If that Sound of Music song isn't going through your head right now, you are just not a normal person. Or, you know, you watched The Sound of Music less often than I did when I was younger. Either one.
Today's blog post is about the beginning of your novel (or my novel as the case may be). I haven't been querying Dragon Bait because I got some feedback that the beginning didn't clearly set up my world. So I wrote about four different first chapters, changed the age of the protagonist and trimmed the book down. I did actually make improvements each time, and I used bits and pieces from all four first chapters, so my efforts weren't totally wasted.
So, now, after going through that painful process, I am going to make a list of things that a beginning should be and what it should do.
- Engage the reader. You gotta start with something that catches your reader's attention. After all, I've heard that most people will judge a book not just by its cover but also by its first page. If they aren't interested, they're not reading on.
- Make your main character (MC) sympathetic. Your MC doesn't have to be a great person, but the reader has to identify with your MC and care about the MC's story. So even if the MC's a rotten person, it helps to give him/her at least one redeeming quality. There are a few exceptions to this, but not too many.
- Introduce your world. I struggle with this. Within the first few pages, you've got to immerse your reader in a believable world with defined parameters. This doesn't mean spewing every last detail of the world in the first few pages, but you've got to give the reader enough that they understand exactly where they are and who they're rooting for and why. The details can change if, for example, the MC learns more as he/she goes on, but within the first few pages you've got to show what this world is and what that means to your MC.
- Set the tone of the novel. People judge your book by the first few pages. You can't fall into the trap of saying (as I do sometimes), "The story gets better later on." By that point you've already lost your readers. You've got to start as you mean to go on: strong. Set up an interesting Voice (typically involving word choice, vernacular, and point of view) and make sure the cool stuff that's going to make the middle and end of your book exciting is around at the beginning too (that's far easier said than done, by the way.)
- Foreshadow the ending. You don't have to do this, of course. But it is pretty exciting to get to the end of the book and be able to go back to the very first page and be able to see how you got there. I'm not even certain I did this well, but the main point here is that everything's got to tie together. It all happens for a reason. And if it doesn't, it doesn't belong in your book.
Good luck, writers. And for you non-writers out there, now you have some idea of what I've been struggling with!