things like, “He was so depressed. Depressed-er than depressed. Things were so wrong, they’d never be right again. He felt like he’d been plunged underwater, all the colors and the sounds and the joy… gone!” (Obviously, this is bad on purpose.) Well, this is fine, but we don’t know why things are so terrible for Emo Boy, so we don’t care. It’s a bad place to start.

Normal

This is perhaps the biggest cliche I see in novel openings. “Jimmy was just a normal kid, everything about his life was so totally normal. He woke up when he typically does and walked the normal path to his normal school. ‘What a normal day!’ he told his usual friends, Norm and Al…” etc. And then, something completely changes him into an extraordinary kid!!!! WOW!!! Okay, so, granted, this is usually how a book starts. A character’s “normal” way of life, their equilibrium, has been knocked off-kilter. Now they have to find a new normal. That’s fine. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT IT! SHOW US! (More about showing vs. telling later.)

Backstory

A long prose-filled retelling of the backstory of a character, place or event isn’t a good start, for me. I don’t know the character, event or place yet, and I’d rather see it with my own eyes, see it in action, than being told about it. Work backstory and context into the prose later, but not in the very beginning (and not too much of it).

Starting a Book the Right Way

If you’re feeling even more confused about how to start a novel, let me clarify. A good beginning involves tension, conflict, relationship and characters. In other words, a scene would be a very good place to start! You have a main character, you have what they want, you have what’s getting in the way right now, and you have another character. Toss them like the Chaos Salad they are and give us a scene to launch your story with action.

It’s called in medias res in Latin. And no, I don’t know a lot of Latin, just enough to make me seem slightly pretentious. It means “in the middle of things.” Launch right into some conflict with more than one character and catch the reader up with backstory and quick flashback as needed. Start with a scene. Most movies start like this, so do most plays. You don’t often go to a movie and see the main character monologue for 15 minutes before the action starts, right? The same should be true for your book. Start with a scene that shows the reader, a) who the character is, b) what they want and c) how things have changed for them recently. Try imagining this scenario for your characters and writing a scene for the beginning of your story. It’s hard, but beginnings are often the most time-consuming and most-frequently rewritten bits of a novel.

Establish — and Deliver — the Promise of Your Novel

Speaking of which, there’s also a little something called the “promise” of a novel that you need to consider when you’re starting a book. I need to know, after the first 10 pages, what the rest of the novel will be about. This is the promise you make to the reader when you start out. You don’t have to say, explicitly, “The rest of this book will be about alien warfare.” But little Jimmy should at least be gearing up to fight aliens or in alien warfare class or something so that, in my head, I get a sense for where you’re going with this. Don’t start the book off with Jimmy in alien warfare class and then make the rest of the story about his passionate fight to save the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest. Both stories are fine, but you need to make sure you make a promise to your reader — my book will be about _____ — and stick to it. We won’t know how far you’ll go or where your plot will take us, but if we’re prepared for the general idea of your story from the first page, we’ll follow you very far. Check out my post on setting reader expectations for more on this concept.

Wondering how to apply this advice on how to start a novel to your specific story? Get one-on-one,  in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor.

How to Write a Query Letter

There are a lot of “how to write a query letter” articles out there about what not to do. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to approach a literary agent query letter, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

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Writing a query letter that’s simple and compelling is an art form.

How to Write a Query Letter: The Beginning

Want to know how to write a query letter? It’s simple, really:

Make me care.

Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.

Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:

Dear Name,

I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.

So far, so good. Personalize the literary agent query letter and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is.

The Key to Writing a Fiction Query Letter

Now we get the meat. The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book.  They’re also the key in terms of how to write a query letter that’ll grab an agent’s attention. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story! (For more on this topic, check out my post on writing fiction that makes readers care.)

Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.

How to Write a Query Letter: The Closing

Then, you’ll finish your literary agent query letter with:

  1. Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
  2. A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
  3. Your signature and contact information.

Voila! Now you have a query letter format that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.

This is by no means the only answer to questions about how to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?

Need a query letter editor? I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.

Why You Need a Strong Dramatic Arc

Writers, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, of all people, about dramatic arc. But maybe I will, just so we’re clear. When you’re creating a plot, dramatic arc looks like, well, an upside down check-mark, actually, more so than an arc, with the pointy part making a mountain near the end.

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Dramatic arc: The story starts off on ground level, then slopes up nicely until the climax (the mountain) and then slopes quickly downward to a nice resolution.

Benefits of Building a Strong Dramatic Arc

A large part of this nice, inverted-check-mark shape, is the sloping. As your plot points build on each other, the tension and the stakes and the action rises toward a climax. Yes? Yes. Then, after an exciting climax, things decelerate quickly and we have a satisfying conclusion.

The key point of getting that great building action in your story is that the reader is aware of what’s at stake. They know what the characters want and they know, pretty much, what is going to turn into a dangerous situation near the end. In other words, they have an idea where your story is going and what your climax is going to be about, pretty much after the first 50 pages. Some people would ask: “Doesn’t this make your novel predictable?”

No. A strong dramatic arc gives the reader something to fear, something to anticipate, and something to care about. And if they know what could possibly be at stake and what kind of danger could possibly transpire, they’ll be that much more eager to read and find out exactly how it all goes down for the characters that they’ve grown to empathize with.

The One Thing You Never Do

This brings me to the one thing you never do in a manuscript (there might be more of these, but so far, this is the high and exalted One Thing).

Do not introduce plot points (an event or person or thing or consequence) in the last 50 pages (or so) of your manuscript if that event/person/thing/consequence will become instrumental to the climax. (The only viable exception to this is introducing a villain who has, up to this point, remained hidden or shadowed or otherwise dark and creepy.)

Ideally, the same stakes and goals and characters and threats that you build into the dramatic arc from the very beginning of the manuscript should be the forces involved in the climax. The whole point of the climax is that you bring everything that you’ve worked so hard developing and making irresistible together…and that comes from the reader having spent a whole book with these things and really, really caring about what happens to them.

Why to Avoid the One Thing

If you introduce plot points a few pages away from the climax and hinge the climax on that thing, you’re going to lose some readers because they simply don’t care. For example, if your dramatic arc has been building up to a battle for the main character to avenge their father’s death for the whole book, then you interrupt the story ten pages before the battle with some bad guys who burst on the scene and want to steal the Magical Decanter of Shmegoo (that we’ve never heard of before in the book, or only heard in passing once or twice) and then make the battle about the Decanter instead of the hero’s father, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

By all means, introduce new complications, villains, conflicts as your book develops. But don’t introduce something that becomes instrumental in the climax near the end of the book and expect us to care about it. More often than not, your readers will be let down in a big way.

Is your plot flowing the way it should? Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll give you hands-on plotting advice.

Character Arc — Is It Necessary?

Character arc — or how your character changes throughout the course of your story — is critical to developing compelling fiction. Believe it or not, I have read manuscripts where the writer seemed to ignore character arc completely and came up with an almost entirely static character.

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Are your characters changing with the events in your story, or are they a static character despite what you throw at them?

Your Character Arc Should Be a Journey

This is a huge question, with an easy answer. First, consider this quote:

“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”

Dunk that in your morning coffee.

Without any kind of change or narrative arc, you have a passive character. They do not change, they do not learn, they do not care, and therefore, it is very difficult for the reader to care. However, your number one job as a writer is to make readers care.

More practically, you are asking readers to invest hours of their lives in your story. If your character arc goes from point A to … point A, readers may not necessarily feel like they’ve gone on a satisfying journey. Sure, there’s something in fiction called the “antihero,” who seems almost stubbornly against changing. Isn’t a passive character one of the evils of modern life, after all? But this type of characterization is a big risk, because antiheroes tend to come off as bored (and therefore boring) or too misanthropic to be truly relatable.

Character Arc in Children’s Books

The antihero tends to be more of an element in adult fiction, anyway. Since young people, young readers, and therefore young characters are living in such a dynamic period of their lives, they almost can’t help but change. Take this to heart.

A passive character might play in moody literary fiction or short story, but it’s a tough prospect in most children’s books. The obvious exception is nonfiction picture book, for example, where the character arc isn’t the main point of the story. Otherwise, you’re on the hook for putting some a dynamic protagonist on the page. Sorry! Dig deeper into what makes a great character here.

Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll guide you towards creating characters that readers will connect with.