I collect football movies, and I'm going to make calzones, bacon cheddar fries and kick off the season's start with a football movie marathon. Knute Rockne All American and Necessary Roughness are so on my list, but I haven't picked my last. I need to have a balance of drama and comedy. Remember the Titans or Facing the Giants? Hmmm. It'll be down to a coin toss or my mood. Can't wait. I'm hoping my Boys start the season with a bang and keep going strong until they seize new rings in victorious triumph. In football, if you have a crappy game or season—let's hope not—you can always go out there and play harder the next time. As a writer, you only get one chance to make a first impression with your book and win a reader. One chance. That's it.
After your big idea enters your brain and your main characters are sketched and fleshed out, your fingers will surely be itching to tap keys and plug away at your story. While it’s great to go with the flow, whether you work it out bit by bit or fly through, having the novel practically write itself, it’s important to know what pitfalls to avoid on the rush out of the gate. You want your kickoff to be effective so you can reel readers in and keep them riveted until the final word. To save yourself a major overhaul at revision time, or if you’ve already finished and are editing like me, here are some things to keep in mind for your first impression.
♦ If you decide to use a prologue, keep it short. Also, consider if your book can stand without it. If it can, ditch it.
♦ Dream sequences are generally frowned upon as an opener. If you must…keep it short and vibrant…but really, I'd be hesitant to use one. They are cringe-inducing and could be the kiss of death.
♦ Showing common routine-type things, especially getting up in the morning, is a total yawner. Begin with conflict or as close to your MC’s main change or the dawning of the story question as you can.
♦ Starting off with extreme action or a super steamy love scene, only to have the rest of your manuscript be uneventful is a cheat. It’s okay to ebb and flow, but using explosions to hook readers into literary or topical fiction is just not fair or nice.
♦ Skimp on modifiers. Being adjective happy will mark you as an amateur. I’ve read some books where every noun had three or more adjectives in front of it. Paragraph after paragraph of this creates sludge no one wants to wade through. It may look pretty to you, but the eyes of readers will gloss over for sure. Do paint descriptive pictures, but pick the most important adjectives to provide good pacing.
♦ Aim for punchier verbs instead of relying on lame and lazy be-verbs or just tacking on an adverb for that extra sort of nothing. Adverbs have their place; just use them sparingly. Often with a little effort you can find an oh-so-perfect verb that conveys what you want to say. Instead of using an adverb on a dialogue tag, try adding action to reveal tone. You can do it. Stretch and make your prose come alive.
♦ Instead of being happy as a clam using a stale metaphor or cliché, come up with your own description, which will make your work zingy and fresh.
♦ Too many dialogue tags, especially fancy ones, create snags. Drop unnecessary ones. When you need them, said should be used primarily, then maybe specific action ones like whispered, mumbled or the like. Conveyed, exhorted, suggested, inquired and other awkward cousins should be cut down to one or two per book, if used at all.
♦ Don't deluge readers with huge chunks of backstory. This should be avoided at all costs. Really. It’s very dangerous. Very. The past is the past and is telling about the past. Readers want to know what's happening in your character's NOW. Sprinkle backstory throughout the novel. I had great fun hinting at something early in my book then revealing the key to that mini mystery later in dialogue. In Dark Rivers of the Heart, Dean Koontz does an excellent job of using backstory effectively. If you want a good example of well-rounded characters, a well-researched work and how to use backstory and dreams to HOOK rather than turn off, check it out.
♦ Tears trickle from my eyes, for out my window, beyond cherry trees and mist, pink and coral bands stretch across the darkening sky like braids or interlocking fingers, tightly woven, reminding me of the stranglehold purple prose has on my first chapter…Nix that junk post haste.
♦ Blocks of static material is all telling and shows nothing because these aren't really scenes. Fiction is scenes. Not explanation or lots of blather. It’s word pictures of things going on, people talking, the plot moving forward. Established authors can get away with pages of exposition at the onset. e.g. V.C. Andrews for one. Unless you're her ghost writer, get to the action, the dialogue, the conflict. That’s where your story is.
♦ Present tense should be used with care for long stories. When a reader jumps into a book with it, it can sometimes be all kinds of awkward. I’m reading The Quiet Game by Greg Iles. He’s a good writer, but I’m highly distracted by his use of present tense, and it’s in first person and description heavy and jammed with is-es. I understand he used the present tense so his First Person Narrator could be a Partaker and the story could unfold in real time rather than look back, but it's still weird. I read fast, but I’m having difficulty getting into this book, never mind finishing it. I think it’s supposed to be a thriller. I’m not that thrilled. If you use Present, then really work on developing a superbly amazing voice so readers won't even notice and don't bog readers down in is-es; stretch to use more vibrant verbs.
Avoid those deadly Noids that will turn your work into a form-rejection-letter magnet. Put your best foot forward. [Another cliché. What's my tally, 6? haha.] Kick off strong and keep going.
~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.