Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Your Beginning Is A Promise—So Don't Break It!
I have the privilege of being a middle grade mentor for Brenda Drake's incredible Pitch Wars contest this year. The revision period has only just begun (and I'm so excited for both of my mentees!), but already being on this end of the contest has been really illuminating—getting to read so many wonderful queries and first pages, as well as several partials and fulls, was something of a master class in identifying common issues that were very helpful to see both in terms of being able to guide other writers through making their books stronger, and to keep in mind as I revise my own books!
One thing that I noticed in several of the partials and fulls that I read was a disconnect between the beginning (in this case, usually the first 1/4-1/3) and the rest of the book. I saw a lot of books in which the first section of the book had a very different feel, and often a completely different setting or even a fairly unrelated plot, than the rest of the book. To an extent, this is normal and even necessary—the first quarter of your book helps to establish your character's "normal world," and is all about presenting your character before they've experienced the life-changing plot turn that happens about 25% into your book.
Still, as a reader and as a potential mentor, I found myself several times falling in love with a book's beginning—only to, a few chapters later, have the book change so much that many of the things that had attracted me to it in the first place were no longer present. What I realized as I read was this:
The beginning of your book is a promise to your reader. In it, you promise them specific things, and if you deviate too far away from those things, it will feel like a broken promise and result in an almost-always unsatisfying book. (Sometimes, writers do this intentionally, and that's a whole different kettle of fish—but know that if you choose to make promises and then break them, your reader will probably feel unsatisfied. Which is a fine emotion, as long as that's what your goal is.)
So what kinds of things, in my opinion, need to stay consistent throughout a book in order for your reader not to feel betrayed by the promises made in the beginning?
1. The type of book you're writing. This one's pretty obvious—and, again, sometimes this rule is broken—but it's a big one. If a book reads like a rom-com for the first half and then turns into a slasher horror halfway through, your reader probably isn't going to be super happy with the transition. That's an extreme example, but it's true on a small scale, too; if your book begins as a quirky exploration of humanity's foibles a la Gilmore Girls but later shifts to be a serious emotional story with nary a laugh in sight, your readers are going to close the book thinking "Now, how exactly did I end up here?"
2. What kind of character your reader's going to be identifying with. You don't have to give away the character's whole arc in the beginning, but you should make sure that we have hints. Give us glimpses that show us where your character is right now vs. where they're going to end up. In a typical growth-oriented character arc, this means that you need to start out by showing us your character's false beliefs about themselves and the world around them, and also give us hints about the kind of person your character could be if they were willing to let go of those false beliefs. These hints can come through comments from secondary characters, through secondary characters who act as foils, through media your POV character consumes, even through literary devices. However you do it, though, we need to feel grounded in both who the character is now and who they have the potential to become, so that as his or her character arc unfolds throughout the story, we're satisfied rather than unmoored by his or her transformation.
3. What kind of literary devices you'll be employing in your writing. This is a big one, but not necessarily something I'd have thought of before reading through my Pitch Wars slush. There were several partials and fulls I read whose beginnings were filled with beautiful sensory detail, vivid settings, and characters who jumped off the page—but then, at that 1/4-1/3 mark as the plot took off, much of that immersive and engaging writing dropped away. While it's very common to have a dramatic setting change around this point in the book (anything from a move to a literal quest), make sure that you're still employing the literary devices you used to make the first section of the book come alive, even once your setting has changed.
If your character loves to sing, and you used his passion for singing to help readers connect with him in the first quarter, make sure that that's carried through later on as well. If losing his voice (literally or figuratively) is part of the plot, make sure that you still give equal weight to that passion anyway—even if he can't sing, he can think about singing, wish to sing, see the world through a musical lens, cringe every time the radio comes on because it reminds him of the thing that was taken away from him. If your setting in the first quarter was filled with sensory detail and a strong sense of place, but then your character moves somewhere else very different, make sure that you're still employing a similar descriptive style to immerse us in the new setting.
4. What the basic goal of the plot is. As mentioned earlier, many plots actually require making some big changes to setting, characters, or goals after that 25% mark. However, it's important to make sure that you're still telling the same story. In several of the fulls I read for Pitch Wars, the character's actions and goals throughout the first quarter were really only very loosely related to the goals of the plot as a whole; instead of setting us up for the coming plot arc, the first quarter, instead, told a mostly-different story that centered on different things. In every case, this left me feeling a little bit let down after finishing the whole book. But wait, I'd find myself thinking. I really liked that beginning section—whatever happened to that story? Even as you're pulling your main character out of their "normal world" and starting them on their quest to become the best version of themselves, it's important to keep control of your overall plot arc and make sure that your first quarter is still setting things up for the story you're going to tell, not for a side story that won't have bearing on the final outcome of the book.
A related, and very important, piece of advice is to make sure that you're beginning your book in the right place. I often find it helpful, after I've finished drafting a book, to take a hard look at my first chapter and make sure it's really living up to its potential. Typically? It's not, and I have to revise it at least some of the way, if not scrap it altogether. With my last book, I had an opening paragraph that I absolutely adored, and all my critique partners did too... But in the course of revising, I had to face up to the cold hard truth that it wasn't pulling it's weight. That beloved opener got scrapped and replaced, and the first chapter was much stronger as a result. (Maybe in the future I'll do a blog post specifically tackling first chapters...)
Now it's your turn! Tell me: What do YOU think a beginning needs to do in order to make promises you'll be able to keep?