Go ahead. I’ll wait. (Click here to read it.)
You’re back? Good.
We are going to start at the beginning (after all, what better place to start?). For those who have resisted the temptation to download a free copy of Atlanta Nights, here is the first page:
Pain.Yes, today’s post is about how not to start your novel, and there are several ways of considering this question. First is the good old journalistic standby:
Pain. Pain. Pain.
Need pee--new pain--what are they sticking in me? . . .
“As you know, Nurse Eastman, the government spooks controlling this hospital will not permit me to give this patient the care I think he needs.”
“Yes, doctor.” The voice was breathy, sweet, so sweet and sexy.
Does the opening answer the key questions of who, what, when, where and why?No. We don’t know who, what, when or why. We can guess at the where—a hospital, in Atlanta perhaps? Do we care enough to turn the page and find out? I’m inclined to say no, because there’s no apparent story.
Are you capturing the attention of your reader?In Wired for Story, author Lisa Cron explains that as readers, we think in terms of story. She gives several questions to ask about your opening paragraph to ensure you are capturing the attention of your reader … in a good way:
- Do we know whose story it is?
- Is something happening, beginning on the first page?
- Is there conflict in what's happening?
- Is something at stake on the first page?
- Is there a sense that ‘not all is as it seems’?
- Can we glimpse the 'big picture'?
Atlanta Nights fails on almost all these questions: we don’t know who the protagonist is, not in the first (short) paragraph, and not even by the end of the first page. Nothing is happening—there is no action, and no conflict. Nothing is at stake, as we’ve got no idea who is in pain, or how serious it is. Is there a sense that not is all as it seems? It’s hard to say, as we know so little. Can we see the big picture? No.
The Storytelling ChecklistOne blog I enjoy reading is Writer Unboxed (and not just because editing guru Dave King is a contributor). One regular feature is “Flog a Pro”, where the author—and commenters—read the anonymous first page of a recent New York Times bestselling novel, and see if it’s compelling enough to make you want to turn the page. The author of the series, Ray Rhamey, gives us a storytelling checklist:
Evaluate this opening page for how well it executes these six vital storytelling elements. While it’s not a requirement that all of them must be on the first page, I think writers have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing, a given for every page.One interesting thing that continually comes out in Ray’s posts is that many of the novels make the bestseller list purely because of the author. The writing, to someone who isn’t already a fan of that author, is often clunky and telling … much like the opening of Atlanta Nights. Ray’s chosen books might be bestsellers, but they aren’t not good enough to attract new readers.
- Story questions
- Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
So how does Atlanta Nights fare against this list? Well, it does raise a lot of story questions. Who is in hospital? Why? There is a clear voice … drugged-up, to be sure, but still a voice. The scene has been set—the protagonist (if that’s who he is) is in hospital (we assume the narrator is male, because he thinks the nurse has a sexy voice). But we have little idea of his character (crude, perhaps?),
And the writing is hardly professional calibre, with a steam-of-consciousness opening interrupted by an author intrusion (any time a character says, “As you know,” it’s almost certainly the author getting in the way of the narrator to pass over his or her opinions on a subject, whether relevant or not. But that’s a subject for next week … Interior Monologue.
For those who would like some good advice on how to begin a novel by hooking the reader, may I suggest a trip back into the Australasian Christian Writers archives, to an excellent series of posts from Anne Hamilton:
How Should Atlanta Nights Start?How should Atlanta Nights have started? The most obvious suggestion would be to start with the accident that put our painful protagonist in hospital (yes, I admit. I’ve read ahead, and know he was in a car accident). The obvious answer might not be the best answer (I haven’t read that far ahead). But regardless, a novel should start with action. Something should be happening.
What do you think? Does Atlanta Nights have a good opening hook? Would you turn the page? Why, or why not?
About Iola GoultonFacebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Tsu.
I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog. I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2500.