Author Topic: Kristin Nelson blogs about starting your novel in the wrong place...  (Read 4531 times)

Offline Kimmy

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This weekend was an interesting one for me. I read our slush pile for the first time in several years. Grin.

What do I mean by that? Well, I hired Sara Megibow more than four years ago and once she was fully trained, she read all incoming submissions to set aside the ones that I actually needed to review. In other words, I read only a third of all the actual submissions that came to the agency.

As we train Anita, somebody needs to read behind her to make sure she’s forwarding the right submissions on to Sara and to me. Anita will become the reader of all things while Sara and I can have a reduced workload. There isn’t enough time in the day for us to read ALL incoming submissions.

So this weekend I read eleven different sample page submissions and one salient point became very clear. There are decent writers out there who are totally starting their stories in the wrong place which can obscure what the novel is really about. If I’ve read 30 pages and it’s clear to me that we still haven’t gotten to the right beginning, it’s a pass.

So the biggest writing culprit writers need to watch for that will indicate a story starting in the wrong place?

Back story.

One submission had several scenes that weren’t really relevant to where the novel actually started—which was in chapter three (around page 27). The opening scenes were essentially back story—info the writer needs to know but the reader doesn’t. Back story needs to be integrated throughout the novel in a masterful way.

Second biggest culprit?

Minutiae.

In other words, the writer is overcompensating for the wrong beginning by including beginning scenes with too much detail about the characters and all the underlying tension of the relationships so all that is clear before the novel can “begin.” The details are certainly good to have but they are placed in scenes that don’t actually move the story forward. In other words, the only purpose of the scene is to introduce characters. Then by chapter three or four, suddenly we have the actual story.

I know this is happening when I read and think, not bad writing here but this author needs some judicious editing as I’m getting bogged down in details but the story isn’t actually moving forward with momentum and tension.

Writers who are actually ready for agent submission have mastered the art of seamlessly integrating back story and relevant character details into a plot that moves the story forward.
Those who haven’t are probably getting passes on sample pages and no requests for the full (although an agent might highlight there is decent writing on the page).

And I know what you are thinking. Why can’t agents just say this? Because it would take too much time to point it out and clearly illustrate it. That would be critiquing the manuscript which is too time-consuming.

Which is why I’m trying to use this blog entry to point this out. I know examples would help but I don’t have permission from submitters to use their work on this blog.
Kimmy :)

Triangles--Spencer Hill Press, 2013
Lost Reputation--Evernight Teen, 2016
Parallel Triangles--Evernight Teen, 2017
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Offline EvaBrick

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Kimmy, I love your posts. :clap: You find the best stuff.

I was thinking about novel beginnings the other day. I've started a new book and I've been wondering about the opening... part of me wants to write something commercial and punchy that will be more likely to sell, but another part of me is having a hard time pulling it off. Fortunately, I'm not doing the naughty things that Nelson is talking about, though.

It reminds me of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. "Begin at the beginning and when you come to the end, stop."

Offline bodwen

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I've been wondering about this very thing.  Starting too early will bore a reader, but jumping right into the plot and the action forces the writer into exposition and flashback, which is even worse.  

I'm sure there must be a science to this.  How can you know the exact right way to begin your novel?  

Offline Kimmy

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Aw, thanks Eva!  I actually only check out a few blogs on a regular basis - Kristin Nelson daily, Nathan Bransford weekly, QT daily of course, and then some links from those.  I also check out blogs of some of our own here too. I did start by introducing my characters and a nice lady here told me how crappy my beginning was (Thanks and you know who you are!) but it made me write a much stronger beginning. So I appreciated every comment I got, from her and from my posts here.  My beginning I changed a few times.  Glad to help with my posts, I aim to get us all published so we can throw a big party for Patrick somewhere in the middle of the country!  Or near Patrick...
Kimmy :)

Triangles--Spencer Hill Press, 2013
Lost Reputation--Evernight Teen, 2016
Parallel Triangles--Evernight Teen, 2017
@KimberlyAnnNJ
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Offline clutzattack

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I've been asking myself if my novel is guilty of this and yet I can't find anyone who can give me an honest answer!

I think a lot of it is the desire for instant gratification. "I'm ready to be entertained, NOW!"

Before I start reading a book, I think I already decide if it's something I'm going to like based on the back cover. Then again, despite how so many people have recommended "The Host". I'm still struggling to get past the second chapter.


Offline lovinlife83

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Oh yes, I struggled with the first 50 or so pages of the host, but someone warned me of that beforehand, so I plowed through them quickly and then found myself up at 2 in the morning thinking, "one more chapter." Keep going it gets better!!  :)

Thanks for the post Kimmy. Love great advice from agents.

Offline Tabris

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I'm sure there must be a science to this.  How can you know the exact right way to begin your novel?  


You begin it right before the thing happens after which nothing can be the same again, but before the main character has fully let go of the way things were.

Offline bodwen

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Excellent, Tabris.  Thanks!

munley

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A flaw I have found in my own work--and often in the first 5 pages offered for feedback here on the QT site--is spelling out the opening character's hopes, fears, whatever, and stating the rationale for things instead of just letting the reader follow what is happening, letting the reader wonder why and withholding the rationale so that the reader has to read on to find out. I don't mean this in a coy, screw-around-with-your-reader's-head way. I mean giving the reader more opportunity for discovery.

Thoughts and hopes and rationale don't move the story forward. And I think readers need a chance to come to care about a character before they are willing to plod through thoughts, hopes, and worries.

In the latest update of my opening, I have eliminated the why's of several things, the biggest one being why Annilee's father sleeps in coal shanties and up on mining slagpiles instead of at home, given that he appears to be on good terms with his wife and kids.  All you see is Annilee heading for the shanty in her Sunday clothes to bring him a sandwich and remind him to go to nine-o'clock Mass and you learn that she brings him a sandwich every morning. On this morning, she doesn't find Pop in the shanty, but discovers evidence that he had slept there, not in the rain on the slagpiles, and she's relieved.

You don't even meet her father until Chapter 3. In the previous drafts, Annilee meets him at the shanty (on page 2) and asks him why he won't come home and he tells her why. This is not much better than having the narrator (in this case, Annilee) just explain the reason outright for the reader. On the way to the shanty, I expressed (in the earlier drafts) her hope that Pop had not slept in the rain on the slagpiles. It is more dramatic and intriguing, I think, for her to discover he had slept indoors. Her relief implies that she had been hoping he had.

There were other flat-out rationales I either removed or worked into the action, rather than laying groundwork in a stagnant way to "aid the reader's understanding" of the events about to unfold. I'll spare you all the dull details.
« Last Edit: May 04, 2010, 02:42:18 PM by munley »

Offline lovinlife83

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Munley, you offer a lot for me to think about thanks! And your story sounds very interesting.  :)

Offline JeanneG

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Re: Kristin Nelson blogs about starting your novel in the wrong place...
« Reply #10 on: May 04, 2010, 02:15:06 PM »
The best advice I ever received about beginnings:

Start the story at the precise moment everything changes for your main character.

JeanneG
Debut novel, BLOOD OF A STONE (Tuscany Press) released in March 2015; winner of IPPY in national category of religious fiction and currently a finalist for IAN Book of the Year. My work-in-progress: THE DOUBLE SUN.
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Offline bodwen

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Re: Kristin Nelson blogs about starting your novel in the wrong place...
« Reply #11 on: May 04, 2010, 02:29:33 PM »
I agree with Tabris.  To see what I mean, pick up any book that was a hot seller and you'll be surprised at how little the first few pages have to do with the main storyline. My sense is that the opening pages are used to establish a baseline of normal for the setting and the characters, so that the reader can see how lifechanging the plot is.

Offline MrsDaps

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Re: Kristin Nelson blogs about starting your novel in the wrong place...
« Reply #12 on: May 10, 2010, 09:19:17 AM »

I'm sure there must be a science to this.  How can you know the exact right way to begin your novel?  


You begin it right before the thing happens after which nothing can be the same again, but before the main character has fully let go of the way things were.

Tabris!  You just changed my world!  You know how you can hear the same thing over and over, yet it doesn't hit home?  This one sentence has just hit home for me ;D  PERFECT explanation.  I can't thank you enough!!!!

Offline marymcdonald

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Re: Kristin Nelson blogs about starting your novel in the wrong place...
« Reply #13 on: May 10, 2010, 09:29:48 AM »

I'm sure there must be a science to this.  How can you know the exact right way to begin your novel?  


You begin it right before the thing happens after which nothing can be the same again, but before the main character has fully let go of the way things were.

Tabris!  You just changed my world!  You know how you can hear the same thing over and over, yet it doesn't hit home?  This one sentence has just hit home for me ;D  PERFECT explanation.  I can't thank you enough!!!!

That is a great way to explain it and makes me wonder about my WIP. See, I'd written a prologue, but then decided against it because agents don't like prologues...and there's a year gap between the prologue and the opening, so I went with just opening the story a year later, and incorporated the details given in the prologue, into the first few chapters.

However, today, I posted my prologue as part of a deleted scenes blogfest, and have had several people tell me I should use it. Gah! I hate openings! Why can't it be easy? lol.